Santa Fe native finds new home, stardom in Japan

SANTA FE (AP) – After leaving Santa Fe five years or so ago with dreams of acting in theater productions, Santa Fe native Charlotte Kate Fox found herself growing strawberries on the porch of her home in DeKalb, Ill. She looked around the landscape and saw nothing but corn. She was living in the middle of nowhere, America, and she was lonely.

Her husband, John, a theater rigger who “flies” people — he’s the guy who rigs up the wires that help Peter Pan soar overhead — was out of town on a job. She was working on earning a master’s degree in theater and wondering what good it would do her. Waiting tables, baby-sitting and growing strawberries weren’t the career choices she had in mind when she started performing on the stage as a teenager in her hometown or as a student at the former College of Santa Fe.

Then one day in that summer of 2013, she saw an ad in Backstage magazine soliciting videotaped auditions for an actress to play in a Japanese television series. The role was a Scotswoman who moved to Japan with her Japanese husband to make whiskey. She knew the reputation of the casting director, Yoko Narahashi, who also is a film producer. Fox sent in an audition tape.

Shortly thereafter, she received an email thanking her for her submission and informing her that the producers “need someone who can speak Japanese.”

Then, surprisingly, she got a follow-up email that terrified her. It asked her to come to Japan for a screen test.

She did, and 10 days later she got the job playing Ellie Kameyama in the popular morning soap opera Massan, loosely based on the real-life exploits of Scotswoman Rita Cowan and her husband, Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whiskey.

Fox learned Japanese fast, first phonetically; later through study.

And once the show aired, she became a star in Japan — one so big she couldn’t leave her apartment without donning a disguise that includes a long, dark wig. People spot her on the streets and scream out, “Ellie! Ellie!” They follow her. She’s on the cover of celebrity magazines.

Her fame in Japan even rubbed off on one of her former college teachers, Gail Springer of Santa Fe. During a recent vacation in Japan, Springer mentioned to her Japanese tour guide that she had directed Fox in some shows at the College of Santa Fe — now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The guide began introducing Springer to everyone as “Charlotte Fox’s teacher in school.”

“Everywhere we went, everyone we ran into knew Charlotte,” Springer said.

For Fox, 29, the situation is “is totally bizarre.” In the United States, she said, “I’m just another blond actress. There, everybody knows me. . I’m famous in Japan for playing a character who is very Doris Day-like, very pure.”

She quickly discovered that Japanese film and television actors have no union to regulate the working hours.

“The people in Japan work harder than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said during a recent interview in Santa Fe, at the Greer Garson Theatre on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “Nobody complains.”

Sometimes they would shoot from 7 a.m. one morning until about 3 a.m. the following morning, she said. She got Sundays off, but she used that day to read the script for the following week’s episode.

Japan is her home now, she said. She comes back to Santa Fe to see her family — father John and mother Cindy — and old friends. She started her show business career here about 15 years ago, playing the part of the stage manager in a Santa Fe Performing Arts production of Kiss Me Kate. Her main memory of the show was falling in love with co-star Ryan Miera, then an up-and-coming stand-up comic.

Fox, a graduate of the Career Academy high school in Santa Fe, harbored dreams of being a ballerina, a doctor, a pilot. And she kept doing stage plays in Santa Fe: The Wizard of Oz, Animal Crackers, My Fair Lady. Later came Crimes of the Heart while she was studying theater at the College of Santa Fe and the 2005 Fiesta Melodrama at the Santa Fe Playhouse.

Being an actress, she said, allows her to “play all the time.”

Santa Fe musician and actress Megan Burns is a friend who worked with Fox on several shows in Santa Fe. She says Fox “knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. She’s an incredibly authentic and giving actress. She wouldn’t be where she is if she wasn’t. She listens. She knows when to lead and when to follow, and she stays vulnerable even when she wants to close down.”

Springer agrees. “She was a very sensual actress,” Springer said. “She was very attentive to detail. She had a way of losing herself in a role that a lot of the other girls didn’t have. She was quite vulnerable.”

By email, Narahashi said that as she considered casting for the part of Ellie in Massan, she saw something in Fox that made her think she had the “mental stamina” to adapt to a weekly television series in a foreign country. “Charlotte herself has a lot of guts as Ellie, and Charlotte as an actress would need that to get through the grueling schedule, to overcome cultural differences, to adapt to a culture she has never encountered before and, of course, to learn a language,” Narahashi said.

Japanese people, Narahashi said, “believed her completely and fell in love with her even more than a Japanese woman for her heartfelt effort to emerge into the Japanese culture and above all remain steadfast to her Japanese husband.”

She said Fox probably doesn’t realize that in Japan, she has become a goodwill ambassador for the United States.

That fame and adulation has its price, including a strain on Fox’s marriage.

“It was hard to find time to communicate, and when we found time, I was a shell of myself,” she said. The couple want to have children, and Fox is paying close attention to her biological clock.

“I tell myself, ‘I can have a baby in two years. It’ll be OK.’ ”

Other challenges surfaced, including a scandal when nude photos of Fox appeared in the Japanese press. They came out of a low-budget film she had made in which she played a “lost call girl,” she said. That image was in stark contrast to the squeaky-clean Ellie. Some Japanese fans — particularly men — made insulting comments to her during public appearances, asking her if she wasn’t ashamed of herself and what her television husband would think of her.

“That was a very lonely time,” Fox said. It also made her realize that famous people live in a world that is not typical. “You lose your sense of reality. It’s scary. I read about these movie stars who live in this crazy, isolated world of fame, where you don’t have friends. You just have people who work for you.”

In November, Fox will get a chance to show off her sensual side when she gets a crack at playing the lead role of Roxie in the Broadway musical Chicago. She got the role after a Japanese producer involved in the show saw her in Japan and suggested her as a “filler” — someone who does the part for a short run between big-name stars.

She’s not worried about being mobbed in America. When Fox first reported to the Ambassador Theater in New York City for introductory dance and voice lessons, the stagehands manning the place asked her, “Who are you again?”

After that, it’s back to Japan to act in a television movie there and spending extended time with her husband.

In May, she gave the commencement address to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Class of 2015, apologizing to them for not being more famous and urging them to follow their passions and face their fears. She does it every day, she said.

“I want the world to see me as brave. But I’m scared all the time,” she said.

Springer wouldn’t agree. “I think she was always courageous when it came to her emotional connections to the text. Maybe what she had to do to become even more courageous was taking a role that brought her to Japan.”

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