Masi Oka as Hiro in Heroes
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Masi Oka in Heroes (Credit: NBC)

Masi Oka time-travels for Heroes retrospective — and reflects on diverse superheroes

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Jul 10, 2020, 4:30 PM EDT

Heroes premiered on NBC way back in 2006, so long ago that people nowadays forget it was one of the instigators of our current superhero-saturated culture. At that time, straight-up superhero shows were not a thing, especially not on prime-time broadcast television. There also wasn’t a Marvel Cinematic Universe or a DC Extended Universe, and The CW network had just launched, so the Arrowverse wasn’t even a glint in its eye. So it’s fair to say that Heroes becoming a huge pop-culture phenomenon at launch was essentially a litmus test for what was to come.

And it was also one of the very few series of that time to come out of the gate with baked-in inclusion. The massive ensemble cast offered a lot of unknown, multi-ethnic faces, and more importantly didn’t remand them all to sidekick roles. In fact, one of its anchor characters in the pilot was introduced as the personification of the potential of the show’s own title: Hiro Nakamura, played by Masi Oka.

Now, 14 years later, the entire run of Heroes will be available on NBCUniversal's upcoming streaming service Peacock, and a new generation of superhero fans can see some old-school history. Having been a part of that ride for the entirety of its history, Oka spoke with SYFY WIRE about the legacy of the show, the impact of Hiro on the superhero culture, and how the show changed his life as a creative. 

You’ve had the rare opportunity to stay with this character over the whole span of his existence. Do you allow yourself moments to reflect on the path you’ve taken with the character?

The whole idea of the superhero genre wasn’t exploited as much back then. Now we see a proliferation of all these streaming services, including on Peacock, and we see all of these superhero shows on there. But before then, it was a risky proposition. It's hard to believe. So I remember when we were doing the [NBC] up-fronts [and they] were actually just kind of, “Ehh, we’ll take a shot at these guys and see what happens."

For us, on set, we knew we were making something actually extraordinary. I mean, even look at the writers’ list. We had the Yankees. It's amazing: Michael Green (Logan), Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Tim Kring (Touch), Jeph Loeb (Smallville), all these guys. Now they are brilliant showrunners themselves and auteurs. And they all came together and created this show. So we knew we had something special when we were making it, but the people outside were saying, “Now, they’re superheroes. They're not gonna happen.”

People forget it really wasn’t a landscape where mainstream audiences were immersed in comics culture.

Yeah, I remember NBC put all their chips into Studio 60 at that time. It's Aaron Sorkin; he's amazing, a brilliant writer as well. But then after one night, all of a sudden things have changed for us. It was really interesting, because when we went to Comic-Con, all of a sudden after the screening, I remember we just couldn’t walk anywhere. We got bombarded everywhere. That was a turning point. I was like, "OK, at least we have something for that genre crowd."

And then I remember doing my first interview with me, America Ferrara, and Lizzy Caplan [in Ugly Betty and Related at the time, respectively]. We were supposed to be these three breakout characters of the season. And I was thinking, "OK, that's kinda weird." I didn't think of myself as that. But, lo and behold, after that first episode aired, our lives all really changed. And especially for me, it was really important, because I'm an Asian-American actor. There were “diversity roles” back then, but they were like really small roles, these one-liners like the Chinese delivery guy. So to see a character that was one of the leads and to be able to portray in a positive fashion?

And he was a co-lead on his own hero’s journey, literally, Joseph Campbell-esque.

And there was some stereotypes [to Hiro]. But at the same time, there was a lot more depth to that. Stereotypes are part of who we are as humans. There's a reason why it's called stereotypical, because it's part of a truth. But to be able to show a different part, that's what's important about diversity. And Hiro became a hero and one of the co-leads. It's an unlikely journey, especially for an Asian character at that time.

Hiro kept a strong arc that was extremely important to the mythology of the show. Were you able to talk to Tim Kring about that as the seasons continued?

I never really got a chance to talk to Tim about that, because it wasn’t, at first, a series regular role, so for me I was just like grateful to be on the show. I was really just ecstatic, because it was a great show, and it was fun. I was able to put my spin on it, do my improv, and was able to add to the process on set and collaborate with writers and my fellow actors. Only later on did I find out through an interview that Hiro was supposed to be killed like in the seventh episode. If I had known that maybe there might have been a different story. I don't think it would've affected me in terms of changing the way I would play him. But there might have been a little bit more "Oh, god, what's gonna happen to me!" rather than just really enjoying the moment and just having fun. So I think that just fed into itself. And I'm just very lucky that things worked out.

Was there a Hiro arc that you felt the most ownership about in regards to how you helped shape it?

Not that I recall, actually. When I'm an actor on a show, I tend to be that. I’ll throw input, but my job is to trust the writers in many ways. It's still a collaboration, so there are some inputs. I remember back in the day I didn't even think about the idea of creating stories and influencing what the writers write. There was a dialogue, but ironically, I didn't inject myself, Masi, as a filmmaker, Masi, as a creator, in Heroes. I literally just followed the process. And being my first show, it's hard to figure out what it is. I guess that's the Japanese part in me where I tend to respect all authority and seniority. People who are bosses are really important to us.

Ironically, though, when Heroes Reborn came around, I did speak to Tim. I had all these ideas, and I told him I would love to be a producer on the show and then helped shape the show. And he was actually really all for it. Unfortunately, I had a contract with Hawaii Five-0, which I'm especially grateful for as well. But the timing just didn't work out. But if there was another [season of] Reborn, I would definitely have more input and would want to be involved in the creative process, knowing how stories are made and how to work with writers.

It's like if I had the knowledge now and the experience, and then if I were to literally go back in time like Hiro did, it would've been different. I think there's a sense of innocence and gleefulness that Hiro is going through, where he's discovering everything, as I was. I think there was a correlation there and a parallel. If I had known everything now, I think there wouldn’t be that pure joy that Hiro was experiencing.

Credit: NBC

You’re a producer now too, so what did you learn from observing the making of Heroes that influenced how to approach that role now?

I would say trying to avoid a writers’ strike. [Laughs.] Look, the writers’ strike was important. I support the unions, and I have to speak up for that. The problem was it was just poor timing in terms of how unfortunate [it was for Heroes]. I joke, but it kind of killed the momentum, without a doubt. And, it is what it is, like how we have to deal with a pandemic right now. It's part of life, and there are so many other things going on that are more important than your show. We were just blessed to have a great run.

But in retrospect, there are pros and cons. At the end of the day, having great writers is so important. We were very fortunate having great writers in Season 2 to 4. But the first season was just amazing, and we lost a couple of them starting in Season 2. And then that kind of tipped the scales a little bit, to be honest with you.

So, especially when it comes to TV, the writers are literally the kings and queens. They are the creative force behind everything. That's why when I produce with TV, it's really important to have that great visionary who also can work together. As a writer being in the room, I've realized how important the showrunner is, how important that dynamic inside the room is and how you want to make sure everyone’s writing because they want to write, and that they're writing with their blood rather than for the paycheck. That was our show. Our first season, everybody couldn’t wait to see the next script.

Was there a favorite storyline?

Oh, wow, I don't even remember the title of the seasons. [Laughs.] I think it was definitely the first season, though. The first season without a doubt has just always been like close to perfect TV. The finale was the only thing that I wish ... I'm gonna be perfectly honest with you. I think the writers had all of these amazing things happen in the finale.

I remember [reading] the first draft going, "Oh, my god, this is awesome!" And then subsequent drafts, it kind of whittled down, which I am assuming those were network notes to scale down the budget. I'm sure the budget was crazy. And we probably used so much budget. As a producer, you want to end with a bang. It felt like it could've been better. But that first season was just absolutely amazing, just to be able to be part of that. And it's just very special, where we were all discovering things.

Are you finding that performing is still in your heart? Or are you finding that producing allows you to be more in charge? Where are you at, career-wise?

I love it all. My mind has always been left brain, right brain, in harmony. Producing has a different, varying mindset. You have to be flexible about thinking outside the box but also being able to put out the creative box for people to think in. And acting is a different muscle, which I love. It's very creative, and it's a lot more focused.

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