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Masi Oka, who captivated audiences with his portrayal of Hiro Nakamura on NBC’s Heroes, has a new gig as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of cadavers” on Hawaii Five-0.
With the new series debuting tonight on CBS, Spinoff Online checked in with Oka to find out more about his role as Max Bergman, quite possibly television’s first-ever Japanese Hawaiian Jew.
And while his recurring character’s first episode is a few weeks away, Oka did tease that his role could expand beyond one or two cameo appearances. He also shared a few choice details about the movie he’s working on with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman at DreamWorks and why he’d love to return to the role of Hiro to give the character a proper goodbye.
Spinoff Online: How is everyone’s favorite traveler of time and space?
Masi Oka: I’ve been pretty busy. I just got back from traveling and now I’m back in L.A. and I’m working on a lot of stuff.
And that includes landing a recurring role as the coroner on Hawaii Five-0. So how often will we be seeing your character?
Well, we’ve done two so far. And I know I’m supposed to be in a couple more but we’re kind of waiting and seeing right now. I think they want to see how the premiere does first.
And you taped your scenes in Hawaii?
Yeah, it was fun.
Had you been there before?
I think I went as a little kid, I guess. So it’s definitely changed since then, but it was a lot of fun. I was there for a week shooting the two episodes. Ironically, I didn’t get to go to the beach too much or the pool.
So you’re not a big surfer.
I’m not a big surfer. But I do like body boarding. And I do like the beach, it’s just I did a lot of tourist things. Not only do I get to do that American tourist thing but it’s also the Japanese tourist thing, so it’s hard for me to just stay in one place.
Now, your character’s name on H50 is Max Bergman. That’s not a traditional Hawaiian-Japanese name, is it?
No, it’s definitely not a traditional Hawaiian-Japanese name. From what I understand, that’s the name of the original coroner on Hawaii Five-O, as well. So it’s an homage to that, and the way that [showrunner] Peter [Lenkov] explains it is that my character is adopted. So that’s why he has a very Jewish name.
You’re a smart guy. You graduated from Brown University with a degree in computer science and mathematics. Did you ever consider going into medicine?
Oh, God, no. I mean, the sight of blood kind of makes me squeamish. That’s why I’m bad at watching horror films. When I go on dates, I’m supposed to be this tough guy but when I see gore, it’s like, “Aah.” I try to find a way where I stay away from the procedurals where they use all these tough medical terms. Technology terms, I’m totally cool with but medical terms are so specific. I tried to avoid them for as long as possible but here I am. I put myself in a situation where I have to say this stuff every other episode. It’s kind of rough but I’m having fun. It’s a very fun character. The crew and the staff and the writers and everybody are great and, of course, it’s Hawaii.
I’ve seen the pilot and it does seem like a lot of fun. Do you get to be the funny guy or are you a straight man?
I definitely get to be a funny character. First of all, there’s the name, Max Bergman. “My parents are white Hawaiian Jews.” And my character does only two things well — sorry, he does two things extremely well. One is analyzing dead bodies. And the other one is playing the piano. And they happen at the same time. It’s a very eccentric character. They kind of liken him to the mad professor in many ways.
So you may get squeamish around blood, but can you play piano?
Yeah, I used to play when I was a kid. It’s been a while since I played but I’ve composed stuff and I played on a keyboard. I can’t listen to something and play it back but if I have sheet music, I can learn it and play it. That kind of helps me when I’m trying to do it for the show, because I’m faking it but I’m kind of playing it. So for a TV show, it looks good because I know the rhythm and I know how to play the chords, so I know how to fake it.
Does Max ever get to go on assignment with the team and kick some ass?
No. It’s a cop show so there is going to be a lot of dead bodies, and whenever there is a dead body, they come to Max to find out what happened. So Max is a catalyst in many ways. He either gives a clue, in terms of what happened, or starts them on their hunt. He is the one that opens up the case, in some sense, and helps to guide them in the right direction. He’s kind of like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of cadavers.
So he’s basically in the autopsy room all the time, right next to an office with a piano. The cool thing is, though, that they’ve built a real cool set for his character so it sounds like they are going to be using that set a lot. The downside is that I have a feeling Max Bergman is not going to get a lot of tan because he’ll not see much daylight.
So it doesn’t sound like you’re relocating to Hawaii just yet.
No, that would be fun but I have a lot of business in Los Angeles, as well as Japan, so for me, it’s nice to make a stop in Hawaii and then go to Japan and do other stuff and then come back to L.A. The thing is, I love travel but I’m not a big flier. This is where I wish I had Hiro’s power because it would be great to teleport.
You mentioned you had a lot of business in L.A. in Japan. Are you still working for ILM [Industrial Light and Magic]?
No, I’m not. I am theoretically still an employee so I’m in their employee database but I haven’t done any hours for them. Right now I’m working on a couple of movies and one needs a lot of effects, so I’m hoping to utilize my employee discount – finally.
Can you talk about any of those projects yet?
I have a bunch right now. The one I can talk about a little bit about is The Defenders. It’s over at DreamWorks right now. I’m working with [Alex] Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci and we just got Marti Noxon on-board to write — he did Fright Night. John Hamburg, as well. So it’s kind of an interesting combination where we have Kurtzman and Orci and John Hamburg and a great writer in Marti.
Can you share any details about The Defenders?
No, can’t tell you too much beyond that, unfortunately.
OK. Well we’ll watch for more on that, but what about Heroes? Tim Kring was working on a way to wrap up that story but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get a chance. Would you have liked to have been able to give Hiro a proper goodbye?
I think that it would have been great to be able to do that, especially if it was a movie or something. Even now, when I walk through the streets or go to a different country, people still love the character. Everybody is always like, “We’re bummed. We loved the show. We loved the character. We wanted to see more.” When you hear that and you realize there are still a lot of fans out there, it would be nice for the fans and me to give Heroes a full closure. I think we kind of missed that opportunity where 24 and Lost got a proper swansong. So yes, it would be tremendous to close off Heroes properly in one way or another.
Hawaii Five-0 premieres tonight at 10 EST/PST on CBS.