“When we first met, I had no idea that he had that experience, and neither did [he],” Ashley Park explains from the lobby of Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont, sitting alongside her co-star and King, Ken Watanabe.
She was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia during her sophomore year of high school when she was 15 years old; a few years before she was born, Watanabe was fighting the same battle and dealing with the same diagnosis.
In early 2015, they came together for the Broadway revival of The King and I—Watanabe an Oscar nominee for The Last Samurai and Park in her first Broadway lead role (her only previous experience on the Main Stem as an understudy and ensemble member of Mamma Mia!).
She was nervous to engage in conversation with Watanabe, who, at the time, was sporting a shaved head in the style of Yul Brynner. But she quickly learned that, despite the generation gap, they shared a wealth of common ground.
“It was the first week of rehearsal, and I was still like, ‘Whoa, I can’t talk to him!’ We were sitting in the back of the rehearsal room, and [director] Bart [Sher] was doing something, and [Ken] leaned forward [to me],” she recalls, turning to Watanabe. “You said, ‘Bart—he looks like Steve Martin,’ or something like that, and that was one of our first conversations.
“As we were talking… I was like, ‘Isn’t it easy to be bald?’ I didn’t know how to start a conversation because I was so intimidated by him. I [thought], ‘I’ll talk about him being bald!’ He, at one point, was like, ‘How do you know what it’s like to be bald?’ I said, ‘I was bald at one time.’ He was like, ‘Did you know that I had…?’ I said, ‘I had no idea.’”
Things were different when Watanabe was diagnosed in 1989, and he was reluctant to divulge too much information almost three decades ago.
“This generation is a little different,” Watanabe explains. Though an accomplished performer, the Tony-nominated King is a man of few words. He was born and raised in Japan and didn’t cross over to Western audiences until his Oscar-nominated performance opposite Tom Cruise in 2003. His English has been a work in progress since boarding the Broadway musical.
“Almost 30 years ago, cancer was a death illness, and leukemia was the hardest illness of the cancer,” he says. After conquering his first bout with leukemia, “I went back to a normal life working, and everybody was wondering, ‘How can I do anything? How can I do acting?’ People [were] just wondering, ‘Are you okay?’” He did not publicly acknowledge his condition; if he was cast as a “tough guy,” he didn’t want audiences to think of him as weak because of his health.
“It’s not good for the actor,” he says. “Then I had leukemia again five years later… [It is] just a little bit [of a] different atmosphere of telling something to audiences in Japan and the United States. Right now, it is a good change of atmosphere in Japan, [but I still felt], ‘Illness or healthy: How can I separate the two?’ I’m healthy right now, but sometimes I still have an ache or a stomachache. But, [not] everybody can separate [between] the healthy or not healthy.”
“You didn’t want it to define [you],” Park says to her co-star, finishing his thought.
Though the two felt at ease discussing the disease today, it hasn’t always been easy to chat about cancer so candidly. Marin Mazzie, who will join the production as The King and I’s leading lady following Kelli O’Hara’s April 17 exit, kept silent for a few months following the announcement that she, too, was battling cancer (in her case, ovarian cancer). Scheduling conflicts prevented her from joining this conversation before assuming the role May 3, but she previously opened up to Playbill.com in December.
“There was some post-surgery darkness—trauma—going through me that I couldn't get out of,” she previously told Playbill.com, although stating, “I want people to know that I’m coming back.”
For Park, “At that time as a teenager, I [thought], ‘I’m invincible!’ Boys were starting to like me, and I was doing all the things, and my life was great. I was starting to think about college, and then all of that just…” She smacks her hands together to insinuate her life being put on hold.
“Just nothing,” she continues, “to the point where you don’t have hair on your body. Everything is taken away, and that is the most human thing that you can ever go through. What we do on stage…we’re successful when we tell the truth of a human, and that’s why people, when they watch any show—when they laugh or they cry, it’s because they’re completely relating to the story that’s being told on stage… I remember people, right after I was done being sick, said, ‘You should go to therapy,’ [but] my therapy is theatre.
“I’ve been reflecting more about it recently, and I realize the whole putting on a wig and putting on shoes and costume and being a different person was the best escape from being just the girl who had cancer,” she continues. “Three months after I left the hospital room in a wheelchair, I was Millie in some high school production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, [and] that was the best therapy I could ask for. I didn’t want anyone to come to the show and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so amazing because she just survived cancer.’ I want them to be like, ‘She’s so amazing because she’s dancing and singing and acting.’”
The hardest part for Park and Watanabe, it seems, was when their passion for performing had to be put on hold. Just before Watanabe was to make a return to The King and I March 1 and join O’Hara for the remaining weeks of her Tony-winning run, he learned he now had stomach cancer. Though it was caught in early stages, he was forced to postpone his return to the show, as he recovered from surgery in Japan.
“Last January, I had stomach cancer, and then I just remember[ed], ‘Life always has an end.’ I can recognize [that…but], at that time, it [was in early stages], and I am a really lucky boy.”
As for Park, “I hadn’t won the battle until I had completely moved past it,” she says. “Everyone handles it in different ways, and there’s not a wrong way or a right way to handle it. But, for me, I never wanted any pity or association with that. As soon as you hear cancer, sometimes people go right away to: ‘Weak. Sick. Take care…’ Even with my own family—I have [had] the most supportive family throughout—but even now they still get so…worried.”
Park was a “Make-a-Wish Kid.” The iconic foundation, which grants a wish to a child facing life-threatening medical conditions, gave her the gift of Broadway. She and her family were taken from Michigan to New York City to attend The Lion King, Wicked, Spring Awakening and A Chorus Line. “So now,” she says, “being a lead in a Broadway show years later, that is a cool, surreal thing.”
Trying so hard to prevent cancer from defining her during her formative years, Park admits that it has, in fact, shaped the person she is today—giving her strength, endurance and fight (all things she applies to her career as a Broadway actress).
“When you’re doing it—when you’re going through it—there’s no option but to fight to get better. I think that’s what also helps me at the end of the day when I go through, for example, the journey of Tuptim,” she explains of her character in The King and I. “For me, there was never an option that I wasn’t going to get better—ever—so it was just about, ‘What can I do right now?’ It’s the most profound form of living in the present in order to keep going.”
At the stage door, both Watanabe and Park are recognized for their performances and for providing hope to others fighting similar battles (although, Park says, theatre fans scream for Watanabe because “he’s Ken Watanabe!”).
Park once met a theatregoer at the stage door with a “survivor tattoo.” After their encounter, “She wrote me this beautiful, beautiful letter,” she says.
“I was uncomfortable for a little while with anybody saying, ‘You’re a hero’ because, for me, I was put in a life-or-death situation,” Park says, “and all I was doing was trying to do was survive it. How is that heroic at all? But, over time, it’s very gratifying. It’s very cool to provide hope.”