Actress/dancer Mari Koda is nothing short of an epic adventure. After graduating high school in Japan, Koda moved to New York to begin her dance and acting career in America. Starting with only $400 in her pocket and without knowing how to speak English, she quickly learned the language, began acting and is now in high demand as a professional dance instructor in New York, Japan and Europe. Instantly recognizable as “Jenny Kido” from the ‘STEP UP’ franchise, Koda is well versed in many styles including Hip-Hop, Popping, Locking, Jazz and Salsa and is also trained in classic ballet. As the first person from Japan to be granted a performing arts visa in America for hip hop dancing and she hasn’t looked back since. From winning 1st place on BET’s 106 & Park Freestyle dance competition, to dancing at the MTV VMA opening with Jamie Foxx and appearing frequently in music videos including 50 Cent, Skrillex and Missy Elliot, her star continues to rise in Hollywood. This summer, this charming and talented performer will reprise her iconic role in ‘STEP UP ALL IN,’ where she will bring her unique dance moves and provide comedic relief in this 5th installment of the beloved franchise. This time around, the all-star cast reunites in Las Vegas and battles for a victory that could define their dreams and their careers. Jason Price recently caught up with Mari Koda to discuss her unique career, the highlights of her time in the business and what the future might hold for her in the years to come.
How did you get started on your journey in the entertainment industry?
It started because I learned I could have fun doing it. At an early age, I would listen to music and feel the music. The music made me happy! I found I could make myself happy first and then make others happy as well.
How did you get started when it comes to the world of dance?
I didn’t train at all. I never went to school; I just learned from watching other dancers in music videos. I would do it at home without letting other people know! [laughs] I wouldn’t let people know what I was doing. That is how it started. I am not really a trained dancer, to be honest with you. I am all about the freestyle and improv. I just listen to the music and try to move for the music. Dancing for me is more about appreciating the music. Some people who love music might play the piano, flute or other instruments but for me dancing expresses how much I love music. That is how I started dancing. It is a little different than going to school, looking in the mirror and do what they are teaching you to do. I have problems listening to teachers anyway! [laughs]
You mentioned watching a lot of music videos and being inspired by them. Who were some of those early influences?
I would say Madonna was a big influence, even more than Michael Jackson. Madonna and Janet Jackson; I was blown away by them. I lived in Japan and we had never seen anything like that! We were like “Whoa! They are so totally different!”
Many people will recognize you from your role in the “Step Up” franchise. How did you get involved with the projects initially?
I went to an open call audition in New York. I had no idea what “Step Up” was at that time. A friend had told me about it. I wasn’t sure about it. I went and danced; doing different styles and learned the choreography. I thought “This is a lot of fun!” I still wasn’t sure what the audition was for! At the end of the audition, I asked my friend “What was that for?” He said, “Step Up!” I said, “Oh shit! What is it?” [laughs] He explained it was a movie and I was really surprised! That is how it started. They called me and I said no to the part in the beginning because I was planning to go to my best friend’s wedding in Los Angeles. They said, “Oh, okay?” The films are made by Disney and no one ever says no! [laughs] My friends told me I was crazy and I better do it! [laughs] I called them back and told them I could do it, I was sorry and I had changed my mind. That was for “Step Up 2.” They also requested me for parts three, four and five. I was so surprised to learn how many people love these movies. You know, the movies go to almost fifty different countries! It is funny; I was in the supermarket in Brazil last year. I wasn’t even dancing but people recognized me! The people who recognized me spoke Portuguese and I didn’t understand what they were saying. The people who translated for me told me what they were saying. The same thing happened to me in Argentina. It was crazy! South America is so big! Norway, Italy and Europe, people know the movie! I think my character, Jenny Kido, is so interesting. She thinks she is perfect but she is not! [laughs] I think that makes people remember her! I am very thankful to have had this opportunity! It has been crazy!
Are there any similarities between you and your characters that we might catch a glimpse of?
I have an accent! [laughs] Jenny Kido will always do anything for her friends. Whatever her friends ask for, no matter where she is or what she is doing, she will be there for them. That kind of personality is really me; it is who I am. I would go anywhere if someone asked for it. I would be there!
There is a lot that goes into making a movie for an actor. Obviously, you have to learn your lines but what else do you have to do to prepare for a role?
What do I do to prepare? I stretch a lot! [laughs] I don’t know if they told you but I was hit by a car!
I was dealing with the pain a lot during the shooting but it helped me focus more for this movie. It was a huge challenge for me because I didn’t expect to get hit by a car! [laughs]
That is crazy! How did the accident happen?
We were walking down the street on the sidewalk with a few other dancers. I felt a spotlight and thought “Am I on stage?” [laughs] No! That was a car! [laughs] I was knocked down to the ground and the car tried to get away. I am not totally sure what was going on but the other cast member told me “Yo, Mari! You were under the car!” I was like “Oh shit! Really?” We were just walking the street and I think the car was trying to make a U-Turn but it was a very tiny street. I guess it just didn’t make it. It was totally unexpected.
Hopefully you are making a full recovery!
Yeah, I am pretty good right now and I am getting much better. Thank God! I am very lucky to be here right now. I didn’t break any bones but I did have joint pain. I had bruises everywhere! Thank God my costume had long sleeves and pants, so it covered everything. Every time I see it, I think “You can’t really tell I got hit by a car in this trailer!” [laughs] I found out I am a really strong person. < img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-37392″ src=”https://www.iconvsicon.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/mari-koda-6.jpg” alt=”mari-koda-6″ width=”595″ height=”375″ />
You have the opportunity to work with many talented people on these films. What are some of the highlights that come to mind?
B-Boy Kid David is one of the cast members. He is amazing! His movement is crazy. Every move that he does is so new to me! Lately, dance is everywhere but his moves inspire and keep surprising me. He makes us love working on the movie so much! It has been a great experience!
What other types of roles interest you? Is there anything you are looking forward to pursuing?
I would love to do comedy! I would love to work with Ice Cube! I love 90s hip-hop like Marley Mar, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. They are all my friends. I am a big fan of East Coast hip hop, so I would love to do a comedy with someone like Snoop Dogg or Jamie Foxx.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned so far in your career?
What I have learned is that the feeling I have when I dance comes through on the screen. Knowing this now, I am really careful with what kind of feeling I have when I perform. The feeling I have at the time can really affect the movement or the line. That is the biggest lesson I have learned.
You also teach your skills to others. What can you tell us about that part of your life?
I travel to different studios and teach during special workshops as a guest teacher! I love to travel and teach. I can tell the students my experiences. I want to teach them that we are all one. I am Japanese and I have been going to different countries and interacting with many people. Dance makes us one. That is what I want to teach; music and dance connect people.
Absolutely! That is an amazing way to think! I want to thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us! Can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thank you, Jason! Thank you for understanding my English! I really appreciate it! [laughs] Talk to you later!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.