Living in New York City, I’m used to a big crowd, but Tokyo, Japan gave me a run for my money with a population of almost 14 million! The bustle of the city is part of what makes it so enchanting, but what’s even more magical is that against all odds, walking through the famously crowded Shibuya crosswalk, I was spotted by one of the only residents of Japan I know—the legendary actor, Sean Nichols.
That’s right folks, Ultraman Max’s very own, Sean White, spotted my mop of hair in a crowd of thousands. Guess those Defense Action Squad Hero observational skills still come in handy 17 years later!
I knew that an interview was meant to be and so the two of us made our way to an Okonomiyaki restaurant nearby. Sean taught me how to make delicious savory pancakes with batter, meat, and veggies on a hot plate. As we flipped our pancakes, I asked him about how he went from being an American kid from Washington DC to an actor on the most loved franchise in Japan.
NOOB: So, tell me a little bit about your first encounter with Ultraman. Had you seen the show before you were on it?
SEAN: Well, when I was growing up in Washington DC, they used to air Ultraman episodes the minute my school day ended. I would run home from elementary school to watch it, but I’d always end up missing the first five minutes. I never got to see the opening theme!
NOOB: Luckily all the old episodes are available now so you can finally see those intros.
SEAN: Exactly. But yeah, it was the most interesting thing on TV. Unfortunately, they stopped airing it on that network after a while so I hadn’t encountered Ultraman again till I got into acting many years later.
NOOB: As an American, how did you get into acting in Japanese television?
SEAN: Right out of college I moved to Japan to work for their new National Basketball Association office. While I was there, I had a friend who was also a foreigner, and he had a job with this agency where he reviewed Japanese tourist locations. It sounded super cool so I asked if he could get me a job like that.
One day he called me out of the blue and said they were looking for foreigners to do a show. They cast me along with two other American guys and we all pretended to be brothers from Arizona, exploring Japanese sports through an American lens.
NOOB: So that’s how you got your foot in the door.
SEAN: Yeah, that was in 1998, so at that point I was still working my day job during the week and filming on the weekends.
Once three years had gone by and the show was over, I ended up signing to the agency that got me the role. They booked me on like 5 or 6 educational kids shows on the national broadcasting channel in Japan, NHK.
NOOB: Wow! You worked a day job and filmed that many shows?
SEAN: Yep! I even did Manzai for a while, which is the Japanese equivalent of a stand-up comedy duo. The agency had me and another American guy paired up as the straight man and the fall guy. I guess between that and the educational shows, I got noticed and picked up a role on another NHK kids show that was more serious.
I couldn’t only film on weekends anymore, I had to take days off work. At that point I was working for a big Japanese advertising agency. I thought I could juggle being on the show and going to my day job without getting caught, but the show was so popular people at the office who had kids began to notice.
NOOB: Did you get in any trouble?
SEAN: Well, one day I got a call from my boss’s boss telling me to go to his office. I’m all like “oh no the jig is up, they’re gonna fire me!” So, I walk in and he tells me he knows I’m on the show. I’m trying to save myself, overexplaining, talking fast, when he goes “my daughter loves the show, can we take a photo together?” I couldn’t believe it! He told me I could keep working both jobs as long as the clients were getting what they wanted.
NOOB: That’s amazing! So how did you go from that to Ultraman Max?
SEAN: While it was in preproduction one of the producers of the series also had a kid who watched that NHK show. He noticed me on TV and I guess he was impressed that I was a foreigner that could speak Japanese and had a presence in Japanese media so he decided he wanted me on Ultraman Max.
NOOB: You were the first foreigner in any Ultraman series, right?
SEAN: Yes, in fact there really weren’t any foreigners on Japanese television at the time. I guess Tsuburaya wanted to be part of changing that, but the funny thing is, I had left the agency I was originally with so when they tried to reach out to me, they had no luck. Back then there was no social media, they thought they’d never get in touch.
NOOB: How’d they find you?
SEAN: I just happened to be at a friend’s house for a party when he told me there was someone there who was looking for me. It turns out it was the assistant of the producer who wanted me for Ultraman Max, the one who had been trying to reach me! Life is weird right?
NOOB: You were destined to play Sean White! Did you have to audition or was the role already yours?
SEAN: They told me the role was basically mine, but I still had to audition on formality since they had essentially given up on finding me and already put out a casting call. I didn’t realize how many people I’d be up against though!
When I got there and I saw everyone waiting to audition, and I was the only foreigner, I was definitely intimidated. Eventually I was one of the last guys there and after doing a chemistry read with Nobuyuki Ogawa, who played Koba Kenjiro, we both got the parts the same day.
NOOB: Was the role written for a foreigner or did they have to change it to fit you?
SEAN: Originally it was going to be a Japanese character named Tabata but when they cast me, they were like “okay his name is Sean and he’s white so let’s call him Sean White.”
NOOB: That’s hilarious, I almost don’t believe you!
SEAN: I swear, I swear!
NOOB: Okay so at this point you’re officially playing Sean White on Ultraman Max. How did it feel to join the production?
SEAN: I’d worked on shows before so I knew how to navigate a production but Ultraman has the tokusatsu element so there was a lot more shooting on location in Shibuya or going out to the countryside to film the practical effects like explosions—It was really fun!
NOOB: What was your experience working with the other actors on the show?
SEAN: It was a great cast; we had a really cool mix of people. Sota Aoyama, who played Kaito, was the fresh-faced lead, Kai Shishido was our celebrity actor and he played our chief commander Hijikata. Then of course there’s Hikari Mitsushima who played Elly the robot. She’s a huge actress now, one of the most famous women in Japan! They were all smart, caring, and very nice. I spent the most time with Ogawa (Koba) since we were in so many scenes together and we got very close.
NOOB: Do you still keep in touch with any of them now that it’s been 17 years since the show aired?
SEAN: Oh of course! I try to get together with everyone at least once a year. We really became a part of each other’s lives on Ultraman Max. I remember there was a key moment for all of us the first time we were all together waiting to try on our costumes and no one was talking. I remember thinking “oh man I hope it’s not quiet and awkward between all of us the whole time we’re filming.”
After a few minutes I was like, “Alright, I’m gonna be the guy to do this. We need to be a family. Let’s play an ice breaker game!” So, we all asked each other questions and really got to know each other. We broke down all the barriers and after that we all became great friends.
NOOB: How did your life change once Ultraman Max premiered?
SEAN: For starters I went from having mostly 5-year-old fans from the NHK channel to having fans of all ages. Ultraman Max’s demographic was mostly kids 10 to 15 but their parents grew up watching Ultraman, so they’d tune in too. I think that’s one of the coolest parts of the Ultraman franchise, the way that it’s so multi-generational because kids have been growing up with it for over 50 years.
NOOB: Did you ever feel pressure or get stressed out knowing all of Japan was watching?
SEAN: I didn’t find it to be stressful. Tsuburaya organizes everything very well, they were super welcoming and professional. The most stressful thing I had to do was wake up super early to travel to location but I took some pretty good naps on the buses!
NOOB: Ultraman means so much to so many people, you must’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of admiration.
SEAN: Ha-ha, well I wasn’t a JPOP idol being swarmed on the street by fans but, you know, I’ve definitely been recognized by Ultraman fans. I actually realized how much Ultraman is expanding as a franchise when I was in Indonesia about 10 years after Ultraman Max came out in Japan. I guess it was the first time it had aired on television in Indonesia, but so many people were recognizing me, even though it had been so long since I was on the show!
It used to be if you missed the show’s airing, you just completely missed it. Now there’s a million ways to catch up including the YouTube channel, UltramanConnection.com, the DVD box sets, streaming services. A whole new world of people are now able to watch the show and that expansion has been really cool.
NOOB: What was the best thing about joining a franchise that had so much support already?
SEAN: I feel like I was really welcomed into the Ultraman family. And the Ultraman family isn’t just the actors who work on the show, it’s the people who work behind the scenes, it’s the whole fandom. There’s just a good energy that comes out of everyone who loves Ultraman. I didn’t feel like I was on a pedestal when fans would come up to me, it was more like, “Hey Sean! Welcome to the family.”
NOOB: So, what are you up to now and how did you end up staying a part of that Ultraman family?
SEAN: Well, Takeshi Yagi, who was one of the top director/producers on Ultraman—super cool guy by the way—he was celebrating the 15th anniversary of Ultraman Max by putting together an anthology book, each chapter written by a different cast member about their experience working on the show.
There was a representative from Tsuburaya there to oversee the writing process, assist with the interviews, and fact check, but I had recognized her immediately. She had been fresh out of college, working as a PR person on Ultraman Max as her first job, and now 15 years later she’s the director of PR for Tsuburaya! When we realized how far back we went, we got to talking and she encouraged me to come on and assist with the global expansion of Ultraman.
NOOB: The bonds you created on that show are so strong! It seems like you grew alongside some pretty stellar people and there was a true sense of community that’s been carried on even till now.
SEAN: For sure. In fact, being so in-sync with Tsuburaya’s goals of growing internationally is kind of what started the idea for UltramanConnection.com!
NOOB: So, if it weren’t for Ultraman Max, neither of us would have a job right now!
SEAN: Ha-ha, exactly. But yeah, we wanted to figure out a way to reach the rest of the world during a time when we couldn’t go to the rest of the world, if you remember the website went up right in the middle of the first wave of Covid.
The Ultraman live shows were just picking up at the time, but how could we do a live show when congregating is banned? Well, what if we try streaming it? Since then, we’ve streamed every live show and thus Ultraman Connection Live was born. They made me the MC since I was the one pushing for all this. Now it’s been over a year and it’s been a great experience. We have an open dialogue with the fans, we’re always trying to grow and listen to feedback. This whole process has been a really nice re-entry into the Ultraman franchise for me.
NOOB: They brought you to the screen in every home in Japan, now you’re helping to bring Ultraman to the screen internationally.
SEAN: I just want to pay it forward and return the favor. Working for Ultraman content creation on this end has been great and figuring out how to bring all the content to the world in an effective way has been my main focus. I really do enjoy it.
NOOB: That’s great to hear! Thank you so much for sharing today, it’s been fascinating to hear your experience.
SEAN: Thank you!
Sean Nichols is now the host of Ultraman Connection and makes many appearances at international Ultraman events such as this past summer’s Anime Expo 2022. He’s a staple in the Ultraman franchise, and to this day is the only American to appear as a regular in a live-action Ultraman television series!
He also is fantastic at choosing restaurants, evidenced by how fast both of us wolfed down our Okonomiyaki. It was a pleasure to run into him, and an even bigger pleasure to interview him. Stay on the lookout for more Sean Nichols content here on UltramanConnection.com!