Masi Oka talks television, special effects and the role that would make him quit acting for good.
Masi Oka just might be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood— literally. At age 5, he earned an IQ test score of 189, which classifies him as a genius. Sure, that was 36 years ago. But judging by Oka’s character today, on-screen and off, he’s still exceedingly intellectual.
“I think any character I play on TV is an exaggeration of who I am,” says Oka, citing his role of medical examiner Dr. Max Bergman on CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 as an example, specifically in the scientific and logical side of his thought process.
Oka, whose full name is Masayori Oka, was born in Japan and moved to Los Angeles at age 6 with his mom, Setsuko, with whom he continues to have a close relationship. That aforementioned IQ test was part of the application process to attend Mirman School in L.A., which is known for serving highly gifted students. As for his nickname Masi, that can be credited to a friend in first grade who actually called him a less-than-flattering term because of his messy handwriting.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna call you Messy Mossy from now on,’ and that kind of just stuck,” recalls Oka, adding it was hard for people, including his teachers, to pronounce his name. “Instead of spelling it M-O-S-S-Y, I used Masi and, ironically, it’s not really a Japanese name because we don’t have an ‘si’ in Japanese, it would have to be ‘shi.’ So when people try to spell my name in Japan, they always spell it Mashi Oka.”
Prior to Hawaii Five-0, Oka played the fan-favorite character Hiro Nakamura on the TV phenomenon Heroes, for which he earned Emmy and Golden Globe award nominations. NBC revived the series last fall as Heroes Reborn, with a new cast and some familiar faces, including Oka’s. He reprised his role of the lovable Japanese nonconformist computer/anime geek who has the power of time travel and teleportation—abilities he wishes he had in real life.
“I wish I had more time,” he explains. “There are so many things to do. If I could teleport, it would be so amazing because I travel so much.
“I love traveling. I’m just not a big fan of airplanes, so it would be nice to go wherever in the world quickly. I don’t have a fear of flying; it’s just I want a better way of using that time. I don’t like that I’m constricted and confined in one place; and most of the time, there’s no Wi-Fi. I’m always on a computer. I’m always trying to do something.
“Not to mention, there’s always that unfortunate time when a baby’s crying on a red-eye. You’re trying to sleep and the baby is just crying their lungs out. I feel sorry for the mother, I know it’s not under her control, but it’s like, oh man, I’m on a red eye so I can sleep, and I can’t.”
These days, Oka spends about 60 percent of his time in L.A., 20 percent in Hawaii and 20 percent in Japan, where he has many businesses and friends. When he’s not filming, he’s still busy working and admits to being a workaholic.
“That’s probably why I’m not married, but I love what I do,” he says, noting he’s currently single but hopes to one day marry and have kids. “I’m busier when I’m not acting because I have to go to meetings and do all these things. When I go to Hawaii [for Hawaii Five-0], I can just relax.”
He also runs a production company called Mobius Productions, and more recently a games company called Mobius Digital Games. Among its projects: development of a first-person space exploration game called Outer Wilds, writing a pilot that he sold to Fox and hopes will get picked up, and working on “a bunch” of movies and trying to get deals closed.
“I do have the ability to multi-task very well,” he admits. “I seem to juggle multiple things at once.”
So, how did this nerdy bookworm make it big in Hollywood? In college he studied acting, adding a minor in theater arts to his degrees in mathematics and computer science from Brown University—yes, he’s an Ivy Leaguer.
“I was always about trying to use the right side and left side of the brain,” he says. “I hated being labeled and put in a box. In high school I was a big math and science person only. Then, in college, you have a blank slate and I wanted to try something I was completely scared of or something I never would’ve done before, and that was theater and arts.
I fell in love with it, but I never saw it as a career ’cause I know how tough it is to make it in this business.”
He started his career behind the scenes as a computer-generated imagery artist at George Lucas’ legendary company Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco. While there, he and a colleague wrote the program to create the water effects for The Perfect Storm. He also worked on Star Wars, which he says would be his dream acting job.
“If I can get a lead in a Star Wars film, I’ll quit my acting job,” he says. “That would be the perfect retirement role for me. If it’s a small role I’ll keep acting. But if it’s a lead, I’d be happy not to pick up a script again and be an actor.
“I went to work for George Lucas just so I could be part of that Star Wars franchise. It shaped my childhood.”
He also hopes to direct more, but his goal is to just keep creating.
“I love creating stories, characters, games, business models—I just want to be constantly creating and hopefully be financially independent, so I can create the things I want to create,” says the 41-year-old. “I’m still a kid at heart. I’m just curious about the world. I want to learn more. I love creating things. I love using my imagination and I love playing.”
Oka also confesses to playing a lot of games on his phone, and he’s active on Twitter (mostly for business). He also likes to hike, play the piano and sing karaoke. He even has a closure song he always sings: Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye (Con te partiro)”. He also used to be a fantasy football fanatic.
“I quit two to three seasons ago because it was frustrating me to no end,” he says. “My day and mood were controlled by how well my fantasy football team did.”
Oka also reveals that if he could, he would live in Hawaii. At the start of season two of Hawaii Five-0, he decided to get an apartment in Waikiki. However, after two years, he gave it up because he wasn’t in Hawaii often enough.
“Hawaii is such a friendly, warm place to be and I love it,” he says. “The people are amazing, the food is great (he’s a fan of Alan Wong’s) and it’s so beautiful.
“If my business wasn’t in L.A., I would happily be there 100 percent.”
ABOUT THE SETTING
We got a taste of the suite life at The Kahala Hotel & Resort when it came time to photograph Masi Oka for this issue’s cover story. The Imperial Suite, located in the penthouse, offers the ultimate Kahala Signature Suite Experience.
The 2,200-square-foot Imperial Suite’s accommodations include a spacious living room, expansive board room, luxurious master bedroom with king bed and sumptuous bath, complete with deep-soak tub, rain shower and marbled vanity. kahalaresort.com