In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Source Hardware
September 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 3
The articles in this issue look at how the development and use of free and open source hardware (FOSH or simply “open hardware”) are changing the face of science, engineering, business, and law.

An Interview with Actor Masi Oka

Monday, September 18, 2017

Author: Masi Oka

RON LATANISION (RML): Masi, you are the first actor who has spoken with us, and we’re delighted. I’m curious about how you got into acting, given that Brown University is your alma mater and you have a degree in computer science and mathematics. Is that correct?

Photo of Masi Oka 

MASI OKA: Yes. I also studied a lot of art and music. A good thing about Brown is there’s no core curriculum; that allowed me to take chances in a liberal education and also avoid classes that I didn’t want to take, like history and English. I took all science classes, language classes, and art.

I think that started with my experience in high school. I was a big math and science geek at an all boys’ school (it went coed my last year). I was in the chess club, math club, and computer club—everything that was very popular back in my high school days.

My friends were going to MIT, and to me at that time, they kind of talked the same, laughed the same, and thought the same. I wanted to change who I was.  I saw undergrad education as not only an academic education but also a social education.

I was a high school kid—I wanted to be a little popular, I wanted to be with girls and such. But the biggest thing is that I didn’t want to be stereotyped. Going to college meant I had a blank canvas to start with, and I realized I wanted to challenge myself and show the world that a human being has both a left side and a right side of the brain. That’s why I went to Brown.

I did take theater classes when I was a kid, but my biggest fear at the time was, ironically, to be myself, to be confident in who I was and to be human. When I got to college I thought, ‘Nobody’s judging me, nobody knows who I was, so I want to do something completely opposite, something out of my comfort zone’ and that was theater arts. I fell in love with it—it opened up my worldviews and perspective. But I never thought of it as a profession because how many Asian actors are there and how successful are they?  Fortunately there are more opportunities now, but at that time there weren’t many, and I didn’t want to put financial burden on my single mother by being a struggling artist.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): So you went into acting as a personal challenge for your own growth?

MR. OKA: Yes. I would say that was a good 90 percent of it. And I would say 10 percent is because I wanted to attract girls. [Laughter]

RML: In “Hawaii Five-O” you played the role of a medical examiner, Dr. Max Bergman. Did the cast look at you and say, “Boy, this guy is a real geek,” or did they say, “This guy has a lot of interesting things on his plate”? How did you interact with the cast?

MR. OKA: Well, we’re all actors. People play geeks who aren’t necessarily geeks, and vice versa. That’s our job. In a TV show, because typically it’s a long-running endeavor, actors tend to play an exaggerated version of an aspect of who they are, and writers tend to write for the actor, so the role and the actor start to meld in a way as the seasons go on.

RML: I did a little reading before this conversation, and I understand you grew into the role of medical examiner after only one or two appearances during one of the earlier seasons—and you just left the show within the last few weeks.

CHF: Have you gotten fan mail about your decision to leave?

MR. OKA: Yes, we got a pretty big response, at least on the social network. I was surprised.

But the nice thing was that it was an amicable parting, and because of that the character got a really nice send-off. It’s very rare you get a loving send-off and a tribute—you typically just get killed off.

CHF: Apart from your departure from this show, what do you hear from people who see you in action on the screen?

MR. OKA: It’s a big spectrum. Especially for a lot of Asian-American actors, we are kind of role models because there are very few of us. So, in many ways, we have a responsibility to the next generation of kids wanting to grow up in the arts, especially for the Asian community.

I tend to play a comedic character in all the -drama, so people are very happy—‘you always bring us -laughter.’ The last episode, though, I brought them to tears. When I was playing Hiro Nakamura [on the TV series “Heroes” and “Heroes Reborn”], people told me my character was very optimistic and hopeful. I’ve even had people tell me that it saved their lives. It was very memorable to have two fans come up and tell me they were contemplating suicide and then they saw the show and my character, Hiro, inspired them to be more positive.

CHF: That’s quite an impact.

RML: Yes, that’s very powerful. And it is a good indication of the cultural impact of the kinds of things that not only actors but, particularly from our point of view, actors who have a technology orientation can do.

I’m curious, have you met other actors who also have a background in science or engineering or technology in a broad sense?

MR. OKA: There are actors that you probably don’t know who have similar backgrounds. I haven’t really spoken with anyone who has a huge background in these areas.

There are people now who are big fans of the geek-type culture. Back in the day, it wasn’t that popular. Now it’s more mainstream that people are proud to be geeks. I always say that to be a geek is to be human, because it means you are passionate about something, and I would rather be passionate about something than nothing, like a robot.

Nowadays, being an entrepreneur, being an IT guy is fashionable and they’re respected, whereas the media portrayal of engineers and technologists when I grew up wasn’t as favorable.

RML: That’s an interesting comment. We interviewed Tom Scholz,[1] the founder and lead of the rock band Boston—his background is in engineering, and his understanding of acoustics enters into his music. Is the same true in your case? Does technology play a role in your acting?

MR. OKA: Absolutely. I always talk about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) and education—the idea of bringing folks together. In many senses, everybody is an artist, everybody is an engineer. People can be social engineers, dream engineers, artistic engineers. It’s the way you think.

When it comes to storytelling, comedies especially are very technical. There’s a science behind comedy with formulas and rules. Not everybody has a sense of humor, but if you follow the formula you can typically have a higher rate of making people laugh than if you aren’t aware of that formula. Same thing with music. Music is very technical.

For me, it’s all about how you think. College teaches you how to problem solve, and your major is the language you use to solve it. It’s all about critical thinking. Creative thinking is part of critical thinking, and critical thinking is also creative thinking. I don’t think it’s easy or fair to draw a line between them, because they go hand in hand.

Actually, I think the best artists are great engineers, and the best engineers are great artists. There’s an old joke that the best mathematicians are the laziest because they find creative ways to solve a difficult problem in the most efficient way.

It’s about thinking outside the box versus thinking more logically. I produce a lot and what’s really important for me as a producer is flexibility of thought. To be stuck in one way of thinking, whether it’s the left or right side of the brain, I think limits you as a person. We’re human beings, and I think the left side and right side need to live in harmony.

We always talk about thinking outside the box for engineers, but for artists I say it’s important to find a way to create a box, to define the problem so that they can solve it and be more creative by focusing their energy.

For me, it’s been a mission since growing up to not be stereotyped, to be told you can only do this, to be labeled. That’s how society does it. But every engineer has an artist in them and every artist has an engineer in them as well.

CHF: You mentioned that you’re producing a lot. I understand you’re producing a movie called “Death Note,” and I guess you also produce in your other life as the owner of a company that creates digital games. Tell us about your producing.

MR. OKA: I work on movies, television, games. I invest in startups and advise them. I connect Japan and Hollywood, Hollywood and games, all with technology. It’s about trying to bridge two worlds. That has always been kind of my motto.

What’s fun about producing is you get to be in the whole process, from zero to finish, and that’s exciting for me. As an actor, it’s great to be able to create a character, but once you finish shooting, it’s in the hands of the editor. And you don’t create the character; the writer does, and then the actor brings it to life. The actor’s only a part of the process.

What I love about producing is that there’s really no single definition of what it involves. A producer could be a filmmaker, a financier, someone who knows people. The idea of being able to be part of a creative collaborative process from the ground up is what’s really enticing for me. That’s what I love about producing.

CHF: You mentioned your interest in creating a relationship between Japan and Hollywood. How are you going about that, and what does that relationship look like?

MR. OKA: I’m an advisor to six major corporations in Japan and the Japanese government. The way people think is different in the US and Japan. Japan has a -village mentality; everything is done with a handshake—there are contracts but most of it is goodwill. In the United States, we need everything upfront in contracts. So the business culture and mentality are very different.

Creatively, you want to protect the properties that are developed in Japan; at the same time, you need to explain to the Japan side that certain things need to be changed for localization. So it’s about having that understanding and being able to see a project from both perspectives and, also, as a fan and a producer, to determine how to make the best of everything.

A lot of the Japanese folks don’t speak English, and a lot of times in meetings they want to be polite and not say anything. But after the meeting they’ll call me and say, “We actually have some concerns.” Most of the time I’m there to be able to think from both perspectives, to bridge the business and communication and creative gaps between the two sides.

Thanks to my success in the industry, I’ve been able to gain the confidence and the trust of a lot of the -Japanese creators. They see me as an ally. And that’s the biggest thing I can offer, communicating what the -Japanese folks are thinking. I was born in Japan and moved to America when I was 6, so I think like an American but my heart is Japanese. Because of that, I know the subtle nuances of the culture in Japan and how to work with them.

At the same time, Japan doesn’t see me as a full Japanese, and Americans don’t see me as a full American, so I’m in that no man’s land. But, because of that, I can do a lot of interesting things and break the mold.

CHF: You are uniquely qualified. I was interested—you are fluent in Japanese, I gather, but since you came to this country at age 6 you would have assimilated pretty quickly. Were you speaking and writing Japanese at home with your mother?

MR. OKA: Yes. My Mom spoke Japanese a lot and she forced me on Saturdays to go to Japanese school, which crams basically a week’s worth of government-approved Japanese curriculum—language, math, science, and history—into one day. I hated it because I didn’t get to watch Saturday morning cartoons or play soccer or team sports. Of course, these days I’m very thankful and grateful to my Mom; because of that I have an identity and, of course, a job right now.

RML: Let me turn in a slightly different direction. A couple of times during our conversation kids and education have come up, and I’m aware that you have a long association with George Lucas, who’s very interested in education through his foundation. Do you folks collaborate in any way in terms of K–12 or education in any form?

MR. OKA: Most of my stuff has been through the Japanese government, charities like Save the Music Foundation, working with the STEAM projects, but I haven’t talked to George. I saw him twice at a party but that’s about it.

RML: I’ve spent a lot of time in education myself, and I know that people are very much aware of George Lucas and the foundation and his program—it’s called Edutopia. They have done quite a lot of really good stuff. He’s very committed, it seems, to education, particularly at the K–12 level.

MR. OKA: That’s interesting. I might reach out to George Lucas’ folks and see if I can be involved.

RML: I think it would be of interest. I have another follow-up question. You mentioned a few minutes ago that you see technology in comedy, you described it in a formulaic sense. Could you give an example? How does that work?

MR. OKA: There are definitely things you think about. We talk about the rule of three, for instance: you set something up, you repeat it, and the third time you change it. It’s a rhythmic thing. And we talk about -repetition—the more you repeat something the funnier, but the more distance there is, the bigger the payoff.

Comedy can also involve derailment of thought. The audience might be thinking one thing, and all of a sudden a surprise happens and people laugh at that.

Another rule in comedy is ‘heavy on the light and light on the heavy’—like taking the smallest thing, “Oh my God, I found a penny, this is the luckiest day of my life!” versus “Yeah, I won the lottery yesterday; no big deal; it’s only $8 billion.” That’s heavy on the light, light on the heavy.

These formulas are the technology, in a sense, behind comedy. Of course, nothing always works because everybody has a different sense of humor, but the rhythm of the human body, anatomy, responds in certain ways to comedy.

CHF: Clearly rhythm is important to you because you mentioned music and the engineering involved in music, and I understand you play the piano and also do some beat-boxing and singing.

MR. OKA: Yes, I think rhythm is important—the rhythm of life, having a flow to your rhythm and momentum. The other thing is knowing your inner rhythm. It’s good to be aware of that because sometimes you have to break it.

I see every day as a new start. I believe in trying to finish things you begin, but I always want to be open to new discoveries, and that’s why I treat every day as a new start. If I’m only doing the same things over and over again in a constant rhythm or a loop, then I feel like I’m not experiencing or discovering new things and I’m closing myself off to new discoveries. So I always try to be aware. Doing something over and over again is great for some folks, but for me, I like to go on an adventure when I can.

When I find myself doing the same thing, the same routine, it’s good to recognize that. Then I think, ‘Let me try something different just to see, to expand my worldviews and enrich myself as a person. Who knows? I might like it, I might not. I might agree with it or I might disagree with it, but at least I might be exposed to something new.’ That’s what I’m talking about, to try and break the rhythm at times.

You can’t constantly do it—it would be erratic. I’m just saying it’s good to be aware, because life is short and I think it’s important to experience it to the fullest. You can always choose to be safe.

I teach a “Yes, and…” workshop, which comes from my improvisation background. I teach it to a lot of Japanese folks as well as kids, adults, corporations—anywhere. I always tell participants they can say “no” whenever they want. When you say “yes” it can be very scary, but to say “no” closes the door to a lot of things and puts you in a safe spot.

I’m not saying that no is bad, but when you have an opportunity and the privilege to say “yes, and…,” I say go for it. I always want to try to take that risk because you never know what you can learn. When you’re just saying no, all those doors are shut.

CHF: I was interested to hear you mention a loop a moment ago, and your digital game company is called Möbius, like the strip. How did you come up with the name for your company?

MR. OKA: My production company is called -Möbius Productions as well, so everything is under the Möbius banner. First of all, because I come from a mathe-matics background, yes, the Möbius strip is a mathematical entity, so that’s part of my brand. Also, I like the fact that it has a twist, a surprise. I like the fact that it’s one-sided: I’m not trying to be a two-sided business, I want to be transparent. I like the fact that it’s infinite, that it’s constantly going. And it’s an acronym for Masi Oka Business in the United States. So this stands for a lot of things that I believe in and it’s a good representation of my company and who I am.

Figure 1

RML: I’d like to hear about the game company. Where are you headed with that?

MR. OKA: The idea was to create some intellectual property because it’s just so hard to get a movie made. Sometimes it takes 10 years (“Death Note” was 10 years in the making). Sometimes negotiations can be long. It’s very erratic and a lot of things are not in your control. I thought the games industry was much easier—it’s very naïve of me to think that way, but I knew it was faster.

I started with the mobile field, but success was based on more than the quality of the game and its -mechanics; it’s also about the business model. We went to what we were more comfortable with and knowledgeable in, which was the console side.

We’re developing a game called “Outer Wilds,” which I like to describe as “Myst” (an adventure puzzle PC game) meets “Groundhog Day” in space.

RML: That’s an interesting description. Tell us more.

MR. OKA: One of our employees, Alex Beachum, was a USC grad and it was his master’s thesis—it won the Independent Games Festival’s grand prize 2 years ago, I believe. We thought, ‘Our mobile games are not doing too well, why don’t we do something that everyone already knows about?’ Alex had this great vision and we decided to go with that. We’re still developing it and hope to deliver it soon.

CHF: I listened to the 4-minute audio of “Timber Hearth” for “Outer Wilds.” It was captivating, I would even say mesmerizing.

MR. OKA: Great, thank you. It’s a very explorational game and a lot of detail has gone into it. My team has done a great job with it.

RML: What is your role in the company?

MR. OKA: Because my acting and producing and other endeavors take a lot of time, I’m kind of like a CEO but I’m mostly the financier and handle legal stuff. I leave all the creative stuff to my team. I’m there to give input and to approve things, and I’m there when we’re brainstorming on new ideas, but most of the time I can’t be there day to day so I trust my team and have them working as a family there.

CHF: I understand you’re also doing things with virtual reality. What are you doing with that?

MR. OKA: Yes, I think there’s a new forefront of VR. The first wave came and it was a bit lackluster. There’s no killer content yet that defines VR. People are still trying to find what it is on the game side and on the entertainment side, because VR kind of lies in the -middle. Is it interactive entertainment or a passive game?

I’m investing in a couple of VR companies. There’s also a VR company called Limitless that’s a bunch of Bungie and Pixar guys doing a game concept of mine, because Möbius doesn’t do VR games.

Figure 2 

RML: The Bridge reaches a fairly broad audience, not only NAE members but members of Congress and deans of engineering and other subscribers. Is there any message you would like to send that audience from the perspective of someone who is a trained technologist and, at the other end of the spectrum, someone very much engaged in affecting the culture of the country?

MR. OKA: I would just like to say, please enjoy life and be open-minded to experiences. It’s important to have a goal but I think being close-minded robs a lot of the joy in life. I know a lot of engineers like to calculate things and make sure everything is in line. There’s nothing wrong with being safe, but I’m asking you to consider being open minded, go into the unknown and take calculated risks sometimes.

We’re building the future. I like to say that the -winners create history but the challengers create the future. I’d like everyone to challenge themselves and go on discoveries and explore life. Try new things. You never know what discoveries are there. Explore life.

CHF: Thinking along those lines, you clearly are actively pursuing a number of different interests. Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?

MR. OKA: Hopefully I’ll be doing what I’m doing on a bigger scale, whether directing something or creating my own game or launching a new startup—or maybe working with the White House and the Japanese government to try to bring them together. And advising a lot of companies. I can see that.

I can also see myself being at a school and teaching. So I don’t know.

Where would I like to be? I’d like to be with my family and have a happy life and be enjoying what I do both personally and careerwise.

RML: I think it would be really interesting for kids to hear from you. Do you have any interaction with young people in your off-time, whenever that may be?

MR. OKA: Yes. As I said, I teach the “Yes, and…” workshop, and I do that at high schools in the US and Japan. I would like to do more, I just don’t know how. There’s also a timing issue because, being an actor, you’re a slave to production, so your schedule is not as flexible. Fortunately, I’m off a show right now, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future.

RML: Interesting. Masi, we appreciate your time and I know you have a full schedule.

CHF: Thank you so much, Masi. What a pleasure.

MR. OKA: Thank you very much. Really appreciate it.

[1]  The interview was published in the spring 2016 issue of The Bridge, available at https://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/151971/152046. aspx.

About the Author:Masi Oka is an actor.