NBC's "Heroes" has taken its share of lumps since its heralded first season with fans vocal about their unhappiness with storylines, a ratings decline and the WGA strike. As the series prepares to launch the latest cycle of episodes, entitled "Fugitives," Masi Oka, who plays Hiro Nakamura, talked about the new episodes, the return of Bryan Fuller and why fame is something he'll never get used to.
Oka had no qualms in talking about the ups and downs the sci-fi series has taken since its debut in 2006 and what the plan is with the new crop of episodes. "We're going to go back to the fundamentals of what made the show really great and what kept it grounded, which is going back to central character and trying to tell smaller stories but with big action. More character-based and more centralized on specific characters as we see them finally come together towards the end in trying to save themselves."
Speaking of creator Tim Kring's plans for the coming new episodes, Oka shared that he does feel there is some patience involved with the way the show's stories are told. "Tim always has a great map to where we go but at the same time there's a collaboration that happens that allows us to go from interesting places and allows us to discover and we hope that the audience and the fans will go on that discovery and journey with us and knowing that there'll be a good payoff. I think with all our volumes, in particular, we sometimes have slow starts but we always pick it up into high gear towards the end. I think because a show like this takes such risks and makes bold choices it takes a little bit of time for the audience and the critics to get accustomed to this kind of new journey that we're going to take and once everyone is on board we hit the ground running."
In the "Fugitives" volume, fan favorite Hiro has to adjust to life without his ability to travel through time. "I find that actually interesting to play, a powerless character," Oka said, "because you kind of get the joy of rediscovering that power and what it means to be a hero without powers. How does someone who had that power and someone who's powerless... it's an interesting character/mind thing. You kind of fall from grace in many ways [and ]it's a balance of adjusting to that and how to live that and how you live your life and how you can still be a hero by helping others."
The dynamic between Hiro and his faithful sidekick Ando (James Kyson Lee) is also turned upside down when it's Ando who has the powers and Hiro is a normal human. "In the beginning, Hiro is powerless and Ando has a kind of super-charger powers so Hiro is trying to nudge him on. In many ways, he realizes now he's had his turn so he needs to see what he can do... [Hiro] takes on pretty much the role of the butler. He becomes Alfred (laughs)... he tries to make a Batman out of Ando but Ando's reluctant and he only cares about girls right now so Hiro tries to make him use the power for good to save other people and, of course, Hiro ends up getting in trouble and Ando ends up helping him."
There's been much action behind the scenes at "Heroes," as well, with the ousting this past November of longtime Executive Producers Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb. Asked if he (and the other actors) were aware of what was going on at the time, Oka admitted, "We weren't aware at all. We had no idea. In many ways what happens in the writers room stays in the writers room. For us, we have a lot of respect for that process and it's not our place to say anything. So it was actually really a shock for us to find out that was happening."
Despite the feelings of regret for Alexander and Loeb's leaving, Oka is thrilled that Bryan Fuller has returned to "Heroes," where he worked during the show's first season before venturing off to create the recently cancelled "Pushing Daisies." There are definite advantages to having Fuller back on the show, Oka explained. "[Bryan] knows what the topics were and he knows what made it great and having stepped out of it for a season and a half he had a different view on how the show was, how the show became... having him come back he was so excited and said 'Lets go back to this.' He came back the day after he found out 'Pushing Daisies wasn't coming back and he was so gung ho about this show and came back with all these ideas, so excited... Bryan coming in I think gave an uplifting momentum and energy and a big morale boost to everybody... there's a great synergy in the room right now."
In bringing some real human tragedy to the show, Hiro's mother recently appeared on the show and later had to deal with her death. Oka talked about how filming those scenes were difficult because of some ironic parallels in his own life. "It was quite difficult because at that time it kind of overlapped with my own mother who has been battling breast cancer. It kind of was difficult to kind of separate that at times but, at the same time, I hate to use the word easy but because I was living it in many ways that I kind of just transferred it." Oka later said in the conversation that his mother was on her last round of chemotherapy and was doing great.
An acting challenge of a different kind came during the "Villains" chapter when Oka had to play his character in both the present and as a ten-year old. "Hiro himself is kind of a man-child," Oka explained. "It was a challenge to play a ten-year old so that it doesn't seem like it's forced but at the same time enough of a distinction between the present Hiro and the ten-year old Hiro. It was definitely fun because on-set it was definitely no holds barred because I got to play a kid. I kind of channeled Tom Hanks in 'Big' or Robin Williams and just go all out and it actually freed me up to improvise a lot physically and it was definitely a lot of fun."
While nothing could prepare Oka and his fellow cast members for the level of popularity when "Heroes" first premiered, is it just a normal thing in his life now? "I don't think you can ever get used to it," he said. "It's always daunting. It's very overwhelming because even halfway around the world someone in Singapore is watching our show and they are big fans. That's actually one the great things about our show. We've been able to connect with so many people that I wouldn't have been able to connect to... and I don't think you can ever get used to it."
The first chapter of the "Fugitives" volume, which was written by Kring and directed by Emmy-winning Greg Yaitanes, airs Monday night at 9:00/8:00c on NBC.