A couple of months back I had the pleasure of joining fellow journalists on a conference call with actor Masi Oka a.k.a. Hiro Nakamura on NBC-TV’s Heroes. The following is my interview feature from our conversation. Depending on where you live, my piece could contain spoilers for episodes that have aired prior to April 2009, so we warned. Otherwise, enjoy!
From superhero to corporate businessman – in volume one (or season one) of Heroes, office worker Hiro Nakamura discovered that he was among a group of humans with extraordinary powers. Using his ability to alter the flow of time and travel through time, he helped stop New York City from being blown up. In the show’s second year, Hiro befriended Takezo Kensei, an ancient Japanese hero who was, in fact, a fraud who murdered Hiro’s father and tried to release a deadly virus into the world. At the start of volume three, Villains, Hiro took over for his father as head of Yamagato Corporation, which was in possession of half of a formula that could destroy humankind if it fell into the wrong hands. When it was stolen by the bad guys it triggered a brand new fight for our heroes to take on, one not initially embraced by some fans and critics, which Masi Oka, who plays Hiro, looks back on.
“The creative process is one that kind of builds on itself, and Tim Kring [series creator/executive producer] has a great map to where we’re going,” says Oka. “At the same time, there’s a collaboration that takes place and allows us to go to from interesting places as well as discover new things about these characters. We hope that the viewers will take this journey with us, knowing that there will be a terrific payoff. I think with all our volumes we sometimes have slow starts, but then things always switch to high gear towards the end.
“Because a show like Heroes takes such risks and makes bold choices, it takes a bit of time for the audience as well as the critics to become accustomed to each new journey that we start to take. Along the way, you have to expect some changes, but once everyone is on-board, we hit the ground running. We tell so many stories and so fast because Tim is all about getting answers quickly and satiating the audience’s appetite for what happens next. Every now and then you do need to shake things up and make different choices. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“When we began volume three, they [the show’s producers and writers] found a different path and a way to make it work. Volume four [Fugitives] is also somewhat different. We’re going back to grounded, central characters who are trying to live their ordinary lives while being hunted. It might take fans a little while to get accustomed to this new story and “new” heroes, but the core of our story continues to be an ensemble, captivating drama.”
In volume three, Hiro and his best friend Ando (James Kyson Lee) go to Africa in search of a precognitive painter named Usutu (Ntare Mwine). Using his power, he shows Hiro the faces of those he must fight if he hopes to retrieve the missing formula, namely Arthur Petrelli (Robert Foster) and his group of villains. Arthur discovers this and teleports to Africa, where he kills Usutu and wipes Hiro’s mind, convincing him that he is only 10 years old. Stepping into younger shoes was akin to walking a tightrope for Oka.
“It was an interesting balancing act because Hiro is a big kid at heart who’s grown up,” explains the actor. “The challenge was to play a 10-year-old in such a way that there was enough of a distinction between that child and the adult Hiro, while not making him seem like a four-year-old. That was fun because on-set it’s pretty much no holds-barred [when it comes to acting], so I really got to play a kid. I channeled, for example, Tom Hanks in [the 1998 feature film] Big and just went all-out. That actually freed me up physically in terms of improvising a lot.
“I can’t remember when I was 10, but in talking with my friends’ children I discovered that 10-year-olds are so smart. That’s something you tend to forget when you play a kid. Yes, they’re very innocent in many ways and have that childlike wonder, but it was really important for me not to dumb my performance down too much because children are a lot smarter than their age.
“At one point there was talk about me playing a 70-year-old Hiro as well,” adds Oka. “The idea was that my characer stepped back in time, aged, and then met his present-day self. We actually made the [old age] masks, and that was neat to do. However, we never got around to shooting it just because, I think, the stories were so big and we needed to bring them to an end and economize a bit.”
Hiro discovers that for the stolen formula to work it needs a catalyst, which his now-dead mother Ishi (Tamlyn Tomita) passed onto the indestructible Clare Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) when she was just a baby. He travels back in time and reveals himself to his dying mother, who uses her healing ability to restore his memory. Hiro then convinces Ishi to give him the catalyst, promising to protect it. What was it like for Oka to film a scene with his onscreen mother?
“It was wonderful,” he says. “We were truly blessed to have some great writing from Adam Armus and Kay Foster, while Greg Beeman [executive producer] actually directed that scene. We also had Tamlyn, who is absolutely amazing. Filming it was quite difficult as well, because at that time it overlapped with my own mother, who’s battling breast cancer. It was also, I hate to use the word easy, but the substitution was there because in many ways I was living it. I’d be thinking, ‘What would I saying real life,’ and just transferred that to my character.
“The idea of Hiro’s mother getting to see him all grown up and him having the chance to say his final goodbye to her was, I thought, beautiful. It was one of the most emotional scenes I’d ever done and watching it was very tough, too, but I’m pleased it turned out as good as it did.
“I’d like to add, too, that my mother’s [cancer] treatments went really well and, I think, three weeks from now [late February] she’s going to be completely cleared. So thank God for modern medicine and technology. My mother pretty much gave up her life to provide a better world for me. She was in college in Singapore when she had me, and then we came to America because she knew there would be a better educational experience for me here. My mother means the world to me and I hope to be a part of her world for a lot longer.”
Although Arthur Petrelli steals his powers, Hiro still manages to save the day when, by the end of Villains, he gets hold of the formula from his father and destroys it for good. Volume four, Fugitives, opens to find Hiro back in Japan with Ando, who, in volume three, injected himself with an experimental drug that gave him the ability to enhance other hereos’ powers. Hiro has bought an abandoned fire station from the city to use as their headquarters and is teaching his friend how to master his newly-acquired gift. Going from having his own powers to being powerless has taken some adjusting for Hiro, and given Oka a new facet of his character to explore.
“I actually find it interesting to play a powerless character because you have the joy of rediscovering that power and what it means to be a hero without it,” muses the actor. “Acting-wise, it’s a very different type of mindset to get into; it’s as if you’ve fallen from grace and then have to wait to see what happens next. So it’s about adjusting to your new situation and living your life knowing that you were once a hero. You still have to face yourself as well as those around you and show them that you can be a hero by helping others, while at the same time possibly trying to get your powers back.
“Hiro takes all this in stride, though. Deep down I’m sure he’s bummed, but he has always been a believer in destiny, and he realizes that this is his.”
Since he first embarked on what has become an ongoing mission to help save the world, Hiro has been able to turn to his friend and “sidekick” Ando for support. Circumstances have sometimes forced the two apart, but they have always found each other again. While Ando is more than happy to use his ability for good, trying to instill in him the basic superhero morals has not been an easy task for Hiro.
“In many ways my character realizes, ‘OK, I’ve had my turn [at being a hero]. Now I must step up to the plate and see what I can do to help him [Ando],'” explains Oka. “So Hiro pretty much takes on the role of Alfred the butler and is trying to make a Batman out of his friend. However, Ando is reluctant and right now only cares about girls. So Hiro is trying to find ways of convincing him that he needs to use his powers for good and to save other people. In Hiro’s mind, being a hero is like a philosophy, you know? It’s like speaking to the superhero ‘bible’ of doing things, which include saving the world, sacrificing yourself for others and never using your power for your own personal gain. That’s what Hiro is trying to ingrain in Ando.”
Season three, or volumes three and four, of Heroes saw a behind-the-scenes shakeup with the departure of co-executive producers/writers Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb in November 2008. A month later, former writer/co-executive producer Bryan Fuller returned to the fold after the cancellation of his ABC series Pushing Daisies. While genuinely sorry to see both Alexander and Loeb go, Oka was equally pleased to welcome back Fuller.
“Jesse and Jeph are amazing writers and I love them,” says the actor. “They’re also my friends and are working on their own shows already, so I’m glad that they’re both doing well. That’s always a hard loss for a TV series and one that, as an actor, you don’t have control over.
“With Bryan coming back, I think it’s definitely a new dynamic and a great energy that he brings to the show. He’s such an accomplished show runner with wonderful ideas like Wonderfalls and, more recently, Pushing Daises. He was on Heroes from season one, so he knows what the [creative] process is and what made the program successful. Having stepped away from it for a year-and-half he had a subjective view on what the series became and how it kind of took a different path. Bryan came back with all these new ideas and I feel that really invigorated everyone. Like us actors, the writers are artists, too, and in some senses we’re insecure, so when they hear what the critics say, they take it to heart. So Bryan’s return brought with it an uplifting momentum of energy, and I think it’s been a big moral boost to everyone. Because he used to be part of that talented writing ensemble, he jumped immediately back in and added to what Tim already had established.
“The difference [in the writing] is that it’s definitely more character-based. I think Jeph and Jesse, coming from the Sci-Fi world, love Sci-Fi and comic [book] story lines, which being a Manga fan I personally gravitate towards. What’s neat, though, about Heroes is the balance of Sci-Fi elements and character faults, and what we’ve seen in the past few scripts we’ve received is definitely more character-based. So viewers will see more stories coming up like [the first season’s] Company Man, where there will be, maybe, only six characters involved in a whole episode and we’ll pay more attention to, maybe, three story lines instead of diversifying over six or seven.”
For some actors, being cast in a successful TV series often brings with it fame and fortune. For Oka, working on Heroes has also changed his life in a somewhat smaller and very personal way. “I get to meet a lot of fantastic people, including the fans as well as fellow actors I’ve idolized, like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams,” he notes. “And then there are the Heroes cast and crew, who have become my friends as well as extended family.
“I see myself as a normal human being who just happens to have a great job where I get to ‘play.’ We’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing. When I go out and people come up to me it still feels weird. You think, ‘Why do they want to talk to me?’ With me, it’s never been about the fame. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be really comfortable with it either. To be honest, I was just very fortunate to get onto a special show. The world that Tim Kring has created is so rich and unique. We knew that we’d at least grab the attention of a core audience, the Sci-Fi folks. However, we never expected the show to be the mainstream phenomenon that it’s become, and we’re very grateful for that.”