TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES Exclusive: Shredder Actor Tohoru Masamune On Michael Bay Defending Diversity

We recently spoke with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles star Tohoru Masamune about Twitch's Artificial, and while chatting, he told us Michael Bay defended diversity by making two different 2014 films.

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When people think of director Michael Bay (Transformers,) the first word that comes to mind probably wouldn't be diversity. However, a lot went on behind the scenes of Bay's 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when it came to the character of Shredder.

We recently chatted with the actor who played the villainous Shredder, Tohoru Masamune. Afterward, he mentioned to us that he wanted to have a follow-up interview to discuss something important to him: the diversity issues behind the scenes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It seems that William Fichtner (Prison Break) was cast in the role initially, but after a multitude of whitewashing complaints, Bay spent a lot of extra money to film an entirely different movie in which an actor of Japanese descent played Shredder - hence Tohoru's casting.

Tohoru went into a lot of detail, and we chatted for nearly an hour! You can hear all the juicy bits in our audio component with the podcast embedded below!

Literary Joe: I was looking at that 2017 Forbes article you sent over. So if you want to use that as a jumping-off point to start talking about Shredder, that would be pretty cool.

Tohoru Masamune: So, it's kind of interesting too, because this is something that I don't think one thinks of Michael Bay and thinks political activism, protector of the free world, or whatever. I mean, I don't think one thinks that right off the bat, but you know, that's the interesting thing that came out of it. Maybe that's good. Maybe.

To speak to my earlier point that maybe everything shouldn't be on the nose, that it should see the world as it is. And we should all get along. Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the most part, we do in life. Right? I mean, I don't know. Maybe I'm very naive, and obviously, there's a lot of turmoil right now, and there are some really bad things going on in terms of racism and whatnot. And a lot needs to be done for sure. But I do believe people can get along. Cause I don't, I don't think we're -- well, maybe again, I may be very naive, but I don't believe any of us are racists at heart.

So there's a part of me I think it's kind of nice when it just is shown, and I chose not to get involved with the politics of the movie. When they ask me to show up for work, I'm not going to say "So, how'd you guys come up with this anyway, tell me all the dirt." You know, I'm not going to do that.

And I remember, it was kind of interesting, getting on the set with Bill Fichtner for the first time, and he was totally cool. He was just a classy guy, you know, but I think there's one point where they had to have a conversation where I wasn't there, and they were talking, but I chose not to get involved in it. So I don't know what was really going on, but I thought it was interesting in the end. 

And maybe I've seen so much of the whitewashing happen over the years that that's the weird part of it. It almost kind of seems funny sometimes. It's like an old classic, of course, or any number of movies. And all the actors that played the various roles,  it is certainly no indictment on them. 

But sort of like, doesn't it kind of make sense? It was written in the comic book as an Asian character. I mean, as a fan, I think that's what I would prefer. I'm not saying, "Oh, we need an Asian." I'm going, "I'm pretty sure Shredder was Asian. The last time I checked, let me see if there was an episode where he wasn't." (Laughs) He was pretty Japanese all the way through, you know?

And so, I don't know what his motivations were. I didn't get to know him that intimately that I could sit down and ask him what he was thinking. And it could have been a business decision, because he was certainly, if nothing else, an incredibly smart businessman. And maybe he saw that. He said, "You know what? I'm going to make more money if I do this." I don't know what his thinking was. I mean, that's what that article is referring to. There's a fear that somehow, maybe because you don't see what the business model is.

Because I don't think Asians stink up the screen. (Laughs) I don't believe anybody even believes that, but somehow they're afraid. I think maybe in the lead roles. I think that's that fear somehow you lose box office. So if I was a business person and if I was running a big studio film, I mean, it's hard to make money. It's really hard to make a big-budget movie. That's a big investment when you think about it. A hundred, two hundred million -- man, you have to make at least half a billion to break even. And so there's a lot of things at stake, and as we know, it's a name game. I check who is on the movie before I hit 3.99  for HD. (Laughs)


Literary Joe: And even on a platform that you have a subscription for, there's so much media and so little time that you're definitely going to be geared towards actors and actresses that you're familiar with.

Tohoru Masamune: Yeah. And certainly, Bill Fichtner is. And again, I didn't get involved in that. So, I don't want to speak to what happened, if the intention originally was to be him. Or maybe it never was, or maybe he thought, "Oh, let me change it at the last minute. That will make me an extra $50 million.

He's a smart man. You never know, maybe he's just a real bleeding heart, and we don't know it. I don't know him personally, you know, I don't know him on that level. Michael Bay, I'm talking about. And he's a great guy, but I wouldn't know him well enough to have that conversation with him, I'll put it that way.

But, we'll assume maybe Bill Fichtner was set to do it. Yeah. I see Bill's name on it as I'm looking into it, I'm certainly at least reading the synopsis, for sure. I mean, even if I had never worked with him. You know, random Japanese guy, I don't know, not so much. (Laughs) So I get it, but I guess the whole idea of the article is that you don't need to. In this case, you know, granted, this was, I guess, technically you'd call the villain usually the third lead. Right? And I guess it's technically called the third lead, but I think it was good and it certainly works, and I guess it would've been nice to have more time.

But, I remember talking to Debra Zane later, who's the casting director, and she goes, "They made two movies. You realize that, right?" (Laughs) And so, that was a big investment. They did the best they could under that circumstance. I don't know if you recall, they had already pushed back the date, which is bad when a feature film can't hit it's a release date, but he did that. I mean, how often has that happened? No, too often, right? So they already had that looming and, and so many things. And so, they could have done a better job, certainly, of filling it out. I really enjoyed it.

But they did it, as I was saying, which I thought was cool. And again, I don't know the motivation behind it, but yeah, they said, "Let's make this dude Japanese." And everything from the costuming, to everything. There were experts on all fronts, to establish that past. It's kind of cool that I got to speak that much Japanese. And this is something where it wasn't like, "Oh, just say something." There were millions of rewrites, and I had to learn every single speech in English and Japanese, which is like, "Really?" And they would give me rewrites every few hours. It was insane. 

When did they re-cast the turtles? I was part of that whole shakeup. I guess they said, "Hey, let's make another movie."  (Laughs) And yeah, that was weird. So I think that I was probably a big part of that whole shakeup. They said, "You know what, screw this. Let's, let's fix all our problems." Whatever they perceived as the way to fix it.

I just got the call. I was hiking on Belle Rock in Sedona, and it just goes to show you, it's crazy. You know, it was amazing. I don't know if you've ever been out to Sedona, but I remember there was one thing where I just hiked up to the top of this Belle Rock and just overlooked the whole valley. And you know, I was stressing out about a bunch of things, but then I just decided, you know what, why am I stressed? I mean, this world, we're living on a beautiful planet. And I looked around, and I took that moment of saying, wow, this is an amazing existence we have. One of those moments.

And I check my emails and, yeah, I guess I'm playing Shredder. It was very weird. So, things happened pretty quickly and very secretively. And I was, they didn't even tell me the role at first, you know? And so, I just went with it, and yeah, it was a pretty crazy process, but there was a lot going on, I know that for sure. So I wisely thought, you know, I'm just going to do my job, and I'm not going to worry about all of the noise going on around me, which was hard to do, I guess.

But I know there were a lot of shakeups, and I never discussed any of that. Actually to this day, I don't even want to dig into it by asking, "Hey, what happened by the way?" I don't feel like bringing that up. I don't know, I think about it, but I think, why? You know, cause it wasn't smooth. (Laughs)

So, I don't know if that answers your question, but yeah, I'm going to say it was probably all around the same time. But it was good, everybody kind of put their head down and made it happen. And by the way, thanks for re-watching, you guys didn't need to do that.


Literary Joe: You shed a new perspective on it, especially with a lot of the behind the scenes explanations as to what was going on.

Tohoru Masamune: Yeah. It is interesting too because as I was saying, that's the thing that I thought was interesting. I don't know why, maybe if it's Michael Bay and people don't think of him as sort of this political thing, you know, but they don't think of him that way. But I kept thinking that's amazing what he did.

And I think the fact that, well, you know, Forbes noticed it cause they're money people, you know, they said, you know what? You don't need to be scared about casting, in this case, Asian people, in significant roles. I think, probably more importantly, if that's the way it's written and, you know, we were all comic book fans, so we know that that's kind of what we want. Right? Isn't it? I don't know. I mean, I think that's the case. 

And so, to stick to that storyline, a lot of great storylines come out of Japan. Right? We all know that, right? And I don't know a single SciFi fan or a comic book fan that has a problem with Asians. I've never felt weird in that club and that clubhouse. It's a pretty welcoming place. And so I don't understand the idea behind it, but I think probably historically, a lot of people are worried about numbers, and they're looking, I don't know. I know this person's established, I guess, that's the problem with diversity is that I guess if you have people of, you know, ethnic extraction, haven't had the opportunity to have the series of TV shows and credit's that all of a sudden their name is as well known as whoever.

So that's the tricky part. And can you afford to say, I will do the right thing? Most of us don't. I mean, I would think executives are trying to hold onto their jobs too, and they just said, if this movie tanks, we're in big trouble. First of all, I think it makes it much more interesting. And oddly enough, I don't know, you guys can disagree with me, but I think of all the incarnations, I think it was one of the most Japanese, I feel, Shredders they ever did. I don't know if you agree with me, but everything was, and they were listening to me. Especially, you know, when we were doing a lot of the voicing stuff, I mean, they let me run the room. Well, I shouldn't quite say that because at one point while they were letting me run the room and I was saying, no, this is the way it should be, blah, blah, blah.

And they let me hire and bring my own translations consultant with me. I said, can you hire this person too? He says, yeah, sure. It was great. I called up my friend, and she worked with me on this video game, but she's like some Japanese language and cultural consultant. So I said, alright, so do you want to job? So here, I'm like hiring my friends, and I brought her on the Paramount lot. And we were just kind of like running this.

And there's one point where we come up with some fantastic stuff, and I felt very good. I felt very proud. And then I hear all of a sudden I hear the guy in the booth saying, can you hold on for a second? And I see a bunch of people talking in the background. I'm thinking, yeah, whatever. And then I hear through the booth, yeah, Michael said he wants you to redo that. Which line are you talking about? And he goes, the whole thing. I go, Oh, really? Yeah. He wants you to redo the whole thing. (Laughs)

So, when I say I had any power, it was like they would let me control those aspects of it, and I did tons of research. That, to me, is sort of the fun part about any acting role is doing the research. And I was going way back into Oroku Saki's past. And I mentioned that to you, Joe, last time about that I kind of went back to the comic books.

*In case you missed it, you can hear what Tohoru is mentioning in our last chat, embedded above.*


Literary Joe: So, what else would you like to mention about TMNT before we wrap up?

Tohoru Masamune: You know, that was the main thing. And thanks for having me on again, because I did want to address that, you know? Yeah. Some really good things happened in terms of the proper casting, and he did it, and very few directors would do that. It cost him a lot of money. It cost him so much to do, to switch it over. I mean, maybe they had their back to the wall, but that was not easy for them to make Shredder Japanese in the amount of time they had. And it cost a lot of money and a lot of time.

So, I think he did the right thing. And the results speak for themselves. And so that, to me, is more important to the industry today. And a half a billion doesn't sound so bad to me. Do you know what I mean? So, and I love how the Forbes article said my casting didn't hurt the box office. I loved that. I'm thinking, is that a compliment? I'll take it. Yeah, that'll be my big pitch, I don't hurt box office is at all! (Laughs)  

I think it's an amazing group of people from the top down—an amazing group of people. And I welcome all opinions, I know I have my opinions on everything. I'm not a big fan of Citizen Kane. I can't get through that movie. And so, I'm all for that. But I'd say that's something that sort of few clue under the radar, is actually what he did was huge, I think, for diversity, which may end up getting swept under the rug. I think that was interesting.

*This interview was edited for clarity.*

What do you think of Masamune's comments? Re-watch the trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and check out Twitch's Artificial below, and be sure to share your thoughts in the usual spot!


As the fallout of Kira's investigation drives Dr. Lin into isolation, Elle and Justin move forward with the AI Lilith's development. The familiar faces of Zander and Carmen challenge the mission of the project by raising questions about the AI's past and future. How will Lilith adapt to all these conflicts? It's up to you.

Artificial is live and interactive every Thursday at 5 pm PST on Twitch.



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