sonoya mizuno danced her way onto our screens and into our hearts

Ever since she appeared in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller, 'Ex-Machina,' we've been under Sonoya's spell. Here, the ballerina-turned-actress talks Hollywood dreams, dance rehearsals, and literally suffering for one’s art.

by Colin Crummy
17 May 2016, 7:20pm

When you think of iconic dance scenes in cinema, start with the great dance movies and work from there. Think Swayze and Grey tearing up the holiday camp hall in Dirty Dancing. Travolta on the disco tiles in Saturday Night Fever. Then, there are the films where dancing is a mere distraction from the main pursuit. There's Tatum breaking it down before taking it all off in Magic Mike. Or Thurman and Travolta (again) between courses in Pulp Fiction. That unexpected moment where a dance sequence breaks out of the film itself to become its own thing found its most recent footing in Ex Machina, with Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno's get down and boogie, (no robot dancing included).

The scene's popularity -- Vanity Fair called it "one of the cinematic achievements of 2015," it's been viewed over one million times on YouTube -- is perhaps due in part to that unexpectedness. Ex Machina is a dark, terrifying film about artificial intelligence; to have a disco moment set to Oliver Cheatham's Get Down Saturday Night and choreographed by former disco dancing champion, Arthur Pita, is quite the mood switch. It's also definitely down to Oscar Isaac, who is so smooth he's been asked on U.S. telly to recreate his disco moves. But credit has also got to go to his dance partner, Sonoya Mizuno, who plays assistant (and secret robot) to Oscar's power crazed Silicon Valley billionaire and who easily matches him in the dancing stakes.

For Mizuno, working on her first feature length film, the attention has proven to be both surprising and amusing. "It's really funny, I've had people send me messages on Instagram saying they have been learning the dance," she says, talking down the line to i-D from Louisiana, where she is filming one of her next movies, Gifted. "I get asked if I have any more videos of me learning the dance in rehearsals so they can learn it perfectly. It's really strange!"

The folks requesting rehearsal footage may well know that studying Sonoya's moves means learning from a pro. Prior to Ex Machina, this 27 year old Japanese-British actress had a successful ballet career under her belt. Born in Tokyo, but brought up in Somerset (she puts on a strong West Country accent to demonstrate), Sonoya joined the Royal Ballet School as a child, on the advice of her uncle, who was a West End actor at the time. Acting was always her dream but dance, he suggested, offered a route to stage school. Only it didn't work out that way. Instead she started doing ballet because it was the hardest dance form to do. After six months, she auditioned for the Royal Ballet, got in, and ten years later, she graduated. "It just all happened. I really did love it," she says. How about the more painful aspects of the job? "They're pretty ugly," she laughs good humoredly about her feet. "I have a permanent fake toenail on my big right toe. It's not that pretty."

Even while she suffered for her art, Sonoya kept an eye on acting. She spent time in ballet companies but she was careful never to make it the final stop in her career. "Even when I was at school, I started doing short fashion films; other things outside the ballet world." She had short contracts with Scottish Ballet and English National Ballet, freelanced in Japan, where she also modeled for Chanel, McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and Louis Vuitton. Then came Ex Machina, her big break.

I took singing lessons and two years later I'm in La La Land, a musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It's proof that anything can happen.

Though the dancing element in Ex Machina was a happy coincidence -- she didn't audition for the part as a dancer -- Sonoya's previous experience seems to follow her around from role to role. The dance connection remains in her next role in La La Land, an old fashioned musical set in contemporary Los Angeles that stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) directed tale of star crossed, tap dancing lovers. Sonoya plays a roommate of Emma's character. "It's got a 50s Hollywood musical feel, like Singin' In The Rain but set in present day L.A," she explains. "So it's a very heightened reality." For her, the girl who didn't go to stage school, it was also the first time she had to sing in a performance. But in an indication of how acting dreams were put into action while she danced, Sonoya took singing lessons while at the Scottish Ballet. ''My guilty pleasure at the time was Glee and I thought 'I could do this'! I just need to be good at singing. So I took singing lessons and two years [later] I'm doing a musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling."

Since graduating into the world of film, Sonoya's been busy adding other strings to her bow. Last year, she completed a British indie in London called Alley Cats with a group of other up-and-comers including Sam Keeley and Eleanor Tomlinson. They play a gang of illegal bike couriers, a role for which they had to cycle around the capital's streets and race real life two wheelers. Next up is the aforementioned Gifted, an indie thriller about a talented violinist with a best friend/adversary who messes with her mind. Sonoya plays frenemy in this one and yes, there is a dance connection, albeit tentative. "I'm the catalyst for messing things up, which is fun,' she laughs. 'It's a Black Swan-esque idea where the lines between reality and what the violinist perceives is happening become blurred so that lots of scary and destructive things start happening."

When Sonoya's finished filming in Louisiana the plan is to return to L.A., her current base. She went out there for La La Land and she's stayed. She likes it but is also using the city to drive her ambitions. "It kind of puts the pressure on, being away from home and being there for a reason and working for that," she says. Dance will always be part of Sonoya's story. "My dance experience is my groundwork," Sonoya concludes. "It's still a part of what I do." It's clear she's moving masterfully into the la, la land of movie making.


Photography Columbine Goldsmith
Styling Leah Henken
Text Colin Crummy 
Hair Ramsell Martinez at Streeters LA using Bumble and Bumble
Make-up Tsipporah Liebman using M.A.C Cosmetics
Photography assistance Shayan Asgharnia
Sonoya wears all clothing Chanel

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