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Rachel Keller Discusses The Challenges Of Speaking And Singing In Japanese For Tokyo Vice - Exclusive

Throughout her career, Rachel Keller has demonstrated her range and versatility in a diverse collection of memorable roles. She's played Simone Gerhardt, the daughter of a notorious crime family in the second season of "Fargo"; Linda Kolkena, an ill-fated wife in the 1980s in the second season of "Dirty John"; and Syd Barrett, a superpowered mutant on the front lines of a battle to save the world in the psychedelic mind-trip "Legion" (via IMDb). Most recently, she's starring as Samantha in HBO Max's "Tokyo Vice," playing an American in Japan who crosses paths with both ambitious reporter Jake Adelstein (Ansel Elgort) and members of the yakuza, including her romantic interest, Sato (Shô Kasamatsu).

Keller plays Samantha as a driven woman who's completely invested in the life she has forged as a hostess at a club in Japan. Samantha is smart and confident in what she's built for herself, even as she comes up against multiple obstacles from cultural biases to the sins of her mysterious past. Keller's performance is all the more impressive because Samantha speaks fluent Japanese throughout the series.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Keller talked about the difficulties of learning Japanese so she could convincingly speak — and sing — the language for "Tokyo Vice."

Keller faced many difficulties in learning Japanese

The pilot of "Tokyo Vice" introduces Samantha singing a karaoke version of "Sweet Child O' Mine" almost entirely in Japanese. The moment makes quite a first impression, but Rachel Keller admitted that bringing it to life wasn't easy. "Singing is hard. Singing in front of people is hard. The Japanese language is hard," she noted of all the challenges baked into the scene. "I practiced a lot and over and over, especially because that song is originally a Guns N' Roses song. The other karaoke song I sing later in the season is originally a Japanese song, so in a way, that one was a little bit easier to learn because the original lyrics for it are written in Japanese and the vowel sounds, it's all in the same cadence. It was a really fun challenge."

But that scene is far from the only one where Keller must appear to be completely comfortable speaking Japanese. Samantha regularly uses the language with her clients and easily switches between Japanese and English depending on the character she's conversing with. Keller confessed that the differences between the Japanese and English languages made this especially challenging. 

"The Japanese language is so difficult, partly because the sentence structure has no relation to English grammatically," Keller observed. "It's almost opposite. My Japanese teacher actually sent me this graph that showed how the sentence is actually completely opposite. When you're learning Spanish or Italian, there's things you can relate, grammatically, to English that is not [part of Japanese.] I shed some tears learning Japanese."

Interestingly, "Tokyo Vice" wasn't Keller's first brush with the language. "My mom grew up in Japan — a random thing," Keller revealed. "My grandfather worked for Northwest Airlines, which isn't an airline anymore. When I was little, I always learned how to count to 10. I always knew that, but I didn't really know any other Japanese. I only studied it for a couple of months before we started shooting."

The first season of "Tokyo Vice" is now available to stream on HBO Max.