Pop star Rina Sawayama had never appeared in a movie before, so she was more than a little surprised when she got a call out of nowhere one day from Chad Stahelski, the director of the John Wick films.

“I’m like, ‘Why the f–– does he want to speak with me?’” Sawayama said. “He was like, ‘So I’ve been trying to cast this role, and he described the character, and then he said, ‘What are you doing for the next three months?’”

Sawayama, the 32-year-old genre-defying art pop singer best known for her albums Sawayama (2020) and Hold the Girl (2022), will play a leather-clad, bow and arrow–wielding fighter in John Wick: Chapter 4, in theaters on Friday. She portrays Akira, concierge of the assassin-friendly Continental Hotel in Osaka, Japan, where she battles alongside Keanu Reeves in the latest installment of the popular action franchise.

“I’m unbelievably lucky that this is my first film,” Sawayama said, though in Stahelski’s view, the luck was all his: “To have Rina Sawayama who is amazingly talented with a drive to succeed? I could be so lucky.”

Getting the Call to Join John Wick

rina sawayama wearing black and performing on a stage, holding a microphone and leaning a hand on a microphone stand
Rina Sawayama performs on stage in Milano, Italy, on February 18, 2023.
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Sawayama, who was born in Japan but grew up in London, had just finished writing most the songs for Hold the Girl when she received Stahelski’s call. The director wasn’t even familiar with her music and discovered her almost by accident, stumbling across a photo of her on the Internet while contemplating who to cast as Akira.

“I saw on YouTube [a photo of] Rina in this orange wig,” Stahelski told Fandango. “I didn’t know anything about her. I just thought that was a cool wig, because we were looking for an interesting look for the character Akira. … We went down the rabbit hole, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, she’s a pop star, that’s cool. She can dance, she must be good at fights.’”

Sawayama had long wished to appear in movies and had prepared audition tapes before without landing any roles. She told Good Morning America she was nearly cast in a Matrix movie, but it didn’t work out. Her music videos, however, tend to have a cinematic flair.

In the music video for her song “XS,” Sawayama portrayed a robotic saleswoman on a home shopping television network, and in the video for “Bad Friend” she plays an older Japanese businessman who gets into a bar fight. Stahelski and Reeves were impressed by the videos, which convinced them Sawayama could both act and perform stunts.

“Honestly I was thinking, ‘You know what? If I’ve got this budget to do a music video, I’m also going to make it my acting portfolio.’ And it worked,” Sawayama said during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Fight Training was the ‘Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done’

rina sawayama wearing a yellow dress, and keanu reeves wearing a black suit and tie, in a crowded movie theater
Rina Sawayama and Keanu Reeves at the after party for the Los Angeles premiere of John Wick: Chapter 4 on March 20, 2023, in Hollywood, California
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Sawayama was flown to Berlin, where she underwent five weeks of fight choreography training before an additional five weeks of shooting. Stahelski said she was very energetic and took to the training enthusiastically, though Sawayama said it was very different than anything she had done before.

“If you’re doing choreography for stage, if you get something wrong, you get something wrong, whatever,” she told Digital Spy. “People film it and put it on TikTok. Whatever, it’s iconic. But if you get something wrong in the movie, you might actually get punched in the face because you’re missing a dodge or whatever. So there’s a danger element.”

Her training got off to a difficult start when she pinched a nerve in her back on her first day performing a minor squatting motion. But following treatment, she was able to resume and complete her training.

As in all John Wick films, the action sequences tend to be shot in extended sequences, requiring Sawayama to learn the choreography from start to finish. Her scenes take place at nighttime, so she and the other performers had to shoot all night and sleep during the day, requiring both mental and physical endurance, she said.

Ultimately, her John Wick experience left a positive impression. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Sawayama said on The Tonight Show. “But I’d love to do more.”

Sawayama also spoke highly of Reeves, who she said showed intense commitment to his acting and stunt work and worked well with everyone on set, taking particular care of her, since it was her first film role. “He does things a lot behind the scenes to make sure everyone’s feeling OK,” she said. “And honestly, he can turn off the celebrity, which is a weird thing to say. You’d think someone like Keanu walking around the set has an air of celebrity constantly, but he’s there just to work.”

John Wick: Chapter 4 is now playing in theaters. It also stars Laurence Fishburne, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Ian McShane, and Lance Reddick in one of his final roles.

Headshot of Colin McEvoy
Colin McEvoy
Senior News Editor, Biography.com

Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.