There wasn't a solar eclipse when Masi Oka realized his life had changed, nor did time stop.
It was in San Diego this past July, when Oka, 31, fresh off receiving a best supporting actor Emmy nomination for his work on "Heroes," returned to Comic-Con for his second visit. It was the anniversary of NBC unveiling its take on down-to-earth superheroes to a prospective fan base that was -- well, we have to say it -- a tinge nerdy. And just one year after the show's sneak peek at the convention, Oka was back in front of a huge, adoring crowd that cheered like lunatics during a discussion panel featuring the "Heroes" actors and creators.
"It was kind of like winning the Super Bowl and going back to your home city," Oka said. "Except I didn't play for the San Diego Chargers, I played for the San Diego Geeks."
Oka is the sole actor of the "Heroes" ensemble to receive a nomination, although the show itself is up for eight Emmys, including best drama series. There isn't much question that Oka's character, Hiro Nakamura, is the scene-stealer, the one with eminently quotable lines (the exuberant "Yatta!" and "Save the cheerleader, save the world" both originated with Hiro) and the one with the most relatable back story -- he's a Tokyo office drone who discovers he has the useful and ultra-cool ability to manipulate time.
But Oka demurred at the notion that he's the standout of the show, noting the episode he submitted for Emmy consideration -- "Five Years Gone," which bumped the show's characters a few years into the future -- involved (beware, all you who are uninitiated: Time-traveling geek-speak starts . . . now!) Future Hiro raising hell with many of his fellow superheroes to rescue Present Hiro. "My performance is based on a lot of the generosity of the other actors," Oka said. "I like to think that the nomination was kind of a nod to all of us. I'm glad, in some sense, I could represent everyone for our show."
It's a mantle Oka carries well, as the first season cliffhanger fell squarely on Hiro's time-bending shoulders, and the start of the second season finds him in shogun-era Japan. It's an intense time for the show: There's pressure to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that affects many TV shows, and ratings for "Heroes" started to decline during the end of the first season; and then there are fans' rabid expectations.
As he sat on the "Heroes" set -- you may notice, correctly, during the second season that feudal Japan looks a lot like a big patch of back-40 brush in Thousand Oaks -- Oka's genuine enthusiasm for his work pretty much obliterated any overarching concerns about the show's status. "We had a fantastic first year," he said. "We're just going to do what we did then, which is to have passion for our work, take a lot of pride in it, and have fun while we're doing it. And we hope the audience will respond to what we're doing."
And while most of the audience response to date toward Oka has been of the giddy "EEEEE!" variety, his newfound fame has resulted in some run-ins that made the actor wish he really could rewind time.
"I remember walking down a street in New York, going somewhere to get a bite," he said. "And this guy came up to me and said: 'Dude, you're Hiro, right?!?' I was like, 'Thank you for watching the show.' And I'm walking away and he started to yell at the top of his lungs: 'YATTA, mother . . . ! YATTA!' Everyone is looking at him, and then looking at me. And I'm mortified, and I'm walking really fast, and he starts chasing me. 'YATTA, mother. . . ! YATTA!' I just ran as fast as I could, got in a cab and zipped out."
There have been other minor inconveniences -- Oka had to drop out of the immersive and addictive online video game World of Warcraft because people figured out who he was ("My character's name was an anagram of my name, but I'm glad I stopped playing because, while it was a great way to socialize and meet people, now I'm meeting a lot of people who are real. You know, that have a face.") -- but, overall, he's managed to meld the glam of Hollywood into his normal routines without much disruption.
He and costar Zachary Quinto -- who plays evil cockroach Sylar -- had a big plan for the day the Emmy nominations were announced: After attending a mutual friend's birthday party, they were going to stay up all night watching movies until the nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. Of course, tipsy and tired, at 3 a.m. they crashed -- and slept through the nominations. For Oka, that's actually becoming something of a tradition, as he also slept through the Golden Globe nominations last December, missing out on the "Heroes" nod for TV drama.
"For the Golden Globes, the first call I made was actually to my mother," he said. "She was in Japan and she started crying and I started crying. I promised myself with the Emmys that I wasn't going to cry. And so when I heard the news this time, again the first person I called was my mother. She was in Japan, again she started crying, again . . . and I couldn't stop."
Oka and his mother left Japan when he was 6 and settled in Los Angeles. He attended Harvard-Westlake School, then went on to Brown University, where he double-majored in computer science and mathematics. "I figured college was a social education, not just an academic education, so I wanted to grow socially," he said. "I was trying to figure out what was a great way to learn more about the human condition and be more comfortable with myself, so I tried theater." After graduation, while working at film effects company Industrial Light & Magic, Oka landed a few acting roles -- and the next thing he knew, he was a superhero in feudal Japan. A pretty cool place, indeed.
"American kids grow up on spaghetti westerns, and in Japan we'd watch samurai films," Oka said. "My childhood was pretty much studying for this role."
While everyone on set is tight-lipped about spoilers, Oka did drop some hints to the new season: He has to ride horses, wear armor and put his real-life study of kendo swordsmanship to the test "somewhat."
"I'm hoping there'll be some sort of big epic battle," he said. "Come on, writers? Please?"
How can they refuse such a simple request from the MVP of the San Diego Geeks?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
We asked Masi Oka to prove his geek street cred and tell us his favorite superheroes in a variety of genres -- and, of course, we made things more difficult
by ruling out "Heroes" as a choice.
(Although, yes, flying like Nathan would be tremendously awesome.)
Favorite TV Superhero
"It may be 'The Greatest
American Hero.' That was
kind of fun. I loved that
song! 'Believe it or not,
I'm walking on air . . . who
can it beeee?' "
Favorite Movie Superhero
"Superman. I grew
up with it. I definitely
have a soft spot for it."
Favorite Comic Book Superhero
"JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
It's Japanese manga, and
it's a very cool comic book."
Favorite Nonfictional Superhero
"My mom. It takes a lot of
courage, as a single mother,
to take your child to a foreign
land and provide him with
a better life."