Eye recently spoke with Masi Oka, who plays Hiro Nakamura in the new NBC fall hit, Heroes. The Tokyo-born, L.A.-bred actor talked with Eye about accurate depictions of Japanese on American TV and movies, about translating all his own dialogue into Japanese himself, and about his previous career as a computer programmer at Industrial Light & Magic—Oka is, as you may have read, a bit of a whiz kid, the man behind the water effects for The Perfect Storm and the first and second Pirates of the Caribbean.
The final fall episode of the Heroes airs Monday, Dec. 4 at 9/8c.
What accounts for Hiro’s ecstatic attitude about his superpowers? He grew up reading comic books; that’s his bible. He learned everything about life and what it should be, the laws and rules, what a good person is through comic books. It’s easy for him to accept that reality. And it’s his dream to be a superhero, and his dream came true.
I was reading where one writer called you some kind of cute muppet she’d like to put on her shelf. Do you ever feel like your character is a perpetuation of the Japanese “cutesy” stereotype? There is some truth [to stereotypes], that’s why they’re stereotypes. But Hiro is a blank canvas, and the world kind of paints him. So you see a lot of layers coming. He starts with the whole wide-eyed wonder kid going on an adventure, and he begins his journey with naiveté and sincerity. But he’s going to grow, change. As he goes through tests and obstacles, he’s going to mature. And we’ve seen where he ends up. We’ve seen Future Hiro.
Future Hiro. You’d so gone through the matrix, man. But it’s the whole beginning and the end of his journey.
You don’t feel like he’s that simple a character. But he starts out that way. Which is great, because that’s the way you want to start out. You’ll slowly find him morphing into the future Hiro as time progresses. It’s only nine episodes [so far]! You want to see people grow. And definitely, he’ll grow.
Do you feel like American TV and movies “get” Japanese people and culture, that they’re accurately depicted? It’s catered toward an American audience. I have to say that in Lost, when they do the Korean flashbacks, that’s pretty much dead-on. Some of the Indian stuff we do is great, some of the Japanese stuff . . . . It’s hard, because they don’t have someone sitting there, telling them about this. It’s like the telephone game, right. Because somebody’s done it correctly in Japan, or what they think is correct, and people see that as, “Oh, that’s supposed to be it,” and then somebody writes that about that. And after the eighth generation, it’s something completely different than what it used to be. And the problem is, when they first see it, it’s hard to tell if that’s real or not in the first place, because it might have been a Japanese parody of something else.
Can you give an example? I could talk about our show. Even in the pilot, [in Japan] we don’t have clocks with Japanese kanji characters. The only place you’ll see them is sushi restaurants or gift shops. But it makes sense for the American audience, because it was a great promotional thing to be able to show that clip and know you were in a foreign country. What’s necessary for the story . . .there’s always going to be a fine line.
Who writes your dialogue? I write my own dialogue; I translate it. They write the English dialogue and I translate it into colloquial Japanese or whatever a 24-year-old would talk like.
You translate it yourself? I didn’t know that. There’s a little bit of subtle jokes with words I use.
Who puts all the techie, trekkie references in? In English, the writers all write that. We have a bunch of trekkies on our show, so they know.
But when I translate into Japanese, I watch the Japanese episode of, like, Star Wars, and see what words they use to say, for instance, “dark side.” I want to make sure I use the right ones.
You should get a bonus for translating your own dialogue. I asked them if I could do it. It helps me get into character. That’s something I have control over. I can’t control what kind of dialogue they write or the set pieces. But I have control over what I say in Japanese.
Does Mohinder speak Hindi? He doesn’t speak it.
Why didn’t they want him to speak Hindi? Well, [Hiro] speaks it because he is from Japan. In India, they speak Hindi and English. Although [Mohinder] has an English accent.
Is the actor British? He’s actually from Detroit, I think. Or somewhere in South Texas, maybe? But he studied in London a lot. You don’t notice it anymore. It’s kind of interesting.
Oh, so he wasn’t supposed to have a British accent? I don’t think so.
That’s funny. I always just assumed the character was sent away to some British school. But if you listen to the pilot, he had an Indian accent.
Did the producers ever get any flak that Isaac can only paint visions of the future when he’s high on heroin? There’s a pretty un-Nancy Reagan twist to that. I haven’t heard of anything.
And he can only paint when he’s high, but that’s starting to change. I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent episode.
Mr. Sulu is playing your father in an upcoming episode. What was it like working with him? It was amazing. He can be really, really intimidating. He gave me a glare, and I felt so much in trouble.
I read something about you in Wired, that you actually used to be one of the top programmers for Industrial Light & Magic. Do you still work with them? I consult for them one day a week; it’s getting hard with the seven day weeks we pull off sometimes. I’ve written a lot of legacy code—code I’ve written that’s been around for a long time, so you like leave your legacy. There’s so much stuff I’ve written that’s archaic but still gets used. It’s easy for me to go in and say, “Fix this, that’s what that meant, do this.” I don’t get to work on the shows, which is the fun part. They’re working on Transformers and Pirates III right now. That’s the thing I kind of miss.
Why did you want to get into acting? I studied theater arts in college, and it’s cool, the idea of using the left brain and the right brain together. I got into theater in the first place because I wanted to learn more about myself and human nature in general. And I felt it was the best exercise of studying human beings. And also, to conquer the fear. It opened me up to a different way of thinking and exposed me to a lot of different kind of people than I was used to. It was very different from my math team or chess club, the comp-sci geeks.
Did your ILM friends give you any flak about going into acting? Actually not. And right now, they’re big fans of the show. They ask me for spoilers. And I’m like, I can’t give you spoilers. Remember when we were working on Star Wars III, remember that confidentiality [agreement]?
Do you hang out with one group more than the other? Do you ever get tired of listening to actors talk about their craft? I don’t get tired, [but] I sometimes feel like I don’t fit in.
I hang out with Milo a lot [Peter]. All of us get together a lot; we really like each other. And I respect them not only as artists, but as people. But yeah, at the same time, I do feel a little bit out of my element, because I don’t have the past . . .
Right, I’ve been working on commercials since I was 12 . . . Yeah. I’m starting to ease into the actor [world], but I feel more comfortable with the writers. I enjoy hanging out with the writers, geeking out intellectually and talking about the time-space continuum and how I feel about the sixth dimension.
Get out to New York often? Not that often. I would love to come more, but not the biggest fan of flying.
You don’t like flying? But you travel through space and time. If I could travel through space and time, it would be in an instant. But it’s five hours.