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How Nestor Carbonell Drastically Transformed Himself for the Role of a Lifetime on ‘Shogun’ (Exclusive)

How Nestor Carbonell's Expansive Filmography Helped Prepare Him for the Role of a Lifetime on 'Shogun'
Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne and Nestor Carbonell as Rodrigues in ‘Shogun.’ Katie Yu/FX

Néstor Carbonell credits years of hard work — and a multitude of memorable TV roles — for allowing him the opportunity to appear on FX’s hit series Shōgun.

“Any time I get to work is a gift. I have a deep appreciation for every character I’ve had the opportunity to play because it is a chance to investigate a part of you within that character as well,” Carbonell, 56, exclusively told Us Weekly. “It’s so interesting because the opportunities I’ve had have had different kinds of audiences. So some people might recognize me from Lost, Bates Motel, The Morning Show, [the movie] The Dark Knight and now Shōgun, which is amazing.”

Carbonell got his start on TV as a guest star on various shows. It wasn’t until he joined Brooke Shield‘s NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan in 1996 that he rose to prominence and continued to book high-profile projects that gained him a dedicated audience. Most recently, Carbonell completely transformed to play Vasco Rodrigues on Shōgun, FX’s acclaimed historical action-drama, which takes place in Japan circa 1600.

“When you get the opportunity to truly escape into a role that is very far from you — those are the things you dream about,” Carbonell told Us about the skilled Spanish navigator who doesn’t have any specific allegiance when viewers first meet him. “Those opportunities don’t always come around that often because you’re typically doing more work in your immediate wheelhouse. So this was a phenomenal and an amazing opportunity and challenge.”

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Before Carbonell could actually film scenes as Rodrigues, he had to bring the character to life. That meant a physical transformation which included creating an accent, adding scars to better reflect Rodrigues’s life story, cutting his hair as his character and more.

“Immediately [when I got the part] I was like, ‘Well, I’m definitely gonna start growing the beard now. Let’s start with that.’ Then we really talked at length about the history of this character and things that weren’t necessarily on the page to really get a sense of who he was emotionally,” he explained. “Then we got into what could inform him physically? I thought, ‘Well I’d probably want to put on a few pounds.’ I wanted to add some heft to the character.”

Carbonell gained around 20 to 25 pounds to better reflect Rodrigues as a character, adding, “It was wonderful just on the physical side to discuss when I got to set after doing all the emotional prep. [We discussed] how can I give him a history on his face and his hair and his physicality that will allow us to further escape into his world and give us a sense of where he came from.”

Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell, Shōgun is an adaptation of the source material with show creators Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks taking major steps to properly depict key events and figures of 1600 Japan when the Azuchi–Momoyama period approached its end and the Edo period commenced.

How Nestor Carbonell Drastically Transformed for Role of a Lifetime in Shogun
“SHOGUN” — “Anjin” — Episode 1 (Airs February 27) Pictured (L-R): Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Yuki Kura as Yoshii Nagakado. CR: Katie Yu/FX FX

“We had the privilege of having these experts who were flown in from Japan to inform every department. We got to learn social customs of the time period. And while my character was breaking all the rules, I knew how far to push it,” Carbonell said of his onscreen approach. “I really wanted to learn what the rules were so that I knew how to break them.”

Carbonell expressed his gratitude for the crew members behind the scenes that helped him on the journey. The actor was also thankful for the network that invested so much into reflecting authenticity within the Shōgun world.

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“The support that we got from FX and from [Chairman of FX Networks] John Landgraf was just extraordinary. How he supported Justin and Rachel the entire production was phenomenal. I don’t think we could have been supported any better,” Carbonell shared. “Certainly in my time on the show, what I saw there was unprecedented. Every department was doing things in a phenomenal way to the highest level.”

He continued: “[Everything I learned on the Shōgun set] were truly gifts that help you escape even further into the character. It allows you to really be present in that time period and in that role. So again, it was a gift beyond my dreams to get to play a character like that.”

Carbonell wasn’t surprised to see Shōgun skyrocket to success among critics and fans.

How Nestor Carbonell Drastically Transformed for Role of a Lifetime in Shogun
“SHOGUN” — “Ladies of the Willow World” — Episode 6 (Airs March 26) Pictured (L-R): Shinnosuke Abe as Buntaro, Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX FX

“Typically it starts with what’s on the page. You start with the James Clavell novel and then you go into Justin and Rachel’s adaptation. You see how rich and layered it is and where they’re taking the story. The things they’re choosing to investigate emotionally and culturally and what they did was so extraordinary on the page,” he noted. “At that point, you’re starting off on such an incredible level that you can only hope to add in your small part to that. [You get to] add a layer through your character and advance that story and the message they’re trying to put forth. … You hope naturally that the audience receives it in the way that you envisioned it. Thankfully they did. It really has received a lot of love.”

After all the acclaim and buzz, the series has been renewed for two more seasons. As viewers wait for the Emmy contender (early predictions include nods for Outstanding Drama Series, Production Design, Cinematography, Casting and many more) to start production on new episodes, Carbonell weighed in on his future on the show, and whether he might expand his involvement on the show as an experienced director as well.

“It would be an incredible opportunity and being an actor has certainly helped me make that transition to directing,” he told Us. “Certainly as a director with every opportunity that I get, I’m soaking in the enormous talent around me from every department and picking up things from everyone. It is also about adding to the scenes and the vision at large. So it would be a dream to get to direct and act again on the next season of the show.”

To Carbonell — not to mention critics and fans — Shogun epitomizes the limitless possibilities of prestige TV in 2024.

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“In general what I love about TV now is that we’re really getting to investigate characters in a more profound way than we ever have. Particularly in serialized TV like Shōgun,” he explained. “I love that about television. To truly be able to get invested in a character fully over a number of seasons is unique. It’s extraordinary seeing the character change and making those changes, which is typically something you don’t get to do in a film. I love that about TV.”

It has been a pleasure for Carbonell to find new ways to entertain people through his work, adding, “You’re really moving people and touching people emotionally in a way that is meaningful beyond just escapism, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re able to move people in that way to make them think about life in a certain way, that to me is extraordinary.”

While reflecting on his prolific career, Carbonell shared with Us the lessons he learned over the years.

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Universal Tv/Wolper Organization/Kobal/Shutterstock

“The way that I’ve tried to navigate this business is to look at every opportunity as a gift. Take nothing for granted. It’s a tough business and any time you’re working it is a privilege,” he explained. “There’s a lot of talent out there and to get to work in any capacity in this business is a gift. So I’ve always held onto that.”

It is also all about working as a team, with Carbonell noting, “It truly is a collective effort. Every department comes together and when everybody is running at the highest level, it’s extraordinary what you can achieve collectively.”

Carbonell’s experience has also taught him to appreciate life outside of his job.

“Really ground yourself and find something outside of the business that will completely fill you in a different way. So that you have something to retreat to during the down times,” he detailed. “Find a life outside of this business that you can find balance in and another passion perhaps. Those are the things that I’ve picked up from other people in this business over the years that have certainly helped me.”

Shōgun is currently streaming on Hulu.

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