Last week’s episode of Heroes Reborn featured the return of original Heroes star Masi Oka as the fan-favorite time-traveling and teleporting Hiro Nakamura, who is also back in this Thursday’s episode of the show. TVOvermind was fortunate to speak with Oka this week, and we asked him about his experience returning to this iconic role, the how the presence and importance of diversity on television has evolved since when Heroes first started, and much more. If you haven’t seen last week’s episode of Heroes Reborn, we do warn for some mild spoilers.
TVOvermind: Now that you are back in this role that has changed a lot since the end of Heroes Season 4, how has that been for you as an actor to get to go back to that character who has now evolved into something that we didn’t see back in the final episodes of the original Heroes?
Masi Oka: I think it was definitely exciting. We didn’t get to quite finish the story, and this was a great opportunity for Tim [Kring, Heroes creator] to finish this story. I got to give back and say thank you to the fans, Tim, NBC, and a chance to pass the baton to the next generation of heroes. For Hiro having gone through five years, I definitely think he has matured a lot more; he runs a company, and he’s responsible for a lot more lives. I think he is not as adventurous as before, but he is a lot more grounded. I think he still has that innocence and moral code of ethics in that Hiro way. It’s an interesting dynamic, but it was definitely fun to just go back.
When I look at Hiro as a whole, you were obviously one of the most iconic characters of Heroes, and it’s been nine years since the show started. More than ever, we’re seeing this huge increase of diversity and ethnicity being represented, not just in this genre, but just in television and movies in general. You were kind of one of the very first actors of ethnicity, in the modern age of television, that was heavily featured on a show like Heroes, back during a time when there weren’t as much of that type representation. Can you talk about your experience as an actor to see the industry having taken that huge leap from when Heroes first started to where we are today?
I think it’s great just because as an actor, there are just so much opportunities. We always say that it’s “color TV.” It’s not black and white TV… After the African-American wave there was a Latino wave, and now finally we are seeing more of the Asian-American wave. It’s difficult because growing up, the only Asian-American actors that I saw were pretty much like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. That was pretty much it and when we started, there weren’t that many roles. It was easy for us to break into the business in small roles and “claim diversity,” but the big roles weren’t there. Thanks to Lost, which kind of paved the way for us, Lost showed us that a diverse ensemble show could mean big ratings, and Hollywood cares about one color, particularly green. If there is money involved, great ratings could mean great money. So because of Lost, that led us to Heroes and having a more Asian-American character in the center and that led to other shows. It’s great to have all of us building on each other’s success, and now we’re seeing shows like Fresh Of the Boat doing well, Dr. Ken being picked up, and we’re seeing more Asian-American series regulars on TV. It’s always a great thing to see more of that and it’s very encouraging. I always talk to Daniel Dae Kim, who is on Hawaii Five-0, with me, and we’re just very proud to have been part of paving the way for more diversity.
What do you think the next step is? Obviously, we’ve come very far and taken some big steps, but there’re still many more to take in the entertainment business for TV and film. If you could talk to any producer and say “We’ve accomplished A now, now we need to get to B,” what do you think that step is? Because in a lot of creative people’s mindsets, they do aim to try and make the shows/films look more like the real world.
We definitely need to be a lot more open-minded, that’s all and just be color-blind in a lot of things. Let’s be open to thinking outside the box, even Hawaii Five-0, it’s kind of funny because I play a character named Max Bergman. He is an Asian guy who got raised by Jewish parents, so he is kind of Jewish. You don’t make a big deal about it; it just works as a character to people, and it was kind of a bold move. I just think the next step is being more open-minded. At the end of day, getting an Asian cast or any kind of diverse cast starts with so many steps. It starts with a writer who is open to thinking that way; they will create a role. Then it comes with producers being open-minded, a casting director opens that, and an agent willing to say and push to think outside the box.
It has to propagate all back to the top of the chain with the studio needing to say yes. The networks needs to say yes. So I think what really needs to happen is just being more open-minded about other opportunities from where stories can come from. I think that can also happen a lot more with the artists themselves. We can’t wait for stories to be created for us; I think we need to be more active in creating stories for ourselves. That’s why I think YouTube, and especially with the digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, when those opened up, it just gives more opportunity for creators and good stories to be told. So instead of waiting for studios or networks to be more open-minded, artists should just take the bull by the horns. That’s what the next step is for us: to be more proactive and create content by ourselves.
While I know you can’t say much about these upcoming episodes, we now know that Hiro is free from Evernow. Will we see how it has affected him?
The way they play it is that he was more in a coma while he was in Evernow. I don’t think his mind was overly thinking about something. When he comes back, he still feels and thinks the same way.
So basically he is going to have an easy time reconnecting with our world again?
Yes, it was just like time was frozen for him. He wasn’t exactly tortured in a prison; he was just in a suspended place for as long as he was in there.
When I spoke to you at Comic-Con, you were signed on for just three episodes. Has that changed? Will you be appearing in more, or is it still the same number?
It’s only three episodes, and I think because of that, I don’t think there is a lot of time to explore Hiro’s past in depth and do a lot of character analysis. That’s why a lot of it, you just have to go in and take the ground running.
With the intense popularity of Hiro, there are many fanboys and fangirls of the character out there. Can you talk a bit about the reception that you’ve gotten for playing this role, not just in the U.S., but also internationally?
It has been great. We put a positive Japanese character on screen, and especially when I go to Japan, everybody is very happy about it. It also inspires a lot of the next generation, in some sense. For example, Kiki [Sukezane, who plays Miko] and Toru [Uchikado, who plays Ren], they watched our show when growing up so they were inspired by that. I also know that a lot of Japanese actors and artists who are inspired by what we did and now they feel confident that they can also do what we did. It was kind of bridging that cultural gap between Japan and the U.S. That’s what I do a lot now these days: I advise a lot of Japanese companies and the government as well and try to bridge the cultural, business, and technology gap between the two worlds.
A lot of people have been asking about where Ando [Masahashi, played by James Kyson] is.
He doesn’t appear this time around, I don’t have an answer for you. They don’t address [if he is dead or alive]. He’s probably still alive; maybe he is busy traveling around the world as a VP or something. I would assume that, in their relationship, Ando is like the vice president, and he is like traveling around the world doing some sales for the company.
As we saw in last Thursday’s episode, Hiro takes HRG back to June 13, which obviously changed how the whole world views Evos now. What can you tease the viewers of the two-parter? From a scale on 1-10, how massive is this day going to be like for viewers to see?
It’s going to play a very important part of what is going to go in moving forward.
Before I let you go, could you talk a little bit about your digital company Mobius Design and the new game Beacon 38 coming out? Was gaming a big part of your upbringing when you were growing up?
Absolutely. I grew up on games, manga, and Japanese animation. My first job out of college was working for a special effects company, so I have always been a tech guy and to start up my game company was always my dream. We were able to release two mobile games; the most recent one we just released is called Beacon 38. It’s kind of like a space exploration and adventure game. It’s really cool and perfect for Halloween! It has a bit spooky tone to it that I think people enjoy.
As we come down to the last couple of episodes of the ongoing season, for people who will be reading this interview, is there anything you would like to say to both new and old fans of Heroes who are watching the new generation of the series?
Thank you for your support. Hiro finally made it back after all the teasing, so please enjoy that in the next few episodes!
Heroes Reborn airs on Thursday nights at 8/7c on NBC.
[Photo credit: Christos Kalohoridis & Sophie Giraud/NBC]