Mariko Yashida is the lead female character and the eponymous superhero’s love interest in Fox’s recent “The Wolverine” movie. At first glance, she might look delicate and frail, the perfect damsel in distress—but don’t get her wrong. She’s no pushover, with proficiency in both karate and knife-throwing, not to mention a mind as sharp as her blades.

Much of the same can be said of the actress playing Yashida, Tao Okamoto—though we can never be sure how many hidden arts she has mastered.

Born in Chiba, Japan in 1985, Tao Okamoto began modeling as a teenager in Asia before deciding to pursue international career opportunities and moving to Paris at the age of 20. She broke barriers as one of the few prominent East Asian models at the time, debuting on European runways shortly after. She made significant waves in the fashion industry again when she moved to New York City in 2009 with her memorable bowl haircut.

Since then, Okamoto has had a fruitful career on the runway and in advertising campaigns for top brands, including Alexander Wang, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Ralph Lauren. Vogue Nippon even dedicated its November 2009 issue to Okamoto and featured her on the cover—the first Japanese model to receive this fashion honor in nearly a decade. Just this October, Okamoto once again graced the magazine’s cover.

But as big screen debut proves, her talents reach beyond the modeling world—and her blockbuster role was anything but an accident. After reading the script, Okamoto was immediately intrigued by Yashida’s character. “I had this similarity with Mariko—being different,” she says. “When I was younger, I was always the tallest one of the school and I felt like I didn’t belong. I was having a hard time; I grew up in a big family which is not normal [in Japan].”

It’s to the credit of the movie’s producers that Okamoto thought that the crew had a great understanding of and respect for Japanese culture in “The Wolverine” (which is set in Japan). In fact, Okamoto was one of the three Japanese actors who helped the set designers make sure the film’s cultural landscape was authentic. She was also heavily involved with translating portions of the English script into Japanese—with the aim of keeping the movie even more natural, the cast and crew went back and forth on having the Japanese cast speak their native language amongst each other.

Surprisingly, Okamoto was given strict instructions by director James Mangold to not take any acting lessons. Her natural talent did not disappoint him (or the moviegoers, judging from reviews), and she developed a new passion for acting along the way. “I like being someone else. Every day I feel like I’m a different personality,” she says.

Okamoto hopes to do more acting as she continues to develop her career both within and beyond fashion. She advises other young women out there, “Be ambitious. Have a great imagination. I always imagine myself standing in that situation—and if you can imagine it, you can make it true.”

But positive outlook and innate talents aside, perhaps what’s most admirable about her is her modesty. Okamoto, it seems, is surprised at being presented as an inspiration: “I hope [I am]. If I’m encouraging to the younger generation, that would be great. I’d be grateful.”

“The Wolverine” Unleashed Extended Edition in Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital HD is now available for purchase.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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