Over four seasons of “Heroes,” Ando Masahashi has gone from generic office worker to superpowerless sidekick to full-fledged hero with his own unique powers – and according to James Kyson Lee, the actor who plays Ando, he’s just getting started.
“I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface,” Lee told CBR News in an exclusive interview. “I’d like to do some more action, which we’ve had a little bit of this year but mostly just in comedic situations. That’s fun, but next season I’d like to see him go more into battle mode, going head-to-head with guys like Samuel [Robert Knepper] and Sylar [Zachary Quinto] to see who comes out on top.”
Indeed, Lee is already looking towards a fifth year of “Heroes,” despite the show’s declining ratings and the fact that the fourth season finale hasn’t even aired yet. But the actor’s positivity stems from the belief that new media is helping “Heroes” find a wider audience than ever before, and the story, Lee insists, is far from over.
CBR spoke with Lee about his work as Ando, his character’s relationship with the time-traveling Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), his feelings on new media and the potential sixth volume of “Heroes,” tentatively titled “Brave New World.”
CBR News: James, Ando has been a part of “Heroes” since the beginning and has had quite the journey in getting his own powers and becoming less of a sidekick to Hiro. For you personally, how do you feel Ando has evolved?
James Kyson Lee: I think it started with last year when the writers gifted me with the powers and Hiro reverted back to [the mentality of] a ten year-old. Ando had to take a little bit of charge and take the lead. Last season and this year has been more about them being partners in crime. We started a business together called “Dial-A-Hero” and they’ve evolved into a dynamic duo with their own individual identities, personalities and different kinds of abilities. I think that they compliment each other pretty well. I shoot lasers, the lightning power, out of my hands, and he can travel through time. Depending on the situation, we’re able to combine and get each other out of jams.
The last couple of weeks have been a lot of fun with Hiro only speaking in pop culture references. I thought that was great! [Laughs] I thought it was a great homage from the writers to the sci-fi and comic book fans to see if they could track along and recognize where the references were coming from. We had everything from “Back to the Future” to “Highlander” to “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica,” so it was fun to play Sherlock Holmes for a few episodes, trying to put the pieces together. We finally get Suresh out of a mental institution, and I thought that was a really fun episode, where they threw [Suresh] in with us and we became the Three Stooges pulling a “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I felt that the fun came back on the show and people really enjoyed that.
I also thought that “Pass/Fail” was one of my favorite episodes, not only of the season, but of the show. It felt so different, you know? You were experiencing the show in a way that you really haven’t before.
It’s interesting, because “Heroes” has had dream sequences and vision sequences before, but “Pass/Fail” had serious life-or-death stakes at play. The vision of Hiro’s trial with you as his lawyer is juxtaposed against Hiro on an operating table fighting for his life, while Ando helplessly watches from a distance.
Yeah, it was interesting to be a part of both worlds. Even though the court trial was part of a dream, the way they juxtaposed English and Japanese and these characters from different parts of Hiro’s life coming together, and we sort of addressed the whole moral conflict, too. When you have an ability to bend space and time and you’re doing these antics to try and change history, it’s going to catch up with you. It kind of did with Hiro. I was trying to do my best impression of Atticus Finch in there. [Laughs] But the whole episode was really fun to film and work on. These are the types of episodes you look forward to working on as an actor.
You mentioned time travel, and while it’s a complicated element of the series that hasn’t gone without some criticism from reviewers and fans, it has brought about some interesting stuff for Ando as a character, especially this season where he’s now in a romantic relationship with Hiro’s sister. When you look at it that way, is it hard to find too much fault with the concept because it gives you a lot to do as an actor, or do you see it as sort of a tricky balancing act?
I think that this season, the way it was justified is that Hiro had a bucket list and he had to correct some of the mistakes in his past. One of those was that ,because of a selfish act, Ando and Kimiko were sort of left apart for a majority of their lives. It gave the idea that they were meant to be together, but Hiro had to go back and undo his mistake. I think it creates a more interesting relationship, because we’re sort of like this one big family. Hiro’s parents aren’t around anymore and his sister is looking after the company, I’m looking after the company and we don’t know whether Hiro is going to make it out alive. I think it’s an interest progression of the relationship and it brings a new sense of maturity to Ando, being engaged to Hiro’s sister.
This season, Hiro has been suffering from a brain tumor. How has the uncertainty of Hiro’s fate affected your performance as Ando?
This season, I felt a lot of empathy towards Hiro. Anyone who has gone through a family member not feeling well or [faced the possibility of] of losing someone can relate to the emotional struggle that’s dealt with here, so I had that on my mind. With “Pass/Fail,” the question is, was Hiro’s mom able to heal him in that dream? We’ve always said that it would take a miracle to heal his tumor, and we get to see if that worked or not. But it was definitely a positive sign that he made it out of the operation. We’ll see. It’s one of the things that we’ll address more in the next couple of episodes, but I’m hoping that [Ando and Hiro] will be together in their adventures for a while.
One of the most interesting moments for Ando took place last season when he got his red lightning superpower. Ando suddenly goes from being one of the show’s few everymen to having powers just like the majority of the cast. Were you excited about the development or did you miss playing a more ordinary character?
It was definitely interesting, and I loved the way they installed it. They started with the flash-forward with the scene in the future [where Ando electrocutes Hiro], but they took about twelve episodes to really lead up to the moment where I inject myself with the formula, so it wasn’t a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am sort of deal; it was very integrated into the storyline to make it believable with the series of events that happened.
The thing that I like about Ando’s power is that we haven’t utilized it in every episode. We save it for special occasions, so the power is just the icing on the cake for Ando. This season, you almost forgot that he had a power, and then when it was brought out as we’re escaping the mental institution and Ando uses electroshock therapy on Hiro’s brain, it adds that much more of an effect and weight because we didn’t immediately go there. I like the fact that it’s not overused, and it leaves room to be explored more in the next season as he learns how to use it not only better, but going through warrior mode a bit more.
Something that’s been discussed a fair amount online is the fact that the ratings for “Heroes” aren’t what they used to be. Is that something that worries you, or do you try not to focus on it too much?
I’m not worried about it all, because I think that it’s very misperceived. We have a larger audience than ever, but they’re completely scattered in so many different platforms. People are watching “Heroes” not only on television but mostly on the computer and on their iPods and phones. They’re doing NetFlix, Amazon, Hulu, NBC, DVDs, you name it. It’s amazing how fast technology has evolved even in the past four years. The way people are watching media has changed completely. It’s very rare for people to sit down at the given hour for a live airing. People are watching it at their own time in so many different ways, so the traditional Nielson ratings system doesn’t apply to us anymore.
In many ways, we’ve been a very good example of this new generation show that’s embraced new media and can connect to audiences on different platforms. I like that a lot of [the cast] is on Twitter and Facebook and the fact that “Heroes” has several different websites and the graphic novels and webisodes we’ve been doing. There’s talk of a video game. There are so many different ways to provide content so that people can experience it in different ways. The big thing this year was 3-D high definition – they want to bring “Avatar” into your living room. How awesome would it be if a couple of years down the road, we’re able to experience “Heroes” in 3-D? It would be unbelievable, and the technology is there.
I know that Greg Grunberg has stated that he believes that there will be a fifth season of “Heroes” and that this upcoming season finale does not act as a series finale.
I agree. It will wrap up some of the storylines pretty nicely, but it’s a nice transition into our sixth volume, which is tentatively titled “Brave New World.” It goes into the idea of trying to create a society where people with special abilities can coexist out in the open. If that were the case, how would it look and what are the possibilities? I think there’s room for a lot of different explorations and story arcs for the characters we have, so I’m excited for that. I think a show like ours ultimately deserves a satisfactory conclusion and I think we’re a couple of years away from that.
Wrapping up, can you give us a glimpse at how the rest of season five is going to play out?
There is going to be a very interesting reunion a couple of episodes from now, so the season finale will definitely be something to look forward to. We’re hoping that we can join forces with some of the other characters and we’ll find out exactly what Samuel’s motives are. He’s going towards a path of destruction, so we’re going to try and prevent that from happening.
“Heroes” airs on Monday nights at 9:00 PM EST / 8:00 PM CST on NBC.