Exclusive: Heroes’ Hiro, Masi Oka

A few months ago, Superhero Hype! ran exclusive interviews with Tim Kring, creator of the new hit NBC show Heroes, the show’s writer/co-executive producer Jeph Loeb and Hayden Panetiere who plays the indestructible cheerleader Claire.

Around the same time, we had a chance to talk with Masi Oka, who plays Hiro Nakamura, the Japanese office worker and comic geek, who suddenly finds himself with powers over time and space. At the time, we knew that Hiro would be popular but who could guess that he’d be more popular than every other character on the show combined, as seen by our current poll (see main page)? It makes sense, since Hiro is the funniest character on the show, playing up to the geek in all of us.

Now that the show has exploded, Masi’s probably living large, ridin’ around in limos with hot semi-clad women like P. Diddy, but Superhero Hype! had a chance to talk to him before he became a superstar, so enjoy this exclusive chat with the man behind the funniest and most powerful character on Heroes.

Superhero Hype!: First off, I want to say that you’re my favorite character on the show by far.

Masi Oka: Thank you very much.

SHH!: Did you get a chance to attend the panel at Comic-Con in San Diego in July?

Oka: Yes, we got a chance to go to San Diego Comic-Con. It was unfortunate that we didn’t get to see the floor, ’cause I would have loved to have seen it, but we were able to go down and do our presentation, do a Q ‘n’ A and then drive right back.

SHH!: How was the reaction to your character at the screening? Were you there for that?

Oka: I got to see a little bit of it, but I guess the crowd reacted well. It was very cool, because I realize that Hiro is kind of representative of all the comic book geeks. I myself am a big Manga freak as well, so I was just happy that I could give it justice, and it seemed like a lot of the audience members did connect to the character, so that was very cool.

SHH!: You’ve done a lot of TV work, but I guess this might be your most prominent role?

Oka: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of TV, I think over 30 episodes and I’ve had a lot of recurring characters on “Scrubs” and “Luis” but this is the most prominent series regular role I’ve had.

SHH!: How did you find about it or how did Tim Kring find you?

Oka: It was through the audition process. Even though I’ve worked a lot in the past, I’m not a quote-unquote name like Greg Grunberg or Ali Larter, so I had to go through the four-round auditioning process for the pilot. After the second round, I had a feeling that it was pretty much mine to lose, so I better not screw up in the next two rounds.

SHH!: What was that audition process like? Was the character described to you or were you given scenes from the first episode?

Oka: What happens in the audition process is that they give you a breakdown of what the character’s going to be like in the script and your agent or representative submits you. In the pilot, you go through four rounds, the first round is just for the casting director, the second round is for Tim [Kring], the third round is for the studio, the fourth is for the network. They kind of whittle you down slowly every round and it gets a lot more intense and pressure-filled later on. The first round I had to do three scenes out of the pilot and the second round, I think I did only one. I think after the second round, they kind of knew who they were looking for, so they were comfortable with just doing one scene ’cause it had seven lines. It was pretty amazing to go through this process and know that your whole life can change with seven lines.

SHH!: Had Tim or anyone seen you on “Scrubs” before you auditioned?

Oka: I’m not sure. They didn’t say anything, but going through the process, they were giving me the wink and the nudge, so I had the feeling they were definitely on my side and rooting for me.

SHH!: You were actually born in Japan?

Oka: I was born in Japan. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 6, but I had to go to Saturday school, kind of like Hebrew School but for Japanese folks. Saturday school in Los Angeles is for the worker families who live in Japan and have an L.A. branch and they send their entire family there so they get to keep their education, but the Saturday school here what you have is not only learn the language but learn math, science, history, society, on top of that what we would call English in our elementary school, learning literary stuff and how to write and read. It was a pretty intense, literally condensed Japanese education in one day.

SHH!: So at the age of 6, you were still learning Japanese culture on top of the normal American education?

Oka: I also read a lot of Mangas and watched a lot of TV shows from Japan. I was kind of bummed out because growing up, all the kids were making fun of me. It was bad enough that I was a big math and science geek, but to have school on a sixth day while everyone else was playing and doing soccer and stuff. “Mom! Can’t I just not do anything, just watch Saturday morning cartoons?” I remember pretending to be sick a lot to watch my “Saturday Morning Arcade” but in retrospect, I’m so thankful that my mom forced me to go, because I still feel connected to my culture, especially now, I get to use it in my acting.

SHH!: How did you get into acting and doing television?

Oka: It was pretty much in college. Elementary and high school I had a touch of it, but when I went to college, I realized I wanted to actually study it as a major, and I did theatre arts as part of my collegiate degree, and it was very cool. I love the idea of breaking labels and stereotypes. In high school, I was on the math team, chess team, computer team, all that. It was very very focused on one side of the brain. College is kind of a spiritual education and a social education, so it was time for me to grow as a human being. I wanted to kind of break the mold and try something else. I knew theatre was kind of cool, and I thought it was a great study as a human being, and I just fell in love with it. It also opened my mind and you get to see things from all different perspective and get to meet a lot of different, interesting people. I was very fortunate to be able to carry it on after I graduated.

SHH!: I saw that you play all sorts of different Asian characters, not just Japanese, so how do you get into the head of a different nationality than your own?

Oka: The accent is pretty different. I don’t speak Chinese, and when I go out on auditions, I let them know. That’s one thing. Japanese I can speak fluently, but I can’t speak Korean or Chinese fluently. I’m a pretty good learner of languages, but if you’re asking me to improvise, I can’t. In terms of how I approach the character, there are definitely similarities of Asian characters. It’s kind of critical in some senses because I do take the stereotypes of the other Asian races and kind of apply that, but then make it into a realistic of how I would portray it. The point-of-view is going to be the same, I feel, from an Asian perspective, it’s just the way it’s delivered.

SHH!: Except for maybe “Lost”, there haven’t been many main Asian characters on shows, so is there a lot of competition for these parts?

Oka: There’s definitely competition per se. Luckily, this character was very niche in terms of it had to be fluently Japanese, and there’s not many actors out there who are fluent in Japanese and have a lot of experience, especially in the American TV world, so it was like the right place at the right time kind of thing, and I’m so fortunate that Tim has this vision of the character. It’s cool because the character was very much an extension of who I am in many ways. It’s like, “Oh My God! This is THE role for me!”

SHH!: So you have some pretty cool powers. In the pilot, we weren’t quite sure if he really had powers or not, but were you excited by what you may be able to do with them?

Oka: Absolutely, This is like a dream come true. It’s a two-fer first of all! Just having teleportation or chronokinesis is bitching, but to have both… that’s like a two-for-one deal! I personally think that Hiro is just overpowered and he needs to be nursed a little. That’s just me, but don’t tell the writers that! I think that’s so frickin’ awesome. The great thing about it is that I know I’ll be working with a lot of special effects stuff because of that, and that’s always a joy for me, because I used to work at Industrial Light & Magic, so I know how it works on the backside, so now I get to see the front of it, so it’s a cool mix.

SHH!: Is it dangerous for a comic geek like Hiro to have so much power?

Oka: Usually, it would be dangerous, but because it’s Hiro, I don’t think it is. The comics are his bible, so he learned about “truth and justice and the American way”, so he follows that motto, the creed, of being good and using his power for good. He’s such a kid, he’s innocent, he’s a wide-eyed wanderer. He just loves the sense of adventure and he feels it’s destiny to use his power for good. If it were someone else, it might be different, but because he grew up on this fantasy and has a clear vision of good vs. evil, he sticks to the creed of being good and using the power for helping others and saving the world.

SHH!: Did you actually get to shoot your scenes in New York and Tokyo or was it all green screen magic?

Oka: I have to break it to you. It was all in green screen L.A. Sorry, that’s Hollywood magic for you, but it looked great! Even I was surprised when I saw the final cut. “Wow! I’m in New York!” And I was only imagining it. It was a lot cleaner and prettier than I imagined it.

SHH!: Has your character had a chance to meet Ali or Hayden’s character yet?

Oka: Slowly. I haven’t met Hayden yet. There is a connection to Ali that is being made. What’s great about this series is that these connections are going to be made relatively soon. Tim came up with an amazing vision, and then you have all these wonderful writers from other shows like “Lost,” “Smallville,” “Everwood,” “Wonder Falls” who came to our show and added on to Tim’s vision. Tim didn’t come from a comic book background, so these writers knew what worked and what didn’t work. They’ve gone through the “lab rat” phase and now they’re bringing all the great stuff that worked in serialized “genre” television into “Heroes.” One of the things they do is they answer as many questions as they ask. Instead of stringing along and keep on teasing the audience and not answering questions, they answer the questions, but they also ask as many for the next episode. That’s what keeps you constantly motivated to see the next script. Every time I get the script, I’m like, “Oh my God! That is so cool! I would never guess that!” and like “That’s how it ends! What’s going to happen next!?” Which is so cool, because it’s exactly what a comic book would do.

SHH!: Both Hayden and Jeph Loeb mentioned that there’s so much excitement for the next script, not only for the audience but also for the actors.

Oka: We’re more fans, than just actors. That’s why Tim doesn’t tell us stuff, but at the same time, we don’t like to hear much about what is going to happen to our character, because I love taking the journey with Hiro and discovering this with him. It’s just so brilliant, and it gets better and better and better, and yet they have a vision for the entire season or three seasons, they said. That’s what’s phenomenal. So they’re really on top of the ball. They really know how to tell a story, and our job is to bring it to life.

SHH!: You mentioned being a fan of Manga. Are you a fan of any American comics?

Oka: I didn’t really grow up on American comics as much. As I said, I watched “Saturday Morning Saturcade” (sic) which was like Donkey Kong or Space Ape, but I love “The Simpsons,” but I never got around to growing up a lot of the American comics. Maybe “Garfield” or “Peanuts” or the syndicated comic strips, more humor stuff. I grew up on the story Mangas. That’s most of my influences [come from]. I can’t say that I’m a big comic geek, but I have to do a lot of research. I even know that Green Lantern is no longer vulnerable to yellow.

SHH!: There’s so many different types of Manga, so do you have any preference of what kind you like reading?

Oka: I like the humor stuff. I still read the “Shonen Jump” and the “Shonen Sundays” which are the weekly magazine. Even the businessmen read them on the train to work, but for right now, I love the Takahashi Rumiko stuff, the old “Maison Ikkoku” and “Lum Forever” and nowadays, “Inuyasha.” Right now, I can’t get enough of Naoki Urasawa, he did “Monster” and “20th Century Boys” and “PLUTO” which is an homage to Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy.” That’s very cool, the whole idea of the utopian society and the robots. He also does great stuff like “Happy!” which is a tennis story and “Yawara”, which is a judo story. Naoki Urasawa is awesome! He has such an amazing vision and an incredible brain and he works on so many different genres. I really love his stuff.

SHH!: Hiro seems to very much be comic relief on the show, at least from what we’ve seen; will there be some serious drama for him in his future?

Oka: I think that’s because what his character is. There has to be something in the future that’s going to change him, I’m assuming, just because it’s such a dark and realistic show, but as of now, he is a comic relief for the show and I think it’s important. I wouldn’t want them to change it too much, because it is fun playing the comic. I come from a comedic background, and it’s such a heavy, dark show with everyone dying and bleeding and talking about the philosophy of life. It’s fun to have that other character that gives it light and levity and gives a wink and nod to the audience.

SHH!: Are you comfortable doing drama if that’s thrown your way?

Oka: Oh, yeah. I love drama, as well, don’t get me wrong. As an actor, anything that can challenge you both comedically and dramatically is a lot of fun. If they want me to cry on cue, I will cry on cue… without using onions.

SHH!: I hope that somewhere along the way Hiro will meet one of the women on the show and hook up.

Oka: I think that would be cool. One of the early things I was thinking was how about if I meet someone online and then I meet them at Comic-Con. Like “You’ve Got Mail” but in the comic geek world. Hiro would meet someone and if they’re in costume, I think Hiro could talk to them so smoothly and just be all geeked out, but once they’re out of costume, Hiro doesn’t know what to do. I can see that happening to Hiro.

SHH!: It sounds like Hiro would have to have his own episode timed to shoot at next year’s Comic-Con.

Oka: That would be cool.

In case you haven’t caught it yet, Heroes is on NBC every Monday at 9PM, and it’s not too late to get on board!

Source: Edward Douglas