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Exclusive Interview with Heroes Reborn’s Masi Oka

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Talk Nerdy With Us recently had the pleasure of chatting with Japanese actor, writer and producer Masi Oka. Masi is best known for his work on Heroes and Hawaii Five-O. His beloved Heroes character Hiro Nakamura will be appearing on NBC’s new hit Heroes Reborn. Keep reading to find out more about Masi’s exciting return!

What was your reaction when you heard about Heroes Reborn?

I thought it was great. To be honest with you, it was a little bit surprising. The way we found out literally was watching the Olympics and seeing the commercial. I’m cheering on the athletes and next thing I know, I hear the Heroes theme and then the Heroes logo and it says, “Coming Soon.” That was it.

Tim didn’t reach out to you guys first? You actually found out with the promo?

Actually, when we saw the promo all the Heroes alums reached out to each other. It was the first time we actually all talked to each other in a while. I’d be in contact with a lot of them personally, but we all got on a group chat and said, “Hey, did you guys hear about this? Anything? Anyone know?” (Laughs). Nobody knew anything about it. We were all surprised. Then, a couple of hours later … It was either a couple of hours later or the next day. I got an e-mail from Tim saying, “Hey, Masi. You may have heard. Got time? You got your dancing shoes on?” He reached out and we started talking.

Once you heard, was there any doubt about coming back and being in Hiro’s shoes? Did you have to think about it? Or was it just like, automatically a “yes”?

For me, it was pretty much automatically a yes, because you know I love this show. It gave me my break. For me it would’ve been nice to also have finished the season out instead of  being cancelled. We didn’t get a chance to finish our story. Yes, time has passed and I’ve already moved on to other things. I guess it’s a very Japanese part of me that I want to … I just want to be grateful for the opportunities I had. I just want to give thanks. Give back to the fans and Tim and NBC who gave me the first opportunity anyway. For me I was always like, “Yeah, absolutely.” As long as everything worked out I’d be happy to help out.

We haven’t seen Hiro yet, but of course his name has come up many times. Now, Noah is out looking for him. Is episode 4 your first episode? 

I think it’s already put out there, but the answer is no. I’m in three episodes. My first episode is episode 6. Hiro’s name will continued to be mentioned though. His presence is definitely known.

Is Miko your daughter?

No comment. I’ve been saying this throughout my interviews, I have not had a scene with them. With either Miko or Ren.

Who is your first scene with?

My first scene will be with Jack. Most of my scenes are with Jack.

How is it reuniting with Jack?

It was great. It was just kind of cool. Like a reunion of some sort. Ironically we shot the final scene before we shot the first scene. It was kind of strange that we started at the end. It was a lot of fun. Most of my scenes, as I said, were with Jack, and with Sendhil, and with Cristine (Angela Petrelli). It was a reunion of sorts. Tim was there on set. Allan Arkush, who directed many of our original episodes was on set. It was a lot of fun. It was just like hanging out. Like old times. It was definitely a fun atmosphere. It was also kind of weird because they’d been shooting for a while when I entered. It’s like it’s my old family yet I’m a guest. I kind of feel like the step-father in some senses. (Laughs). I left the family. The family’s moved on without me and then I came back for Thanksgiving dinner or something.

Was it easy to become Hiro again and get into the mode of doing this sci-fi show with its special effects? Did it take you a little bit?

To get back in the mode it was definitely easy. That’s a character I know inside and out. It’s easy for me to become Hiro. I had to give it some thought in terms of the time passing. What he’s gone through and everything. Time has passed so he’s matured a little bit more. The sword moves and the choreography was a little bit tougher than in the past. All that time in Hawaii I added a couple of pounds I guess. (Laughs). Being a coroner I don’t do a lot of physical activity. That was a little bit … It was tough. It was tough trying to do all that sword-fighting and doing it from scratch.

Since the original Heroes was cancelled prematurely, did you, in your head, give Hiro his own ending?

No, I never gave him his own ending. It’s always good not to give an ending, because that way the character can live on whether it’s in your mind or in the fans’ mind. It leaves it to people’s imagination on how it ends. Now Tim has a series that could do that, so now we have sort of an ending for all the characters.

Do you have a favorite new EVO?

I’m trying to think. To be honest with you, I haven’t had a chance to catch up on all the episodes because I’ve been in Japan and Hawaii. I’ve read the scripts, but it’s hard for me to judge by the scripts. I’m going to have to say no comment on that because I haven’t seen enough. It’s unfair for me to say based on the script without having seen how it’s been done.

Was it very different or difficult going from the Kensei sword to having two? Were the techniques very different?

It was definitely a lot of fun. It’s nice. On Five-O I wield a scalpel. On Heroes, I wielded a bad-ass sword. (Laughs). This time I wield two swords, though. It’s an upgrade. It was very different, and ironic. It’s more Chinese than Japanese. Japanese, a samurai would typically use one sword. There are dual wielding swords. It’s also typically, they have a daito and a shoto. A long sword and a shorter sword, which is more of a wakizashi. Typically used is hara-kiri to cut off someone’s head. It’s rare to use both of them in a fight. Both of them are long swords, so what ended up happening is, instead of samurai moves, he turned out to be more ninja style and more Chinese martial arts. I felt like I was doing more wushu than kendo. I told the producers and the choreographer was like, “No, it’s bad-ass to have two swords.” It’s like, okay. It’s also wardrobe couldn’t hide two long swords. If you want to have two… A samurai would use a long sword and a short sword. Or two long swords. Two shorts swords is more a fascination. That would be a ninja.

Hiro became … I guess he was never really was a samurai, per se. He was more of a ninja than a samurai. I always joke, they wanted it more bad-ass, so they made it two swords. If we ended up having a Heroes Reborn Resurrected, or something, that would be version three of Heroes. Hiro would have three swords. (Laughs). Then the next incarnation, he would have four swords. Next thing you know, the fifth incarnation, all of his hands would become swords or something. Maybe like Freddy Krueger.

We actually talked to Kiki. She had said something about how for at least the first couple episodes since her and Toru were the only Japanese actors on the show they actually got to have a lot of input and give Tim and the writers suggestions about not wearing shoes in the house or leaving the door unlocked or other Japanese culture. For the original one, did you get to have a lot of say?

Yeah. I got a chance to have dinner with them and I hung out with them a lot even though we didn’t have any scenes together. It’s curious because I’ve always said in the magazines certain things about the Japanese culture that we added to Heroes. I think it’s because of that. They said they read that and they didn’t realize they could do that. I think it’s because when we speak up … When Sanada-san, Hiro Sanada who’s another Japanese actor who does that a lot. We talk about it in magazines and often Japanese publications. I think that gives them the courage and inspiration to talk about it. The producers want to get it right. They’ve learned from the past that, okay … Some producers, especially Tim in this case. Tim definitely wants to get it right. He wants to try to fix as much as possible.

There are things that we can fix, maybe some customs, some movements, and some dialogue in particular. It’s hard to fix a lot of set things. Once we get on set, it’s like, “Can you change this?” It’s like, “Well, we don’t have time to change that.” It’s a lot of things. In the original series, there was a clock. The first scene you see is a clock with Kanji characters, and we would never have that in Japan. They said, “Oh, well, um. We have another option.” The other option is still Kanji characters, but instead of having letters horizontally, they have it vertically. It’s like, “No, it’s not that. It’s the actual Kanji characters that’s an issue.” Then they want to show something that’s completely not in America visually. I said, “Okay, fine, fine, fine. Yeah. We’ll try to work with it.” I’ve been talking to Japanese press about it. Yeah, that’s part of the fun of the Hollywood production of portraying Japanese. I enjoy it.

I think some things we can control, some things we can’t. I think once they know that we’ve done it in the past and producers are amiable to it, I think that’s what gave them the courage to do it. To be honest with you, when actors, especially not well-known actors; it was a big risk for me to ask Tim and say, “Hey, can I change this word to ‘ya-ta’ because ‘bonsai’ means ‘little tree’ in Japanese and I don’t think that’s what you meant.” I think it’s a combination of all that and especially now, they want to get it right. It’s not that they’re trying to make it wrong on purpose. This time around, I didn’t get a chance to be on the production from early on. There are things that I would’ve commented on.

There’s one thing that was a glaring … On the mantle, they put two swords, but the swords were not sheathed. They were open, they were just the blade, and the blades were pointing down. That was a huge sign and disrespect and no-no. I was like, “No. I’ve gotta fight you guys on this one. You guys can’t make it unsheathed, and especially can’t if it points down.” I was able to work with them and say, “Okay, fine. We’re shooting this episode again tomorrow. On the first day, we’ll try to angle it so we don’t show the mantle, but on the second day, we’ll make sure we’ll have that fixture fixed so that we could place the swords sheathed heads up.” That was amazing of the production to be able to do that. That’s a lot of work and something to ask to have them change a set element. Heroes has been one of those I think that’s been really great. They realize because it has a global audience they need to change some stuff. Anyways, I could go on and rant about it for a while. (Laughs).

When Tim approached you did he give you the whole Hiro storyline? Did he tell you everything that would come into play this chapter/volume?

Yeah, Tim wanted three specific characters back, and Hiro’s one of them. My character was supposed to be a series regular and was supposed to be in all the scenes. It’s like, “Yeah, absolutely. I’m down for it.” You know, fortunately or unfortunately, I was tied on to a great show called Five-O as a series regular. Contractually, it turned out, I was not able to do it. That’s the problem. That’s why I think … The original story that Tim had in mind probably changed a little bit knowing that I couldn’t commit to the whole episodes. Fortunately, CBS and NBC, the bosses were able to work it out and they allowed me to do three episodes on Heroes Reborn.

Your most recent work with Hawaii Five-O and Heroes has been more drama. Would you consider going back into comedy?

Oh, absolutely. To be honest with you, the stuff I do for Five-O, it’s about telling expedition in a comedic manner. With Hiro, even though it’s a drama role (and I was fortunate enough to get a nomination at the Globe and Emmy award for drama), Hiro’s character was pretty comedic. In this Heroes Reborn go-around, we definitely see more of the future Hiro, so we don’t see a lot of the comedy. I love comedy, all of my stuff is based in comedy. I go to Japan right now and teach American comedy and improvisation. I just sold a show to Fox which is a comedy. All my roots, even though it’s dramatic, everything will always have a comedic flavor to it.  I enjoy making people laugh. I enjoy bringing laughter to the world. It will be a more harmonious place that way.

What is your favorite comedy that’s currently on television?

I like Silicon Valley just because I’m a tech guy. There’s just something great about that work. It’s a weird thing, I also like Jane the Virgin. It’s not really a pure comedy. The way they tell the story … First of all, it’s like, diversity issues. The way they tell the story is fantastic. I think it’s great. I like Modern Family and Fresh off the Boat. I definitely like the small, one single-camera comedies. I’ve always been a fan of Arrested Development and Scrubs and those kind of things.

And you were on Scrubs.

I was on Scrubs. That was my first big gig! I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was when I got it.

Is the comedy you sold a single cam?   

My comedy tends to be more single-cam just because I’m not … They’re kind of different skills. One is more in front of a live audience. It’s all about timing. I love visual comedy because I feel visual comedy allows you to stir up people’s imagination and get more edgier. Versus multi-cam, you have to be really smart and precise about the joke telling. It’s hard to leave it up for interpretation. I like comedy that pushes the edge. I don’t mind if only 5% of the people get it. If the 5% are laughing their butts off, that’s great. With a laugh track you can’t really do that. You have to make sure 90% of the people are laughing. Even if it’s amused, they all have to be laughing. Versus, I’m fine with pushing the envelope when 95% might feel it’s awkward, but 5% are dying of laughter. That is my brand of comedy. Not to say broadcast isn’t smart. Oh my god, Big Bang Theory, Friends, Cheers, etc. They did some amazing smart comedy. There’s just something fun about single-cam which I always enjoyed. I thought Community was fantastic too. 

Do you have time to watch TV?

That’s the problem. I don’t have time. When I’m not working as an actor, I’m doing things behind the scenes. I’m producing movies, I’m writing a script. I have my game company and we just came out with Beacon 38. Doing everything, it’s … If I’m watching TV, I feel like I should be doing other things as well. I tend to binge-watch more. It’s definitely easier to binge-watch dramas than comedies. Which is kind of strange.

They flow better, yeah. The story flows better.

It’s the flow, right? I can’t laugh for eight hours straight. It hurts, I tried. (Laughs). It’s like, “Oh my god, I got to stop. Game of Thrones, I’ve got to watch. It’s hard to watch things in real-time though, I’ve got to be honest with you.

Can you tell us about Beacon 38?

It’s our next mobile app game that Mobius, the game company that I run called Mobius Digital Games, produced. It’s kind of a spooky adventure game. It’s an exploration space adventure game. It’s an indie game. There’s no in-app purchases. We’re not going to bombard you with people having to pay more inside the app or watch ads. It’s a cool exploration game. I love the music, love the game-play and great graphics. Hopefully if people enjoy a spooky adventure game, it’s right up their alley.

What was the most challenging part of developing it?

I think the most challenging part of developing it is just figuring out which features to use. With any kind of game you develop, there’s so many things you want to put into it. There’s limited time. There’s limited budget. Having to pick and choose how much and how big the game or how big the scope is. I think that’s the biggest challenge. Then, of course, the biggest challenge to us actually now is trying to get it out there. With indie stuff, it’s such an immobile market, the top paid apps kind of just feed themselves. The Candy Crushes, they can just advertise for themselves and keep on going. It’s a perpetual loop. It’s hard for good content like independent games to get marketing. If people actually get a chance to play and know about it, they’ll realize, “Wow, it’s a great game.” We’re not charging more than … You’re not going to have to pay more than three bucks for this great content. It’s hard to get seen. With any independent movies, anything that’s independent that doesn’t have a main publisher and distribution it’s been tough. I would say marketing right now is definitely the hardest part. That’s why I’m shelling it out as we speak. (Laughs).

You wear so many hats. You produce, you write, you create games. Are you the type of person who can’t just do one thing? Is sanity for you doing so many things and wearing so many different hats?

If you’re saying I have ADD, yes, I probably do. (laughs). No, but I just love trying a lot of things. Every aspect of it has different challenges and different things that I can learn which I actually feel can benefit me to other expertise or areas. Something I can learn in comedy can help me in game design. Something in game design could help me in writing. I feel there’s always something that I can learn that will help me in different areas and it’s a way to connect to who I am as a person. Otherwise I feel that I’d become one-dimensional and if I get too dependent on one thing, it kind of boxes me in in some sense. I always like to think outside of the box as well as creating a box. Having that mental flexibility I think is really important. That comes from being exposed to many different fields and many different opportunities and many different ideas. Ideas, great content, great people, opportunities they can come from anywhere. I just like to keep my mind open to a lot of experiences and potential adventures. I always see every day as a new start for me. I’m always trying to find a way to explore and enrich myself in my education.

If everyone had that mentality, our world would be a much better place.

I think it would be more fun! I think that’s a great thing about humans is that we have the ability to be curious and educate ourselves. By not trying to learn or trying not to explore I think we give up that human right. I always say, “To be geek is to be human.” If you’re apathetic about everything and are a robot, then you give up that right. It’s so much more important to be passionate about something and try to learn. Once we stop learning, we give up that right to be human. Our curiosity is what should drive us. It’s entertaining our mind and entertaining our body. It’s stimulating us, and I think that keeps us going.

What’s in store for Max this season on Hawaii Five-O?

I have to say, it’s the same old, same old. We’re a procedural and Max is the exposition bitch. (Laughs). He’s basically going to be your guy who’s going to explain why this murder is this, or why this doesn’t work. When the time of death is or cause of death is. We shot maybe 10 episodes so far. I haven’t had a scene with Sabrina yet, so I don’t know if his girlfriend is going to be back. He’s been talking about his girlfriend. We’ll see him in a Halloween costume. For some reason, he is a big Keanu Reeves fan, so every year he does a Keanu Reeves costume. I get to speak Hebrew. That’s fantastic. I sang in Hebrew. I danced. That is, you know … Five-O is Five-O. It’s a procedural, and I’m their exposition bitch. What more can I say?

What is your personal favorite dance move?

My personal favorite dance move? Oh, I don’t know. It might be the running man. I like the running man. Back in the day I was able to … I couldn’t do a head-spin, but I was able to do a body spin. Do some breaking, but nowadays, if I tried to break-dance, I would probably just break my back, so … (Laughs).

Is there anything else you’re currently working on?

Right now I’m working on Death Note (the movie). The live action movie. I’m producing that. We’re in the midst of figuring out the final touches before we hopefully go into production. With movies, you never know until we actually release it. You never know if it’s actually going to get made.

Since we are Talk Nerdy With Us, what are the things that make you a nerd? What are the things that you nerd-out about?

I nerd out about a lot of things. I think I just nerd out about life because I love trying all these different things. Even though I’m doing games, I’m doing acting, I’m producing, I’m writing. I’m doing all these things, there’s still so many things that I haven’t explored which I’d love to explore. I think I’m just nerding about life and about learning. That’s been very exciting just trying to discover new things. I’m a nerd about discovering exploration.

Watch Heroes Reborn, Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC.

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