Brown alum snags big role in NBC series ‘Heroes’

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

When Masi Oka ’97 graduated from Brown with a degree in computer science, he never expected that within a few short years he would appear in such television series as “Scrubs,” “Will and Grace” and “Gilmore Girls.” This September marks a new chapter in Oka’s career, as he prepares for his first leading role in the NBC series “Heroes,” which will premiere Monday, Sept. 25.

“Heroes is about ordinary people with extraordinary abilities,” Oka said in a phone interview. “My character, Hiro Nakamura, finds that he has the power to bend the time and space continuum using sheer willpower. The show is about how he learns to deal with this new reality – will he be afraid or exhilarated?”

Though Oka participated in a few theater productions while at Brown, he dedicated the majority of his extracurricular time to the Bear Necessities a cappella group. Oka served as the group’s musical director his senior year.

Oka knew he wanted a career that would allow him to exercise both the logical and creative parts of his mind, but he was unsure how to pursue this goal until one fateful meeting at a career fair.

“Lucas Films came to our career fair my senior year,” Oka said. “Until then I hadn’t even considered that I could use my knowledge of computer science to work on films.”

After a series of interviews, Oka landed a job for Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco and began working in the research and development department. He wrote applications to create images for special effects for “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” “The Hulk,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “The War of the Worlds,” among others.

After a few years, however, Oka asked ILM to transfer him to its Los Angeles office so he could pursue a career in acting while continuing to work on special effects. He was allowed to transfer on the condition that he would return to San Francisco if he did not successfully land a pilot or recurring role within one year.

“I thought that if nothing else at least I’d have a story to tell my grandchildren, so I got my Screen Actors Guild card and decided to give the whole L.A. thing a try,” Oka said. “I happened to be fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.”

Oka moved to Los Angeles with no connections and little direction. “I started from scratch,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to get some Asian roles that are otherwise pretty closed. When you start acting your first roles are often very specialized and can help you find some way to stand out. I can do comedy and the pool of funny Asian-American males is relatively small so that really helped.”

In addition to his acting talent, Oka is a skilled improvisational comic, and he trained with the Second City and Improv Olympic comedy groups after moving to Los Angeles. Oka displayed his improvisational talents in appearances on “Reno 911,” “Punk’d” and “The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.”

“I really love improvising,” Oka said. “It worked well with my full-time job and gave me the chance to grow as a performer because it’s definitely a nerve-wracking experience at times.”

Oka got his first big acting break after pitching a pilot for “Straight White Male,” a half-hour, single-camera comedy for FX. Though that show did not take off, the same directors who viewed the pilot asked Oka to “do them a favor by taking a recurring role in Scrubs,” Oka said. “I couldn’t believe it; I kept asking if they were sure I was really doing them a favor by taking the part.”

Oka said he enjoyed the time he spent acting as Franklyn on “Scrubs.” “It really helped me as a professional and gave me credibility.”

Oka has continued to stay in touch with Brown alums. In his fourth year in Los Angeles, Oka worked to start the Brown University Entertainment Group for alums in the area.

“I was inspired by the fact that I had heard there was something of a ‘Brown mafia’ in L.A.,” Oka said. “I happened to meet a director from “Scrubs” who was also a Brown alum and realized that Brown alums should really start working together. I have so much respect for Brown alums – how they work and think – so I started gathering information.”

For Oka, “Heroes” represents the chance to branch out of stereotypical roles while playing a character he feels very connected to.

“Rarely do you get a part like this that is so well drawn out,” Oka said. “My character is the comic relief. He has a childlike heart and is extremely optimistic, and in many ways he’s really an extension of who I am. I was born in Japan, like my character, and that has also allowed me to talk to the writers and help them make a realistic portrait of a Japanese character – which is really exciting for me.”

Though Oka’s career has begun to accelerate, he continues to work for ILM and said he is very thankful for the company’s support.

“I still consult for ILM to keep the analytical side of my brain active,” Oka said. “I’m really appreciative that they gave me the opportunity and freedom to pursue a career in acting which provided me with a wonderfully stable income.”

Though Oka loves acting, he said he also has his eyes set on a possible future as a director, which would allow him to use both the creative and logical parts of his mind simultaneously.

“As a series regular I’m more involved in collaboration which means less waiting than I had to deal with in the past, but even so I do miss problem-solving at times.” Oka said. “I’d love to go into direction or production so that I could be focused on both the technical and personal elements of film.”

Oka said he really encourages all students at Brown who are considering a career in acting to stick with it and not to give up. “In retrospect I realize that it was naive to think that I would try acting for only a year. I’ve come to realize that acting is a marathon, not a sprint,” Oka said. “And don’t listen too much to the (Department of Modern Culture and Media) and become too analytical or cynical about the industry, because acting is about having fun.”

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