Masi Oka has reached cult status playing lovable but geeky social maladjusts on NBC’s "Heroes" and more recently, CBS’s new "Hawaii Five-0." It’s a role he knows well. When he isn’t in front of a camera, he’s in front of a computer writing visual effects or gaming code.
Since graduating from Brown University, where he majored in math/computer science and minored in theater arts, Oka has managed dual careers as a programmer and an actor. He spent years as a visual effects coder and consultant for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) on such films as The Perfect Storm, Terminator 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean, and he is now developing a number of video games.
In the TV show "Heroes," Oka plays Hiro Nakamura, a shy Japanese office worker with an awkward but enthusiastic embrace of newfound superpowers. His supporting character on "Hawaii Five-0," medical examiner Max Bergman, is a hyperfocused, insular savant. So is he acting or just channeling his inner geek?
"I was one of those, too. I still am," he says, laughing. "I draw upon my own life and experiences, including using some of my professors as models. There’s often a piece of me in those roles, especially ones I’m playing for years. I’m social but equally comfortable in front of a computer, which gives me a feeling of control. I think that’s the current state of youth in America. They’re used to communicating behind a wall now."
His comfort with computers also gives him a leg up in acting in front of a green screen, a technique used when a scene’s background will be edited in later. "I know what movements are going to save time and money in postproduction," he says.
Oka says that acting—especially in a comedy—is like computing, in that both allow him to be highly creative within a structured framework. "That’s why a lot of comedy writers come from engineering backgrounds," he says.
After graduating in 1997, Oka landed a job at ILM’s San Francisco headquarters. But he soon started going on acting auditions, even as he was helping to pioneer visual effects that weren’t yet incorporated into Hollywood’s primary programming language, Maya. They included computational fluid dynamics simulations for raging oceans and particle effects for blowing up asteroids.
"ILM let me pursue acting as long as it didn’t interfere with my job," he says. "Most of my work involved writing programs. It didn’t matter when I worked, just that I got it done on time. I didn’t have too much of a social life, so I came to work at night or on weekends."
In 2000 he left ILM and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Within three months, he ran out of money. "I thought, ’What can I do?’ I didn’t want to be a Web designer—I couldn’t stand Web coding," says Oka, who doesn’t tweet, blog, or have his own Web site. "So I started looking at local effects houses."
ILM caught wind of it and offered him work in its LA office, with the condition that if he didn’t find acting work in a year, he’d return to San Francisco. By the following spring, Oka won a recurring role on an FX Network pilot. While the pilot didn’t get picked up, it fulfilled the obligations of his contract. Oka went on to appear in TV’s "Scrubs," "Will & Grace," and "The Gilmore Girls," and nearly a dozen films, including Get Smart, Along Came Polly, and Austin Powers in Goldmember.
Oka is also developing a science-fiction film for DreamWorks Studios and several video games for undisclosed companies. While he’s been too busy to resume his normal programming duties for ILM, "I’m theoretically still an employee," he says. "So if any of my projects go, I can use my employee discount of ’buy two special effects, get one free.’"
This article previously appeared online in March 2011.
About the Author
Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, writes frequently for IEEE Spectrum about the intersection of entertainment and technology. She also contributes to the New York Times, Forbes, and Discover.