He’s one of the breakout stars of this TV season. But before his Golden Globe-nominated turn as Hiro Nakamura, the tech geek turned rudimental superhero on “Heroes,” Masi Oka almost gave up acting.
Five years of bit parts on comedies like “Reba” and “Reno 911!,” and a recurring stint on “Scrubs,” proved limiting.
“I realized there weren’t characters being created for my type because Hollywood tends to have a narrow vision with regards to Asian-Americans, or Asians in general,” says Oka, a 32-year-old Tokyo-born actor. He finally decided the solution was to start shopping his own scripts.
“I figured if no one is going to create stuff for me, I need to create stuff, at least for other Asian actors.”
Then he got the pilot script for “Heroes.”
‘Save the cheerleader,’ boost a career“They were looking for someone who was fluent in Japanese, who had a comedic background and who had American television experience,” he says, on break at eat. on sunset, a restaurant near the Sunset Gower Studios. “It was like a destiny.”
The fate of his bespectacled, cherub-faced time traveler will be revealed when the NBC freshman hit returns April 23 (10 p.m. EDT) for its final five episodes of the season. Fans will finally learn if Hiro can, to borrow from his now-popular catch phrase, “Save the cheerleader, save the world!”
“Everything’s going to be great, that’s all I can say,” Oka says, carefully slurping spaghetti noodles. He can’t muss his navy gi and hakama, the uniform he wears in a kendo (Japanese fencing) scene with George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame) who guest stars as Hiro’s father, Kaito Nakamura.
“We just got the season finale script, and a lot of questions get answered, a lot of loose ends get tied up,” he says. Of course, he adds, some new questions are raised as a setup for Season Two.
Oka ‘cast completely in Japanese’Hiro has one of the most popular characters on the show, which pulls in an average 14.6 million weekly viewers. And on the show’s active Web site, Hiro’s blog generates hundreds of fan comments each week — a response that doesn’t surprise series creator-executive producer Tim Kring.
“Hiro was really the only character from the beginning who embraced his powers with a certain amount of enthusiasm and zeal, and I think that’s what set him apart early on,” says Kring, who hired Oka for the series having never spoken a word of English to him.
“He was cast completely in Japanese, so I never even spoke to him until we brought him to the network,” he says. “It was almost like experiencing an actor in a silent movie. You key into different kinds of facial expressions and the energy of the character; you’re experiencing him on a whole other kind of level.”
Oka wasn’t so sure that audiences would go for a character whose lines are all subtitled.
“I thought it was inconceivable,” he says. “I was just very fortunate to have the audience embrace him with such enthusiasm.”
A math whiz turned actorIt’s Hiro’s enthusiastic optimism and childlike fervor that Oka likes most about him.
“He’s wide-eyed. He’s an adventurer,” says Oka. “He’s someone who was stuck in the monotony of being a cubicle office worker thinking there’s got to be more to life, and he never gave up on that dream. I’m fortunate to live variously through Hiro and live out my dream.”
This isn’t Oka’s first time in the spotlight. He landed on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 12 for being an Asian whiz kid. With an IQ of 180, he majored in mathematics and computer science at Brown University, where he also minored in theater.
“It was just me trying to break out of my own comfort zone,” he says about his turn to performing. “It was a great way for me to learn about human nature, learn more about myself. ... And I love the idea of using both sides of the brain.”
After graduation, he went to work as a digital special-effects artist at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic studio.
“I got kind of burnt out after my first big project, ‘The Perfect Storm,’ ” says Oka, “and I was thinking, I’ve got to give acting a try while I’m only responsible for myself. If it doesn’t work out, I could always tell my grandchildren that Grandpa gave it the old acting try, and look at me now, I’m a couch potato.”
That he’ll be vegging out any time soon seems unlikely. In between 13-plus hour days on “Heroes” and moonlighting for ILM as a consultant, Oka still finds time to write. His favorite genre? Romantic comedies.
“Love and laughter are two themes that are universal,” says Oka, an admitted romantic who’s looking for his soul mate. “I’m ready for a meaningful relationship versus the not-so-meaningful relationships I’ve had in the past.”
Perhaps time will be on his side.