The popular TV show “Heroes” helped turn Japanese actor Masi Oka into a star in America and now Toru Uchikado is hoping the latest installment of Tim Kring’s supernatural drama will have a similar impact on his career.
By Matthew Hernon
The 26-year-old, who first moved to America at 19 to study international business, previously worked at a sushi restaurant, a market and a Japanese consultancy firm while taking acting classes in the States. He’s done some commercials and appeared in independent films, but “Heroes Reborn” is effectively his first major production. He plays a character called “Ren Shimosawa,” who doesn’t have a super power, but does boast extraordinary gaming skills.
“He’s a bit of a nerd, but quite cool at the same time,” Uchikado tells Weekender. “This series is quite dark and Ren, along with ‘Quentin Frady’ (played by Henry Zebrowski) are probably the only two comedic characters in it, so I enjoyed playing him. I’d been pretty close to getting a role in Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe’s film ‘The Sea of Trees’ so I was really determined to get this one. Being a gamer as a youngster I just thought it was a perfect fit for me.
“I went into the audition feeling nervous, but at the same time confident. I had an anxious three-week wait before I found out whether I’d been successful. I was constantly checking my phone for messages which meant I couldn’t focus properly on my office job. I was over the moon when my manager called to give me the news.”
He was given a fairly big part and features in 10 out of the 13 episodes, the first of which aired on NBC last September. While the show hasn’t been a huge ratings success, Uchikado’s character has been very well received and subsequently interest in the Japanese actor has risen. He remains an unknown in his homeland, but says he does get recognized in the States and was stopped for pictures while on holiday in Taiwan, where fans of the show asked him to do Hiro Nakamura’s famous “Yatta!” pose.
It’s not a word that he says himself in “Heroes Reborn.” Ren’s main catchphrase is “Leeroy Jenkins!” – an Internet meme that was spawned by a “World of Warcraft” player who shouted his own character’s name before going into battle. In preparation for the role Uchikado spent a lot of time playing games and also watched other people playing them on Twitch – the world’s leading social video platform and community for gamers. In between all of that he sat down and viewed the first four seasons of the drama, citing Sylar (portrayed by Zachary Quinto) as his favorite character. Unfortunately Quinto didn’t return this time: he stated that he was thrilled they were doing it, but felt like he needed to “cultivate other outlets” for himself.
Cast members who did reprise their parts from the original series included Jack Coleman (Noah Bennett), Jimmy Jean-Louis (The Haitian), Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura), Greg Grunberg (Matt Parkman), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Dr. Mohinder Suresh), Christine Rose (Angela Petrelli) and Noah Gray-Cabey (Micah Sanders). They were joined by a number of new faces such as Zachary Levi (Luke Collins), and Robbie Kay (Tommy Clark).
“It’s a real ensemble cast that was scattered around all over the place working on different stories,” Uchikado says. “I actually only got to work with a few people, but I did have the chance to hang out with pretty much everyone so that was great. As filming was in Toronto, nobody had any family or friends around so we would often go out as a group for dinner or karaoke. We still keep in contact via Whatsapp and when the show is on some of us get together and watch it.”
The person Uchikado spent most time with both on and off set was Japanese actress Kiki Sukezane (Miko Otomo). Her character has the power to get inside games and Ren pays a visit to her house after he clears the top level of an online game she appears in and is subsequently given her address. The two actors would get their scripts in English, and then go to a coffee shop together to translate the words into Japanese. It gave them an opportunity to be a bit more creative with their roles. They clearly enjoyed each other’s company despite Uchikado nearly knocking his compatriot out during filming.
“It was a long day on set and we had a fight scene,” he says. “I accidentally ended up whacking her on the head with my shinai (a weapon used in kendo). It’s only bamboo, but I used a lot of force. I could tell by the sound it was serious. Everyone was worried including the executive producer and director. All I could do was just apologize, but Kiki is a really strong girl so her only concern was whether she could continue working. Luckily they managed to clean the cut up and she was back ready for filming the next day.”
That incident aside, Uchikado felt things went pretty well on set. He has some regrets, but says all actors feel the same after they watch themselves on screen. He hopes to see a lot more of himself on TV in the future. Following a short break in Japan, the New Jersey–born actor is now back in the States working hard on getting auditions so he can find his follow-up to “Heroes Reborn.” Major Japanese male parts in Hollywood tend to either go to Ken Watanabe or Hiroyuki Sanada. Occasionally, though, a younger man is required and Uchikado may just fit the bill. Appearing in a well known NBC show certainly won’t have done his prospects any harm.
Tim Kring: I had this stereotype about Hollywood producers being scary so I was quite intimidated by him at first, but I needn’t have been. He was really casual and encouraging. I saw him quite often at the gym. Is was a bit weird having your producer exercise next to you.
Masi Oka: I didn’t have the chance to work with him, but we went out for dinner twice. He’s become like my senpai who I can message any time and he’ll give me great advice. He’s an actor and producer which I eventually want to do. It’s rare to see a Japanese person in this industry with so much power.
Jack Coleman: He was like the father of the group. One minute I was watching him on DVD and he had this aura about him, then I was suddenly sat next to him at a bar where we enjoyed a few drinks together. It was kind of surreal.
Robbie Kay: He’s only 20, yet is so mature. Even though I am six years older he would be the one giving me advice. We played a lot of video games together off set and while I am supposed to be the “gamer,” he was just much better and kicked my butt every time.
Kiki Sukezane: She’s so much fun to be around. We are the same age, have similar backgrounds and we’re both effectively starting out in this industry so it was natural that we spent a lot of time together. Even coming back to Japan, we both appeared on Gekidan Hitori’s talk show. She can’t escape from me (laughs).
Heroes Reborn can be seen on Hulu.
Main Image: © Yoshi Miyazaki