"Heroes" stars Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura) and Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet) spoke with reporters on a conference call Friday, in which CBR News participated. The actors spoke about college life, terminal illness, and the shorter season that begins September 21.
For Masi Oka, season four of "Heroes" finds his character dealing with a terminal illness. While not entirely clear last year, Oka said having a time travel companion brought it on. "Hiro let someone into his world. The first time he stopped time while touching someone -- in that case, it was Ando -- that was first time he froze time with someone else in that freeze-time world," the actor explained. "That was started the adverse effect in Hiro's brain. The power is meant to have a capacity of one. When you start adding Ando, Suresh, and other people into that world, it just a strain that's put on Hiro's brain." The effect is irreversible and leads Hiro on a journey.
While the actor admitted he did not prepare by studying how people respond to the news of a terminal condition, Oka did admit his mother had a breast cancer scare. "Just talking to my mom and what she had to go through kind of helped me prepare and understand," Oka said. "There's no way to fully understand what an illness does to someone or emotional state or physical state it puts you in, but to show respect."
Oka added that he has not modeled his performance on a particular degenerative or terminal disease. "If I was a good actor, I would've done that," he joked.
"[Claire] is in college with a new best friend and roommate," said Panettiere of Claire Bennett's life for the year. While the actress is uncertain if Claire will be in college throughout the year, the setting introduces something the character has not had since the first season: a close friend. "She's finally got what Zach was: a confidant. Somebody she can tell her secrets to; who she can trust," Panettiere revealed. "That's a very delicate balance that can easily fall apart and one little misstep and her dad will bring Rene the Haitian to wipe their memories."
This character, Gretchen, is played by Madeline Zima. The show will even allude to sexual confusion for Claire due to the closeness of the relationship. "There's a little bit of a flirting with the whole, 'Are we friends? Are we more? Do I have feelings for you in that way?'" Panettiere explained. "Where exactly it's going, I have no idea."
Oka joked, "The two key words are 'flirting' and 'roommate.'"
Meanwhile, the two-man act of Hiro and Ando will change with the coming year. "Unfortunately, it gets broken up because Ando gets married," Oka said. While Ando's marriage to Hiro's sister will make them brothers in some sense, their current situations put them on different paths. "You have that great happy news and Hiro sacrificing himself to make sure other people lives are happy."
Asked if Ando getting powers changed the relationship, Oka said it made them closer partners. "It always changes, but once Ando got his powers, it was more equal footing." Using a comic book analogy, the actor said, "It wasn't more of a Batman and Robin; it became more of a Batman and Superman. There's something to be said to be said about the familiarity of the characters and what the audience wants and expects, but we want the characters to grow."
Looking back on the four years of "Heroes" thus far, Panettiere never guessed the show or her character would go to the places it has. "We've gone to the future and back again. We've gone to the past. We've gone all over the world. We've become good and bad," she reflected. "I think there's nothing but excitement that we all get from that. Especially being a show for hour years, you want nothing but spontaneity and change."
When asked if the actors feel territorial about the characters, Oka replied, "You definitely care about your character because you wear it and you're associated to it." At the same time, he understands a professional actor working in television is generally not the author of a role. "This character is not necessarily your property. It is the property of Tim Kring and NBC/Universal -- and of the audience as well."
Sometimes, Panettiere admited, the audience can be a little scary. "I just got a box to my house for my birthday [from a fan]." The package contained body lotions and dog toys. It also contained a note from the fan. "And she wrote things in it like, 'I'm so glad I'm able to call you friend,' things that were basically saying that she knew me and I have idea who it is. When it gets that close to home, it gets a little nerve-wracking."
This year, "Heroes" will have a nineteen-episode season. Previously, the program had seasons running as long as twenty-five episodes, though its second season was significantly shorter due to the writers strike that year. Oka said the reduced episode order has been "fantastic." "Nineteen [episodes] allows you to be creatively tight. It makes every episode so packed with story, character development and action."
Oka admitted it is nice for the cast and particularly the crew to have the work over a longer stretch. However, the actor believes the longer seasons lead to filler episodes. "You don't just dilute an episode, but an entire storyline," he explained. Unlike the shortened second season, planning for few episodes allows the show to have a sense of pace. "Knowing that we nineteen allows everybody, especially the writers and creators, to come up with that perfect arc."
Finally, asked if Hiro's illness would prove to be fatal, Panettiere responded, "Can you imagine 'Heroes' without Hiro? I can't!" Oka said. "It would be a bold move." He then dubbed the Nathan Petrelli character the "Heroes" version of "South Park's" Kenny, and joked, "I can guarantee that Nathan Petrelli will die this season finale ... every season finale, Nathan will die."