The Hulu/BBC Two drama Devs has gripped fans with its mind-bending imagining of Silicon Valley’s dark underbelly.
The show has also made a breakout star of its British lead, Sonoya Mizuno, as tough and resourceful developer Lily Chan. Right now, the 33-year-old actress should be soaking up the buzz and planning her next move, but a sad set of circumstances has put everything on pause.
Mizuno’s Japanese father died suddenly in February so she flew out to Tokyo with her five other siblings — then the pandemic shut everything down. They have all been squashed in his two-bedroom house ever since.
“It’s been a really, really strange year, to say the least,” she sighs down the phone, “But I’m definitely not the only one.”
Mizuno’s chameleon-like ability to melt into a role means you might not immediately twig she’s the same actress who played the flamboyant heiress Araminta in Crazy Rich Asians — remember the scene-stealing moment she floats down a water-filled aisle in couture? — or Emma Stone’s jazz-handing roommate Caitlin in La La Land.
Devs is her third project with the writer-director Alex Garland; he gave Mizuno her first acting break as disco-dancing robot Kyoko in 2014 movie Ex Machina. “He is loyal to most people he works with,” she says.
Prep for the show saw them visit the secretive Google X lab in Silicon Valley to meet real experts in quantum computing.
“I didn’t understand a single word,” she laughs. “You know an ‘and’ would pop up every now and then — it was like they were talking in another language.”
Devs examines the god complex of Silicon Valley’s most powerful in the character of Lily’s boss, Forest (Nick Offerman). Mizuno has her own fears about the accountability of tech giants. Though many are “good people trying to use their technology for good” she says. “I am a bit fearful of it. Power is in the hands of people whose best interests might not be our best interests.”
A highlight of the project for Mizuno was having her two older sisters on set — one is a stills photographer, the other an assistant director.
The trio worked on Garland’s movie Annihilation. “Some days we’d be like, ‘guys how did we trick the system, this is so fun!’” she laughs. “But some days I’d have to say to them, ‘Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me,’ because I knew that they’d make me feel happy, and I need to be really sad.”
The siblings have been through a lot. Mizuno grew up in rural Somerset, her parents separated when she was young, and her British-Argentinian mum died when she was 13.
Like “some weird Von Trapp family” they would sing The Sound of Music as they cleaned the house (“We still do that,” she says), put on plays and “run around the field in pig s**t”.
Her uncle, an actor, advised her to take up dancing as a route into performance, “but I quickly fell in love with ballet”, she says. She graduated from the Royal Ballet School and worked in a number of companies including Dresden Semperoper Ballet and the Scottish Ballet.
There was modelling work too, initially to pay the bills. She moved to Tokyo in her early twenties and found “such a lucrative market for half-Japanese people — and (it) was a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in Japan and get to know my father”, a graphic designer.
She also found a connection with a culture she had never known as a child. “Growing up so far away from it, my interaction with my Japanese identity was often through some kind of racial comment,” she says.
She decided to make the leap into acting, walking away from a dancing job to audition for Ex Machina.
Despite some promising supporting roles, the past six years have been “a hustle”, she says. “There have been many moments that I’ve really considered stopping — I think that’s quite normal for any actor because being out of work is not great for one’s mentality, as we all know now.”
After auditioning for Crazy Rich Asians, she wanted the part so much she sent director Jon M Chu an extra tape of herself doing Araminta.
The film was a watershed moment for Asian actors — and audiences. There were reports of audience members breaking down in tears in the cinema.
“When we were filming I sensed that it was for us, for the ones doing it, because we’d all had similar experiences in film. But I could never have anticipated the effect on other people,” she says.
Mizuno says there are “no plans” for a season two of Devs, but Garland aims to bring the cast back together “for a completely different story”. Mizuno also started an Open University degree last year. She has lived between New York and the UK for several years but as her family is in London, she’ll base herself here after lockdown. “I’m thinking about growing vegetables,” she says.
BBC Two, Wednesday, 9pm, and on iPlayer
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