Sunny Days Ahead

Photo courtesy Irvin Rivera

Joanna Sotomura is walking on sunshine these days, thanks to her role in the Apple TV+ original series Sunny.

Things are looking extra bright these days for actress Joanna Sotomura, who stars in the upcoming original series Sunny, which premieres globally July 10 on Apple TV+.

“I’m just beyond excited for it to finally come out and for everyone to finally get to see it,” says Sotomura, a 2005 graduate of ‘Iolani School.

The new drama series, which was filmed in Japan in 2022, follows Suzie Sakamoto (played by Rashida Jones) who loses her husband and young son in a mysterious plane crash.

“She’s just trying to sort of pick up the devastation of her life, and her husband’s tech company that he used to work for gifts her this top-of-the-line homebot who is, for lack of better words, way too sunny of a personality type for the just miserable, broken person that she is,” notes Sotomura. “But together, they form this sort of unlikely friendship and try to figure out what really happened to her husband and her son.”

With the use of groundbreaking technology and practical effects, Sotomura brings to life the character of Sunny — the 3-foot-tall robot given to Suzie.

“It’s my voice and my face, they were tracking all of my facial expressions,” she explains. “And we had two other puppeteers on the side who mimicked my arms and how I would move.

“I’m so excited to see how audiences respond to the show and to Sunny herself and, hopefully, we can continue the story after this season.”

Sotomura, who’s from Hawai‘i Kai, started acting during her first year at ‘Iolani as a seventh-grader. It was a transformative experience that not only helped her find her passion, but also developed her sense of identity, especially at a new school.

“I was pretty lonely and really shy and didn’t know how to make friends,” she remembers. “My parents suggested that I try theater because people have to hang out with you for the three months you’re rehearsing.

“I got Watchman No. 3 in Much Ado About Nothing and was in love. I just ate up Shakespeare and theater, and actually got second in the state my junior year for ‘Iolani at the Hawai‘i Shakespeare competition. I did the Shakespeare Festival for two summers after that and was gonna do theater forever. It was so addicting.”
Sotomura, whose ethnic background is Japanese and German, went on to study theater arts at Loyola Marymount University and, at the suggestion of her professor, expanded into film and television. Since then, she’s been fulfilling her aspirations in Tinseltown, with a growing list of acting credits to her name, including Emma Approved, Barry, NCIS: Los Angeles, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Quarantine.

“I think when I really feel like I hit my stride is when I worked with Wong Fu Productions — these great Asian American YouTube creators, some of the OG creators back in early YouTube (days) — and I did their first movie, Everything Before Us,” shares Sotomura. “Also, I did a web series called Emma Approved, which was the modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and with Wong Fu and Emma Approved, I feel like I just really went into the YouTube stratosphere.

“It was amazing and from there I kept working and auditioning, and then got a small part on Barry on HBO. After that I got this part of Sunny that took me to Tokyo for six months and made me a little robot girl and it was just a dream come true.”

When the cameras aren’t rolling, Sotomura stays busy in her new role as mom to 5-month-old baby Isla. She’s married to cinematographer Eric MacIver.

“It’s everything everyone said and then some,” says Sotomura about motherhood. “It’s more exhausting than you could ever think of and so much more rewarding than I knew I was capable of feeling. And it’s just so surreal that my first baby is also coinciding with my first big show, so it’s a lot coming at me at once and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Home now is in L.A. (where her sister, Samantha, also lives), but Sotomura takes great pride in her island roots. She usually returns to Hawai‘i in the summer, and always for Christmas (her parents, Karen and Joseph Sotomura, own the Waikīkī Christmas Store by Santa’s Pen).

“I miss the kindness (of the people), the warmth and the Hawaiian culture that you cannot recreate anywhere else,” she says. “I definitely miss my family and I miss the food. I miss eating a true authentic poke bowl.”

Looking ahead, Sotomura says her goal is to continue acting forever — she would love a role in an absurd comedy (think Tina Fey) — and hopes to return to theater one day. It’s a road she’s been able to travel because of the many people who believed in her. She recalls her dad shuttling her to auditions in the middle of the school day, and stopping at KC Drive Inn for a waffle dog and peanut butter milkshake on their way back to class.

She credits theater teacher David Saito with turning her “really shy, awkward, nervous space” into one of fun and exploration. And when she went off to college to pursue acting, which may have seemed like a “far-fetched dream,” her mom told her, “Never apologize for your dream.” She took that to heart.

“I feel like so often in this career you’re trying to do the next job and the next thing and you’re going and you’re moving and you’re like, OK, great,” says Sotomura. “It’s very easy to forget where you started … even just talking about this now, it’s the first time I really reflected on her, that girl (in seventh grade) in a while.

“I would say (to someone who may be that girl now) find your tribe. If you want to get into theater, it’s a great way to make friends, especially with people who have your same sort of energy and wavelength. Don’t be hard on yourself … the weird, quirky, awkward stuff about you is probably what makes you so amazing, unique and talented, and you can bring your own fun, quirky voice to a lot of the characters that you play.

“And,” she adds, “never apologize for your dreams.”