Actor, hero living the dream
By Bill Keveney
By Bill Keveney
LOS ANGELES — Playing a comic-book-obsessed character has left Masi Oka of "Heroes" with less time for one of his hobbies: comic books.
"I don't get to come here often," Oka says, browsing aisles of manga, the Japanese comic-book form, in Kinokuniya, a store in Little Tokyo.
Oka, who plays geeky Japanese office worker Hiro Nakamura on "Heroes," gave a reporter a quick primer, pointing out romance and adventure stories in Japanese and English, with different comics aimed at children, teenage girls and boys, and adults. He prefers the Japanese-language imports and especially likes the work of Naoki Urasawa, whose comics include "Monster."
"Hiro's a fanboy. I'm a geek. I love my manga. But Hiro is more extreme," says Oka, 31, whose character's popularity is underscored by hundreds of fan comments on Hiro's blog at nbc.com.
But manga is just one parallel between Oka and Hiro, who finds he can travel through time and space. "Hiro talks about destiny and fate. It is kind of fated that I was at the right place at the right time to be exposed to this amazing character, because there's so much of Hiro that's me," Oka says.
Both are from Japan, Oka having moved to the United States at age 6. Both have experienced employee life, although Oka's special-effects work must be more exciting than Hiro's cubicle captivity. And their stories might have made for good manga, which often center on wish fulfillment.
"Hiro gets to live his dream of being a superhero. I get to live my dream of being on a successful show," he says during an interview at a nearby plaza.
Oka's dream now seems supersized. "Heroes" is the season's No. 1 new series (averaging 14.4 million viewers), and Hiro may be the top breakout character. Reflecting the Hiro buzz, Oka is scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," as well as ABC's "The View." And he was interviewed Thursday during NBC's Thanksgiving parade coverage.
In "Heroes," Hiro is one of numerous ordinary people who gain superpowers: One can fly, another hears others' thoughts and a third draws a comic book, "9th Wonders," that reveals the future. Hiro, featured in "Wonders," is an avid reader.
Alone among the heroes, some of whom are ambivalent or even angry about their transformation, Hiro stands out as downright giddy. (The character appeared only briefly last week but will be featured tonight when he goes back in time to prevent the death of a waitress.)
"I knew he was comic relief, and I have a blast playing him. It's so much fun. I hope it shows," he says.
In an upcoming episode, George Takei (Mr. Sulu in "Star Trek") will play the father of "Star Trek" fan Hiro.
But the character, who travels the United States with his sidekick, Ando, is more than a clown. In a scene filmed on a street next to the plaza, Hiro stopped time to save a girl from being hit by a truck. Recent scenes revealed a time-traveling future Hiro, "a dark, beaten-down warrior" with samurai traits who, in unaccented English, first utters the "Heroes" mantra: "Save the cheerleader. Save the world."
"That was a gift the writers gave me," says Oka, who surprised viewers with the portrayal. "The greatest compliment you can get is, 'Wow! That was really you?' As an actor, I know I did a job if I can play two characters who are completely yin/yang."
Future Hiro also challenges the traditional depiction of the "asexualized" Asian-American male, he says. "Daniel Dae Kim is doing an amazing job of breaking that stereotype on 'Lost,' " Oka says. "I'm going more the cute route."
Still, some interviewers have told Oka that Hiro, who is getting a love interest, is a sex symbol. "And I'm like, 'What?' I'm absolutely surprised," says Oka, who is single.
Oka has made good use of his heritage on the show. He translates dialogue into Japanese, and with the writers' blessing, has made suggestions to depict the character's background as accurately as possible. When writers had Hiro shouting "Banzai!" after face-clenching trips through time, Oka told them it had a wartime connotation.
"I suggested 'Yatta!' which means 'I did it!' "
For Oka and Hiro, the parallels keep on coming.