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THE PERFORMANCE

It's awesome fun, saving the world

As a time traveler on 'Heroes,' Masi Oka is winning fans by putting enthusiasm and wouldn't-it-be-cool joy back into superpowers.

October 29, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

CALL it Hiro worship.

Hiro Nakamura, the gleeful comic book geek who uttered the coolest lines in TV this fall -- "Save the cheerleader, save the world" -- is captivating audiences in true superhero fashion. With his childlike awe, indefatigable joy and amusing vocabulary slip-ups, Hiro -- played by the equally jolly Masi Oka on NBC's "Heroes" -- is the first male character to break out this TV season.

Is it because Hiro can teleport and travel through time? Is it his reaction to his newfound special abilities? One Internet fan summarized it simply: "Hiro's the hottest geek ever!"

NBC surely isn't asking why. The No. 1 new show among 18- to 49-year-olds, "Heroes" also ranks in the top 10 among all shows in that advertiser-coveted demographic.

A serial saga about people all over the world discovering they have superpowers and how this change affects them, the strength of the drama lies largely in its relatable characters. Hiro is the time-- and space-bending 24-year-old office drone.

"Everything that is great about kids is inhabited in Hiro," said Oka, who finds the attention he is getting as overwhelming as Hiro finds his powers.

The character was an afterthought for creator Tim Kring, who added the Japanese-speaking Hiro after he showed his first draft of the pilot script to his wife, and she pointed out that he needed a character that embraced his powers with zeal.

"So I felt that we needed to come up with a character who rather than approaching this as an affliction, approaches it as the best thing that ever happened to him," said Kring, who also created "Crossing Jordan." "The character is a real archetype of anybody who feels trapped in a life that's too small and too insignificant for what they believe they are capable of."

But Kring was quick to add that much of what is lovable about Hiro is due to Oka's own charisma and enthusiasm. That feeling was echoed by director and executive producer Allan Arkush, who during a recent set visit said he found Oka so charming that it was challenging to stay focused on directing the actor when, for example, the script calls for him to "clench" -- the term the show's writers use when they want Hiro to squish his face, concentrate and stop time. "It's hard not to get wrapped up," Arkush said.

"Unlike actors who are speaking the language we can understand, he had to create the character much more because -- even though you're not quite sure what he's saying or how he's coming across -- the inflections are different, and so he brought much more to the character than you usually expect an actor to," Kring added.

Oka, 31, has spent most of his career in comedy and loves to ad lib. In one of the series' most memorable scenes, Hiro and Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), the flying congressional hopeful, met for the first time in a diner. When Hiro informed Nathan of his powers, Nathan asked him if he wins the election.

Hiro, who is learning English, replied, "Yes, you win. Very big win by a mudslide!" The script said "landslide."

"I love collaborating and the writers have been so generous and open to let me improvise," Oka said. (He also writes the weekly Hiro's Blog for NBC.com).

Last week, viewers were exposed to a completely different Hiro who jumped in from the future speaking perfect English, wearing a long pony tail, carrying a sword and being oh-so-serious.

"Future Hiro is harder for me because my personality lends more to present-day Hiro rather than the ... sexy Hiro that is Future Hiro," Oka said during a break. "But once I got into costume and everything, I was so into the character."

"Part of why that character was invented was to carry the themes of the show," Kring said. "It's a classic Shakespearean idea to give the perceived fool the most important and insightful comment."

As much as the actor and his character have in common, Hiro's intensity can be tough on Oka. During the filming of the pilot, Oka had to "clench" so many times his facial muscles gave out.

"I had to tell them I just can't shake anymore," said Oka, who wound up with a headache. "It looks bad when you try to fake it."

Oka auditioned four times. The last three tests involved only Hiro's first scene in the pilot in which the character, bored at his desk, discovers he can stop time and runs screaming through a sea of cubicles.

"That was it. Seven lines literally changed my life," said Oka, smiling as amply as his alter ego.

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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