It has been quite the ‘heroic’ journey for Masi Oka, who plays the often-fearful techno geek in the big screen adaptation of Get Smart. As we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel room, Oka, attired in a dark blue suit, concedes that his comedic background hardly prepared him for Japanese time jumping Hiro Nakamura.
“Before Heroes I was doing mainly sitcoms,” explains the 34-year old eloquent actor. “I think it’s actually more challenging to do comedy, because it’s so hard to make it grounded, and real. Also it takes even a stronger sense of committing yourself to a specific point of view, that sometimes I do find drama easier, in that sense.” Oka adds, “comedy is still taking risks and being very vulnerable, yet on top of that, you have an added responsibility of trying to make people laugh, and at the same time have an extreme point of view. So I think I personally find comedy more challenging and more fun.”
Masayori “Masi” Oka was born in Tokyo, Japan. Ten years before he graduated from Brown University with a degree in computer science and mathematics, Oka was placed on the cover of Time Magazine, as he was considered one of the smartest Asian-American children in the nation. He was only twelve years old at the time, but his intelligence and skills with the computer have brought him a very long way, from being a high school student at Harvard-Westlake School to being a programmer for George Lucas’ visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. He is partly responsible for the visual effects of big-budget movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, A Perfect Storm and the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
As an actor, Oka broke through the small screen with guest appearances in shows like Dharma & Greg, Gilmore Girls, Yes, Dear, Still Standing, Less than Perfect, Reno 911!, and Without a Trace . He also had small roles in the films Austin Powers: Goldmember, Along Came Polly, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, and House of the Dead 2: Dead Aim. But it was the phenomenon that was Heroes, that garnered this extraordinary actor almost cult-like fame.
The modest and genuinely funny actor has come full circle as it were – he is now huge in his birth country of Japan. “It’s quite amazing. There is definitely like a rock star thing, and I don’t deserve it, at all. We were back last month and it was post-Heroes. I went back on July for the world tour, where it was pre-Heroes, so people were just trying to figure out, ‘Who is this guy? Now this time around, it was such an amazing reception.”
The exposure and his awards for the hit TV series inevitably led to big-screen offers, including, of course, as Bruce, one half of a duo of nerds working for CONTROL in Get Smart, the other half, Lloyd, played by former Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip star Nate Torrance. “We started the audition process off, and it was fairly early, where they were just pairing us up. We knew going into it that there was going to be a spin-off DVD as well, so it was actually a two picture kind of deal,” Oka explains in describing the audition process for Get Smart. “So that’s what was kind of exciting, to go into it that way. But I remember that it was such a long process, too, because they didn’t know what they wanted. I remember seeing people of different colour, people of different ages and even different sex. Bruce and Lloyd could have been two girls, so they were literally just mixing and matching these comedy people, which was very cool.”
Asked what the Get Smart producers saw in both Oka and Torrance that made them think they could pull of the scene-stealing comedic sub-plot of the film, Oka says, laughingly, “You get two guys from hit dramas on NBC, of course it’s going to be funny. I think we both have the same backgrounds, and Second City training, which is where most of our comedy senses lay.”
Having been exposed to the unique fandom that Heroes created, is Oka prepared for what Get Smart could potentially generate? “Maybe when the movie premieres, but fans are always great. I mean, they’re the ones who support our show, and they’re the reason why we make it. Before Heroes, what changed for me was the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people that I admire and idolize, whether it’s Steve Carell, to be able to work with him in this movie, to my brothers and sisters on set, as well as to meet fans, people halfway around the world I would have never been able to meet. And with Get Smart, I’ll be opened up to another great group of fans and hopefully those worlds will connect. I can get the Get Smart fans to watch Heroes, and the Heroes fans to watch Get Smart.”
Fans of Oka and especially his work on the movie, will also be able to see him and Torrance pair up for a straight-to-DVD Get Smart spin off, that comes out 10 days after the theatrical release of the movie. The DVD, called GS: Get Bruce and Lloyd may or may not include Agents 86 and 99. “Ooh, oh, we can’t talk about it, but there are cameos,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “But Hymie definitely makes an appearance and basically, the DVD is on the same timeline as the other movie. It’s basically extras, like; it’s showing what Bruce and Lloyd are doing in Control, while Agent 99 and Max go on their mission. A bunch of things happen at Control that we have to take care of, so when you watch the movie, you’ll watch our movie and want to even go watch the movie again, because you’ll see all these little ties in. So, if Get Smart is Hamlet, what we shot was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Oka adds laughingly. “I think Get Smart is Shakespeare. We strive to be him and Stoppard, so hopefully we can.”
While the actor is busy promoting both Get Smart projects, he is also busy working on Season 3 of Heroes. Asked if he is concerned about the effect of the recent writers’ strike on the new season, the actor is philosophical. “Well, the audience in general for TV has been going down and unfortunately, we were just about getting people back watching TV, and then the writer’s strike happened at a bad time. for us, I think it’s great, because it kind of gave the writers an opportunity to just refresh. and recharge themselves, with great storylines. Everyone’s very excited about the storylines in season three, and all pumped up. We’ve already shot two episodes, and people are very passionate about getting back. The down side, of course, is the fans, whom we’re keeping waiting. The great thing for us, is when we went off the air, our fans were able to watch Lost and when Lost goes off the air, they’ll be able to come back to us on Heroes and season three, so, we’re going to come back really strong.”
Of course, Oka wouldn’t reveal too much about the new season, except that “it’s exciting. Hiro gets an arch-nemesis named Daphne, whose special powers are that she’s a speedster. So the whole idea is, if Batman has his Joker, Hiro gets Daphne.” Again with the parallels. “I’m a parallel kind of guy. You’ll never meet me, because we keep on going the same direction. That’s a geometric joke. I kind of think of him more like a Wiley Coyote, and, like, a Road Runner thing, but Daphne says more than “beep beep.” So, we’re going to have a lot of things going on and the first five minutes are going to answer a lot of questions. In particular, who shot JR? I mean, Nathan Petrelli.”
Besides his ongoing work on Heroes, Oka is busy behind the scenes “like, setting up projects. I’ve been writing some stuff, producing things. I have about nine projects in the works, in all – in different medias and stuff, so It’s very exciting.” He says he has plans to eventually write and direct, “because I love the idea of collaborating with so many people. Since I have expertise in front of the screen and behind the scenes I still have a lot to learn on both sides, but I think I have enough of the vocabulary to be able to have a vision and execute it, communicate to the people around me, and make a good project.”