You will probably get the sense early on this interview that we have a deep-seeded affection for Maki Oka and the character of Hiro Nakamura. “Heroes” was an extremely important show for us many years ago, even before we began writing articles on television. Therefore, doing this piece had a sort of bucket-list feel to it.
Personal feelings and affection aside, what we have for you below is a far-reaching and fun talk with Masi from earlier this week as we discuss Hiro’s return for “Heroes: Reborn” (which started this past week), how much of his story had to be written on the fly thanks to his busy schedule, and who he had an opportunity to work with during his time back there.
CarterMatt – I think a good way to start this interview off is by telling you a little bit of my own history. When I was in college I was studying Japanese, and my roommate and I would watch the show and see if we could pick up certain words or phrases from what you were saying. Unfortunately I haven’t really kept it up since.
Masi Oka – Oh, so we should do this interview and Japanese? (Laughs.)
Oh god no, I’m horrendous at it now. But what I’m curious about is what it has been like for you over the years since first playing this character, and what the gamut of stories has been like that you’ve heard from fans.
There’s definitely a different range of stories. Some have been very fun, very happy, ‘oh, I just started watch Hiro and he brings me joy.’ There have been others that have been really heartwarming. I’ve had fans in Japan say ‘I was thinking about committing suicide, but I saw your character and it gave me hope that I want to continue and go through life.’ Those kind of things make you think like ‘wow.’ We’re creating entertainment, but you don’t quite realize that it is moving people so greatly.
And then you have the other side, where you go to Comic-Con and you have some guy come up to you and say ‘please knight me.’ And I’m just like ‘okay.’ (Laughs.) ‘That’s interesting. Sure, I’ll knight you.’ It definitely runs a wide gamut.
When did you first get wind of ‘Heroes’ coming back? Had [creator] Tim [Kring] reached out to you about it?
I found out the same way everyone else found out about it. I turned on the Winter Olympics, and [during commercials] I was like ‘oh, there’s a familiar theme song. I remember that logo. Oh, it’s Heroes: Reborn. Coming soon. What the hell was that?’ Then literally all the original cast [reached out to each other] and were like ‘oh, have you heard about this, what is this, blah blah blah.’ That was that. Nobody had any idea what was going on, until about two hours later when Tim emailed me saying ‘hey, I have an interesting idea. Let’s talk.’ That sort of thing.
Was the reaction to you about getting to do this again immediate excitement?
Absolutely! We had a story that we wanted to finish, and it was an opportunity to finish that. It is a character I love playing, and it is a world that is still attractive to me. Even in the five years [away] Tim was trying to recreate it as an Xbox series, and I was in pretty active communication with Tim. I was really happy that it came.
I wish I was there for the whole series. That’s my only concern, my only regret is that unfortunately or fortunately, I was contractually tied up to another show in ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and I still am. We worked something out so that I could guest on three episodes.
So how did that work? Did you go and do ‘Heroes: Reborn’ before you started work on ‘Hawaii Five-0’ this season?
I shot like three episodes in a span of two weeks in Toronto. They crammed in everything right before ‘Five-0’ started. It was kind of fun! It was like a mini-reunion. I got to see some old faces and kind of hang out. For me, it was an opportunity to give back to a lot of the fans and pass on the baton to the next generation of ‘Heroes’ and hopefully the next generation of audiences. We had an amazing run the first time around. We wanted to lend a shoulder for this one, as well.
It’s weird. ‘Heroes’ was our show, but then coming in as a guest it’s like ‘it was our show, but kind of not.’ I feel kind of like the ex-husband coming into the Thanksgiving dinner. I’m kind of welcome, but the wife got re-married and I see my kids and I’m like ‘I’m welcome, but it’s not my house.’ That kind of thing.
Is it kind of weird and almost serendipitous in a way that you have someone in Zachary Levi appearing on the show now? I was a really big fan of ‘Chuck’ and I remember for so many years you guys both sharing a night on Mondays. It’s interesting that he got to be a part of that show and then join this family, as well.
It’s great. I didn’t really get a chance to work with Zach, that’s the only sad part, but I know he was a fan of the show. And we premiered the same year, so we went on the same circuits together and we got a chance to meet him many times and he is a great guy. I [also]told him if there is ever a ‘Chuck’ resurrected, I’m there.
I’m not the sort of person who wants to poke and prod over what is going to be coming up…
Oh, everybody dies. (Laughs.)
Oh okay, so the next season of ‘Heroes’ is going to be set in the underworld or some sort of afterlife.
Oh yeah, it’ll be the afterworld, parallel universe and all of that kind of stuff!
I know in the promo for the next new episode it shows you working again with Jack Coleman. How was that experience?
It was really fun and like I said, a mini-family reunion. Most of my scenes were with the old cast. I had scenes with Christine Rose, Sendhil [Ramamurthy], Jack Coleman. Those were the people I mostly got to work with. And it was fun! It was just like old times. We didn’t skip a beat.
Did you really enjoy the concept that Tim and the writers used to write you into this past episode?
I thought it was really cool. Originally Hiro was supposed to be in the whole season, so there was a different arc laid out for him. We didn’t know until the last minute if I was going to be cleared to do three episodes. It was serendipitous that it all worked out. I know he kept [on teasing] Hiro Nakamura in the previous episode, and that was without making sure that we were legally clear to do this show. If I couldn’t, you might [have seen] a shadow of me kind of like what we do of Claire Bennett.
The promo also shows a little bit more action from you. Do you enjoy getting to tackle these sort of scenes?
Yeah, definitely! This time around it’s more ninja-style than samurai … I may not be as quick and nimble as the old Hiro, but it’s still definitely fun. In my other gig, I typically wield a scalpel, so this is definitely a little bit different.
The one thing missing [as opposed to] the old, innocent Hiro is that I didn’t get to play as much of his humor. That was a fun part, with speaking Japanese and the humor and that sort of stuff. That was missing this time around, but I also got to play a different sort of relationship that I didn’t get to play in the original, so that was exciting.
Are you back working on ‘Hawaii Five-0’ now?
Yeah, we’re right in the middle of season 6. We just finished shooting episode 10.
Is there anything specific you want to tease about what’s coming up for you over there?
Not much. Over there I’m typically what I call the ‘exposition b*tch.’ I just explain what happens with the procedural. Most guest stars don’t want to work with me because if they work with me, that means they’re dead.
We do have a Halloween episode coming up, and every year Max dresses up as a character from a Keanu Reeves [movie]. So you get to see [that happen] again.
Obviously one of the great things about ‘Heroes’ was that, as you mentioned, you’ve gotten a great opportunity to do action, humor, drama, a lot of different stuff. Is there anything still out there that you want to do? Is there a certain sort of script that would excite you?
You know what? Any kind of great story, whether it is a superhero story or a comedy. I just love creating characters and creating worlds. There’s nothing super-specific that’s like ‘aw man, I want to do that.’ If that was the case I’d probably create it.
I would love to do more things based on Japanese manga. I’m producing a lot of those films; it would be kind of cool to create one of those characters, but I’m not in a huge rush to do that. It is kind of cool to be behind the scenes and helping to bring the content over and protect it.
Thanks again to Masi for the chat! As we mentioned to him, this was an absolute joy to do as a longtime fan of the franchise and especially his character.
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