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A Hiro In His Own Time: Talking with “Heroes'” Masi Oka

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
A Hiro In His Own Time: Talking with “Heroes'” Masi Oka
Masi Oka as Hiro in NBC’s “Heroes”
All images are from the January 22nd episode “Godsend”

This past week, NBC hosted a conference call with “Heroes” Star Masi Oka, and Oka fielded questions from CBR News and the rest of the assembled press about the show (which was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for best drama series) and how its success has changed his life.


The digital-effects artist turned thespian (who reportedly still splits his time between ILM and his acting gigs) was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor, and even though acting is a far cry from computer science and a mathematics degree, Oka said if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t change a thing. “I loved computer science and all the mathematics. Acting as a profession came more as an afterthought, I never really thought of it as something I would pursue,” Oka said. “I don’t think I would have changed anything, because I think every choice you make, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, any mistakes I’ve made have led me to where I am now.”


As for landing the role of Hiro, while it may seem perfectly suited to Oka’s acting sensibilities now, during casting he had to go through a tough four round audition process to get it. “It was grueling but, pretty much I knew after the second round, the producers and the writers were winking at me and saying, ‘Don’t mess up, because it’s yours to lose,'” said Oka “And I figure it’s a very niche role, there are not many actors who can speak fluid Japanese and have a comedic background and have a lot of experience. I felt that, ‘Wow, if it’s not this role, when would it be?’


“Actually, Hiro was an afterthought,” Oka continued. “He wasn’t in the original pilot, and [‘Heroes’ creator Tim Kring] had a little guardian angel tell him, ‘Everyone is not happy about having their powers. You need to add a character that is actually ecstatic about having their powers.’ so he added Hiro in the second draft.”

Oka revealed that his character’s power to manipulate time and space is “attached to his emotional state. “We’ll learn later on what that means, we see Hiro kind of lose control of his powers,” Oka said. Earlier in the season, a black-clad, English-fluent, samurai-sword wielding Hiro of the future visited Peter Petrelli and warned him about the end of the world. “The second half of the season is definitely focused about Hiro and his quest for his sword, which he believes will let him focus his power and get back the control over his power.” The actor, who counts Kendo (Japanese fencing) among his hobbies, is hopeful that he’ll have the opportunity to participate in a fair amount of swordplay on screen.

In the latest painting by Isaac Mendez, the hero whose ability to paint future has informed the leads’ quest to save the world, a katana-wielding Hiro is apparently locked in mortal combat with a dinosaur. “Our show has always realized Isaac’s paintings, so we know it comes to fruition in one form or another,” Oka said. “And from what I understand, we will see future Hiro again in that form, I think sometime in this season. I gotta say, the biggest compliment is when people come up to me and say, ‘So, who’s that guy who played future Hiro? He kind of looks like you, but he’s not. I think that’s the best compliment you can get as an actor.”


The character of Hiro recently underwent a heartbreaking turn when he failed in his ability to retroactively save the life of a diner waitress named Charlie, with whom Hiro had fallen in love. “Hiro’s definitely come to the realization that he can’t change the past,” Oka said. And the character’s recent tragedy has definitely tempered the childlike enthusiasm that has come to be synonymous with Hiro. “Charlie has affected him, so he can’t be all goofy and jokey all the time anymore, but there is a sense that Hiro is supposed to be the comedic relief within the bunch. So. that’s the hardest thing, to maintain that aspect of realism and comedy grounded in truth and to find opportune moments for it to be real for Hiro to come out and be funny.” Oka confirmed that there is going to be another love interest for Hiro somewhere down the line, and that he is currently as single as his onscreen counterpart.


“Every time I open a script, it’s always been amazing,” Oka said. “You do start to conjecture in terms of what’s going to happen in the future. At times I’ve thought about pitching ideas to the writers, but the biggest mystery of the show is how the writers keep on coming up with new stuff and keep on topping themselves week after week after week. And I’ve actually gotten a little tidbit of even how season two’s gonna start, and I was like a kid a candy store when I heard what was gonna happen.”


Oka told the assembled journalists that the show’s writers have everything planned out. “I usually don’t like to find out things too much ahead of time, because I love discovering things and taking the journey with Hiro,” he said. “I only find out things that I need to know so it plays truthfully. Tim Kring talked about more of an origins episode, but at the current time I think we’re just asking everyone to kind of take a leap of faith. That’s not what the show is about right now in terms of where these things came from, but rather what people are gonna do with their powers in the journey that they’re taking to save the world. Eventually it will definitely be answered, as you know, the show has been very good about answering questions.”


As far as the possibility of actual time travel goes, Oka isn’t ruling it out. He cited Edwin Abbott’s book “Flatland” and launched into a discussion about time and the fourth dimension. “But I don’t want to bore you with those details. See if you can find a flux capacitor and you’ll be fine,” Oka quipped. Oka is fascinated by the ancient Mayans, and admitted that if he had the power to travel back in time to any point in history he would go back and observe their culture and civilization.

Oka said the fact that the show’s ensemble cast only interact sporadically keeps the show fresh for the actors and the fans alike. “It’s kind of cool, because every time you do get to work with another member of the cast, it’s magic, because you realize this might be the last time, so let’s make the most out of it,” he said. “So every time you see a new pairing, it’s kind of refreshing to the audience, but they’ll also see a heightened performance from everyone.”


“Star Trek” vet George Takei will do a two-episode stint in the second half of “Heroes'” first season as Hiro’s father. “He has a lot of expectations of his son, and Hiro is his only male son and is expected to kind of be the heir to his company,” Oka said. “Because of that, he kind of views Hiro’s journey to be very childish and foolish, so I think he wants him to grow up. And Hiro’s always kind of seen his father as an intimidating father, and someone who he always have to live up to. We’ll see a little bit of that conflict in the reason why his dad came to find Hiro in America.


“When were not shooting, he would tell these wonderful stories,” Oka said, before launching into a pitch-perfect impression of the TV legend. “And when action is called, he turns into this menacing, mean guy, and it’s quite intimidating to see him work. But he was a wonderful person to work with, and hopefully he’ll come back. I’d love to see more of him.”


Oka, who had a recurring roll on “Scrubs” before his big break in “Heroes,” has been in talks for a while to reprise his role on the NBC medical comedy. “Originally we were gonna do it before the break, but the problem was they’d already written all the episodes, and they said, ‘We’d like to put you in a bigger part, but if you’re pressed for time, we could stick you in as a cameo.’ And we all agreed, I think it would be funner if we did something bigger,” Oka said. “We’re gonna try to find something within this year, 2007.”


When Oka first received word of his Golden Globe nomination, “tears of joy” were the order of the day. “Emotions were overwhelming, and the first person I called was my mother,” Oka said. “To be honest with you, I probably would have the same reaction if our show was the only one that got nominated as well.”

Oka likens his newfound fame to the “power of a hot woman.” “There was a guy walking by with a cell phone, and I was just walking past him, and he noticed me and kind of turned his head, and like opened his mouth and dropped his cell phone,” he said. “I do have to say, with my newfound quote unquote ‘celebrity status’ I definitely would love to get involved more with charities.”


Oka said he has more than a passing interest in trying his hand behind the camera. “In season three or four I would love to get to direct an episode and learn more about the production aspects,” he said. “In fact, I think, if there is an episode that I might not be in, I might shadow a director and learn more about that aspect.”


Oka admitted that it is no easy task keeping track of the level of his accent that the time-jumping Hiro should have at any given moment. And he says that he does make a conscious effort to enhance his performance in the scenes that he knows are going to be subtitled. “You need to communicate more without words. So I think intentionally I try to find a line where I push a little bit, but not too much where it doesn’t feel like it’s real and grounded,” Oka said. “Of course, if you go to Japan, people will think I’m overacting.”


“Heroes” has not yet aired in Japan, but Oka’s family are already starting the buzz in his native land. And Oka was quick to note that the bootleg copies that his mother had made while she was in America are not for resale. “I do take pride in the fact that I am Japanese, and I wanted to make sure that [Hiro] was played correctly, as a Japanese person should. I do a lot of research on my own, in terms of translating my own scripts, making sure I’m using the correct colloquialism, or whatever is appropriate for the time.”


Oka attributes the success of the show to “a collaboration of a creative vision and input from all sides, whether it’s acting, writing, director, even our prop people. Everybody’s definitely weighing in, and it’s great because I think that’s was good about the industry, the collaboration.”


Oka knew as early as the pilot that they were making something special with “Heroes,” but he did not expect the show to take off like it did. “We knew we had the genre audience after Comic Con [International], but when the audience reacted as they have, it’s a wonderful surprise and we’re just so grateful.”

As to why the superhero genre remains so popular, Oka borrowed his explanation from “Heroes” creator Tim Kring. “In this world, we have a lot of uncertainty and chaos, there’s a lot of things that are messed up. And I think everyone likes to hold onto something or feel that there’s some sort of hope, that there are superheroes out there in the world who is doing something to change this world and make it a better place.” Oka’s own favorite superhero is a little more down to earth. “My superhero in real life is my Mom – anyone who can raise a son as a single mother is a hero in itself.”


The coming of the second half of season one is heralded by a new tagline: “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” is going the way of the dinosaur, to be replaced by “Are you on the list?” “I think the first half was definitely about the discovery and now the second half is more about the realization and the growth with their powers,” Oka said.


“Every little moment, small ones, big ones, they all add up and make this entire experience a truly surreal one,” Oka said. “I mean, I wish I had Hiro’s powers, I’d love to just like stop this moment in time right now and just enjoy it for the rest of my life.”


Fans of “Heroes” should also check out CBR’s “Behind The Eclipse” series of weekly Q&A interviews with the writers of the show. The latest edition can be found here. “Behind The Eclipse” returns on January 22nd.


And now as a special bonus, CBR News is proud to present more images depicting the cast of “Heroes” in the upcoming episode entitled “Godsend.”

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