A year ago, Masi Oka, 32, was a typical working actor. Then he was cast in NBC's hit fantasy thriller series "Heroes" and his life and career dramatically changed.
The Japanese-born Oka has become the breakout star of the series revolving around several diverse characters who all possess super powers.
Oka's sweetly optimistic Hiro Nakamura is the ultimate nerd who has time-shifting mental powers. The majority of the time, Oka speaks in Japanese.
Oka is nominated for a Golden Globe for supporting actor; "Heroes" is also nominated for a Globe for best dramatic TV series.
The actor has been in the limelight for two decades. In 1987, he was on the cover of Time Magazine for a story called "Those Asian-American Whiz Kids" - though he was not featured in the article itself.
Oka graduated with degrees in computer science and math - with a minor in theater - at Brown University. He has also worked at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic as digital effects computer programmer.
Q: I would imagine the fans of "Heroes" always approach you.
Masi Oka: Fortunately, I represent a very friendly character. People actually don't talk to me too much. They come up to me and say, 'We love your show and can we take a photo of you?' In many ways, I am the mascot [of the series]. I compare myself to Goofy at Disneyland. People want to take pictures of you.
Q: Do you write Hiro's blog that appears on www.nbc.com?
Masi Oka: I do write all my blogs. I am actually one blog behind, NBC.com came to me. Originally, we were talking about having the writers do it, but I said I can probably commit to like once a week, at least in the beginning and it's really fun. Anything I write, I send to the writers for approval, making sure everything is good. The first three weeks, I think they were actually reading what I said, then afterwards it was like, 'We trust you. You're brilliant. Go to town.'
Q: If you could go travel back and forth in time like Hiro where would you go?
Masi Oka: If you could do that, it would be so amazing. In my life, I want to go back to my sophomore year in college and see myself and give himself a little advice - 'Do not ask that girl out. Do not ask that girl out. That's 10 years of therapy right there. Do not ask that girl out. I'm sure I would have a saner view of relationships.
Q: When you read the pilot script, did you instantly feel a kinship to Hiro?
Masi Oka: Oh yeah, absolutely. First off the character is fluent in Japanese and I am thinking like 'Wow, how many actors are fluent in Japanese and have a comedic background and is someone known in the television community'. So I knew it was a pretty niche role, but then when I actually read it, it wasn't a one-dimensional role. Tim Kring created world with these beautiful characters and they were drawn with details. Probably each character in our show could have their own show if they wanted to. So I was very excited, and the fact that Hiro is so adventurous and enthusiastic and positive and optimistic and passionate. It is so hard to be like that in real life so to actually play and aspire others to be that way is a real gift.
Q: "Heroes" has been the sleeper hit of the fall. Why do you think the series has taken off - and not just with sci-fi and fantasy fans?
Masi Oka: When we were shooting the pilot, we knew we had something very special, but personally I didn't know if it would hit with the mainstream because it is a genre show. I think that is what's great about it is that it sort of hides [that it is a genre show]. At its core, "Heroes" is an ensemble character drama with genre elements. In this world, there are a lot of things that are kind of messed up. There is so much uncertainty with our lives and people are always looking for something to hold on to and want to be reassured that there are heroes outside who are trying to make change for the better. It was kind of like a timely thing to hit.
Q: When you come back with new episodes, you'll be opposite the new season of Fox's Emmy Award-winning "24."
Masi Oka: I think there is definitely an audience for both of them. You look at Thursday night with the head-on 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'CSI' and they are both doing great.
Q: You still work with Industrial Light and Magic on special effects assignments.
Masi Oka: I still do. It is unbelievably difficult. I used to program for them. I would write the programs that would create the images for special effects. These days I am more of a consultant
Q: So how did you go from special effects to comedy to acting?
Masi Oka: I loved the idea of using the right side and the left side of the brain. It was a challenge for me, but I loved using both sides. I think it enriches you as a scientist to be able to see things in an artistic perspective and as an artist to see things in a scientific perspective.
While I was ILM, I studied improv and actually got my Screen Actors Guild card. I was just coming off my first big show [doing special effects] 'The Perfect Storm,' I was on that for a year and a half. I was thinking 'You know what, I have no responsibilities except to myself. I have to give this thing a shot if I can.'
I came down to L.A. and I was very fortunate to have ILM support me. We kind of struck a deal where I could be in L.A. and I signed something that if I didn't get a supporting role in a feature film or a returning role on a pilot in the first six months, I would have to go back up to San Francisco.
It was the most naive thing in the world because anybody pursuing a career in entertainment in Los Angeles understands this is about perseverance. Fortunately, things worked out. And ILM was very happy with the work I was doing in L.A.
Q: So have you ever been to a big awards show before?
Masi Osa: I have been to smaller awards show, but this is an amazing big thing. Just to be nominated I guess I should really start thinking about [an acceptance speech]. I have no idea how this process works. I am just here for the ride and am enjoying it. I have my folks and the cast mates, everyone supporting me. That's enough. I think I'll make [the speech] all Japanese!Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times