Before his sexy geek Hiro Nakamura, an office-drone who transforms into a teleporting and time traveling-samurai, fades into the summer hiatus, we phoned Masi Oka in Los Angeles from our own cubicle.
In case you need reminding, the broadcast networks are wrapping things up on your favorite shows in the next couple of weeks. And while some shows appear to be sputtering to their finales (no clearer example than “24”), others are soaring to wonderfulness (who’s not loving every delicious minute of “Lost”?).
Let’s take a moment, then, to high-five “Heroes,” a newbie show blessed with stellar story line about the apocalypse (OK, nuclear bomb in New York City) and so-not-your-ordinary regular folk. Along with “Ugly Betty” this sci-fi-frosted drama is the undisputed breakout hit of the year (even if the ratings have been slipping recently). Both freshman shows feature charming, nerdy, cherub-cheeked actors in roles appealing to our inner selves: America Ferrara as anything-but-ugly Betty and Masi Oka, office-drone-turned-teleporting/time traveling-samurai. So before his sexy geek Hiro Nakamura fades into the summer hiatus, we phoned Oka, 33, in Los Angeles from our own cubicle.
Q: Give us a hint about the finale (next Monday).
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“Heroes,” 9 p.m. Mondays on NBC (KING).
A: The finale is going to be the bomb. Both in da bomb, as in awesome. And in kaboom, the bomb. It’s going to be amazing. When we last left off, Hiro’s sword was broken in half and he was unable to kill Sylar. And tonight Hiro makes a narrow escape. He finds an unlikely mentor. And yes, there’s lots of sword fighting.
Q: You’re a kendo hobbyist. Were you responsible for getting the sword fighting into the scripts?
A: Somewhere maybe, in the writers’ minds they were trying to use my sword expertise.
Q: And in terms of your character, you weren’t even in the original concept for the show.
A: Correct. It was [creator] Tim Kring’s wife who actually kind of mentioned it to him, that everyone in the pilot doesn’t enjoy their powers. That the pilot is so dark. If it weren’t for her words I would have never existed.
Q: And Hiro’s so optimistic. Are you like that?
A: Not as much as Hiro is. I’m more of a realist, maybe with a little side of pessimism, although Hiro is starting to get into me.
Q: And now you’re a star.
A: The show’s a breakout. I’m just happy to be one of the main characters. I think the reason why he’s popular is that he’s very happy with his power. He does get to do stuff with a comedic twist. … Maybe there’s a slight novelty to him because he doesn’t speak English.
Q: What about having to shut your eyes so many times [which is how Hiro time travels]?
A: It was kind of tough in the pilot. They’d try and do these wide, long, medium shots and it would take eight takes. All that closing my eyes, and shaking my head, I’d start to think I only have eight takes in me! It was definitely fatiguing.
Q: When’s the last time you wished you could teleport?
A: Just the other day we were stuck in traffic and we were running late and I thought, “Ah, I wish I could just jump right now!”
Q: Examples of Hiromania include T-shirts that read “Be My Hiro” and chatter on the Internet about women wanting to make Hiro their pet.
A: It’s very unique. I made a joke after someone said they wanted to cage me, love me, pet me. I said, “As long as they feed me, what more could a guy want?” Food, shelter and some loving. Everyone has their own take on Hiro, but I could see how he could become a cuddly kind of guy.
Q: But there’s cute, adorable Hiro vs. Future Hiro, the one with the soul patch and a ponytail who’s a lot more serious — and tough. Which is more like you?
A: I’m probably more like the cuddly, geeky one. Playing a superhero was an acting challenge for me. It was fun. And there was a little bit of anime characters in him.
Q: Like which ones?
A: I think he’s kind of like Trunks in Dragon Ball Z.
Q: I’m thinking if you dyed your hair blond you could play Naruto.
A: Oh that’s kind of interesting. But I would say more Trunks because he uses his sword.
Q: You were on that Time magazine cover about Asian whiz kids when you were 12 [in 1987]. “Heroes” is a show all about destiny and yours looked bright.
A: I thought I would go into academia. Teach at a university. That cover was kind of funny. I wasn’t in the article. The kids in the article were actually smart. We just looked smart.
Q: But you have an IQ of 180.
A: I took a test at an early age and I scored a 189. First of all, it was a Japanese test so maybe there’s a different exchange rate. I’m a real dumb-dumb in real life. I’m just book smart. But definitely not street smart. The other day I lost my jacket in a cab. And I’ll forget things every time I leave the house.
Q: How hard was it to break into acting as an Asian?
A: To be honest, … it’s much easier to break into roles. There’s less competition … and the producers are more open to changing smaller, one-line roles into bigger roles. The hard part is to sustain a career. How many visible Asian actors are out there? When you compare the number to the total population it’s significantly lower.
I know being male doesn’t help. But comedy definitely helps. I just loved doing comedy from the get-go. [After graduating from Brown University, where he was a math/computer-science major and theater-arts minor, Oka did improv with the Groundlings, ImprovOlympics, Second City and TheatreSports.]
Q: Spend much time in an office cubicle?
A: When I was at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic, the George Lucas special-effects house] I did.
Q: Talk a little about your special-effects work.
A: I was a programmer. I would create effects like the wave in “A Perfect Storm.” Or the water dripping from Davey Jones’ face in “Pirates of the Caribbean [Dean Man’s Chest]”. My stuff has been used in over 30 films. Sometimes I don’t even know it’s been used and then someone tells me.
Q: Does working behind the scenes help with working in front?
A: Without a doubt. I love using the right side of my brain with the left side.
And it gives you a lot of respect and appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes. What it takes for just that 1/24th of a second. It also teaches me patience because I know that for every minute we spend on set we’re saving an hour in post-production.
Q: You were born in Tokyo, moving to Los Angeles when you were 6 and raised by your mom. What does she think of your success?
A: She’s very proud of it, but of course she won’t say it directly to my face. She’s very media shy. I couldn’t convince her to come to the Golden Globes with me, but we did a Mother’s Day shoot for People magazine recently.
Q: Do you travel back to Japan much?
A: I used to a lot, before college. But once college started I got summer jobs.
Q: Because I’m wondering if you’re yet a recognizable star over there?
A: Not yet. The show hasn’t been sold in Japan but it will.
Q: And then you’ll be a famous American star doing ads for Suntory whisky?
A: [Laughs]. “Lost in Translation”! But it won’t be “Lost” because I understand Japanese. I’m not American. I still have my Japanese citizenship.
Q: You’re a fan of romantic comedies. What are your favorites?
A: I love “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Princess Bride,” “Run Lola Run,” “Serendipity,” “Along Came Polly,” which is the one I was in. “Notting Hill” was great.
Q: You’re sounding a little like geeky, adorable Hiro.
A: Being a geek is a great thing. I think we’re all geeks. Being a geek means you’re passionate about something and that defines your uniqueness. I would rather be passionate about something than be apathetic about everything.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or email@example.com