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[THE OSCARS] | THE INGENUE

Cast in the role and a whirlwind to boot

It started in Cannes, and ever since, Rinko Kikuchi's been in the eye of the `Babel' blitz. For the actress, it's a crash course in celebrity culture.

February 25, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

POOLSIDE at the Beverly Hilton, Rinko Kikuchi gathered up her quilted leather handbag, a mini-mechanical pencil and a small notebook. Then she waved a shy goodbye to "Access Hollywood" host Nancy O'Dell.

The Oscar-nominated actress, her translator, Tamaka Takefushi, and a Paramount Vantage award strategist huddled post-interview, as they usually do. Kikuchi wrote in the notebook the Japanese translation of O'Dell's question, for future reference: What are you going to wear to the Oscars? (Nice try, O'Dell. "It's a secret!")

Kikuchi started carrying the notebook to help navigate her life after "Babel" premiered in May at Cannes, and she was suddenly everywhere, as independent and eager to shock in some ways as Chieko, the deaf Tokyo teenager she'd played. Another girl with a notebook and not enough words to communicate what was going on behind her eyes. Full of translations for English phrases thrown at her over and over, it became her Berlitz language course, her "Lonely Planet" guide and a de facto diary in one.

That morning, before the nominees' lunch, she had written in her wispy Japanese script: Oscar Lunch Party.

Before her broadcast interviews with O'Dell and others, she had worked the Oscar nominee press line, posed in front of a giant Oscar, answered questions in an Oscar press room, eaten lunch with 139 of her fellow nominees, posed for a group photo, then signed autographs in the hotel lobby.

Now Kikuchi, 26, craved a cigarette and a Diet Coke, but she still had CNN, Associated Press, Leonard Maltin and a local news interview before heading to Glendale for a round of evening news appearances. Even as a dark horse, she's a much in demand, chic symbol of a globalizing Hollywood.

So she stood and concentrated on teaching herself English, which she has been doing by writing out new responses to familiar showbiz koans. In a nightly ritual, Takefushi recites the day's questions from the notebook as if she were an American newscaster while Kikuchi tries her best to answer in English. Occasionally they swap roles.

Kikuchi gave a preview of the evening's performance. "Hi!!!!!!! How are you?????? Congratulations!!!!!!! You NOMINATED!!!!!!!"

Takefushi, who is a decade older than Kikuchi and befriended the actress in the "Babel" production offices in Tokyo where she worked as a production assistant, offered a professional interpretation.

"Most of the hosts and interviewers on these shows are just really hyper and have so much energy," Takefushi said. "She gets so overwhelmed by them. No matter how much she's prepared to speak in English, they come in and say, 'Hi, Rinko!!!!!' and she totally blacks out."

A small, husky-voiced woman wearing an enormous headset summoned Kikuchi to a corner broadcast tent. "Go in, go in!" Kikuchi peeked between the curtains and saw Maltin interviewing "Babel" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. She hesitated. "Go in, surprise him! Go in!" the woman insisted.

Maltin asked his crew what was going on. Gonzalez Inarritu, spying an embarrassed Kikuchi, hugged her, then guided her to a seat next to him. The three made small talk while the camera rolled.

As the conversation ground to a halt, Maltin gestured to a production assistant, who appeared with two large orange boxes. Inside they found digital cameras and personalized M&Ms.

"Oh, thanks. My kids will like these," Gonzalez Inarritu said.

"Wow, wow, wow, WOW!" Kikuchi said, lighting up like a vending machine on a dark night in Roppongi.

Interviews momentarily completed, the actress clomped over to an orange couch, lighted up a cigarette and enthusiastically inspected her new camera. (A consumer electronics epicure, tucked in her purse was a new Nokia E61, a top-of-the-line Japanese-language BlackBerry). When she determined the camera was worth what she had paid for it she turned to her M&Ms. She looked a little weary.

When the "Babel" promotional blitz kicked off at Cannes, Kikuchi appeared to be a vision of the perfect leading lady for some maverick director: She modeled a dove-gray kimono, shaved eyebrows and over-dyed orange hair that jutted out like the titanium wings of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In early fall, having picked up the scent of a fresh face on the verge of hundreds of red carpets, the brand managers at Chanel called Kikuchi.

Given the keys to Coco's castle, the actress -- who had shown up for events looking like a punk Corpse Bride in tortured tufts of hair -- soon metamorphosed into a Chanel poster girl in long, blond, Jessica Simpson-like extensions.

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