After five seasons on “Hawaii Five-0,” Masi Oka is saying goodbye to the beloved series as his character, Dr. Max Bergman, moves to Africa with his new wife. The actor talked to CBS News about his post-”Five-0” career plans, Asian-American representation on TV and what he would do with a notebook that had the power to kill anyone in the world.
What brought you to your decision to leave “Hawaii Five-0”?
It’s never an easy decision because it’s Hawaii, first of all, and it’s a great show with a great cast, great crew, great writers, but I think at the end of the day Max kind of ran his course. He was in a great part of his life: He got married, went to Africa, got affected by wonderful people there and what he was doing there and it made me think about my own life and how it’s time for me to go on an adventure as well.
As much as I’m grateful to be part of a hit show, there’s definitely a lot of travel that had to be done, and because of that I think my body started to take a physical toll from doing 18 roundtrips to Hawaii every year. I wanted to be in L.A. or Japan and be more in control of my schedule, and my mother is not in the best health so I want to be here for her. If the show were in L.A., I’d love to stay on forever because it’s the greatest gig in the world.
Now for the other side of the same coin -- what did you like about working on the show that made you stay on for so long?
Even as a procedural, the writers always made it so interesting, and there’s a lot of great action. They always had my character do something interesting, so that was always great, and I just had a great rapport with my castmates. I love hanging out with them. It’s a great crew and it’s Hawaii. If you’re going to shoot somewhere, Hawaii is so beautiful and the best backdrop you can ask for. Those are a lot of the reasons why I stayed on for a long time -- and it’s nice to have a job with the market being tough. I’m grateful to be on a long-running show. We’re very lucky for that.
I know it’s a show with a huge international reach. What is it like for you to get recognized all over the world?
It’s amazing. The fact that you get to meet people all around the world is because of shows like this. It’s just great because you go to different countries and people know you -- you have an instant connection and you wouldn’t have those opportunities if you didn’t have a big show with an international following. A lot of fans come from “Heroes,” as well.
It’s not common to see a show with so much Asian representation. How did it feel to be part of a show that was kind of at the forefront of diversifying TV?
We’re very proud of it. I think this kind of diversity wave happens every 10 years. Twenty years ago, there was a wave of African-Americans on TV, 10 years ago, there was a Latino wave and this year, this generation is all about Asian-Americans coming together and moving forward. We’ve been very fortunate because I think “Lost” started that with Daniel [Dae Kim] and Naveen [Andrews] -- brought a diverse cast on a primetime series and because of that, “Heroes” existed and because of that you can have Asians on camera and have diversity in that way.
We had it before but a lot of it was black and white, so we want to have true diversity with all different kinds of representation and we’re very proud to be part of that, to show there can be Asian-Americans on TV. The last two years have been great but we still have a long way to go. We want to see more African-Americans, Latinos, transgender people, more disabled people -- we want to see every aspect of life represented on TV. It’s supposed to represent all of America and all walks of life.
What kind of roles would you like to see open up to more Asian actors?
I think anything. I think in many ways it starts with writing. It also starts with the audience and what people want to see. There are Asians, just like any other Americans, who are blue collar people, there are Asian people who are bad people, too. In the past, they’ve only shown a sliver of truth and stereotypes are based on truth, but they only show one side so it’s nice to have more multifaceted characters.
You can take any character on screen and ask if color is so important. Why not have an Asian-American president in “House of Cards” or an Asian-American baseball player on “Pitch”? An Asian-American guy on “Game of Thrones”? It can be anything. Race should not be an issue unless it’s inherent to the characters.
You were talking before about your “next adventure.” What will that be?
Well, I’m still looking right now, but fortunately it’s pilot season so I’ll find out if there are any great shows to be part of and there are a lot more diverse shows right now. I’m also working on producing “Death Note” for Netflix.
I’m in a movie called “Meg” with Warner Bros. and Jason Statham. I have six to eight projects that I’m producing. I’m consulting for a bunch of corporations in Japan, including the government, and I’m trying to bridge two worlds -- Japan and Hollywood. I invest in a lot of startups. I have my own game company, Mobius Digital, and I’m coming out with my own game, maybe this summer -- our first console game, that is. So a lot of irons in the fire.
There sure are. How do you handle that much multi-tasking and switching on and off between things?
It’s about having a well-prepared excel sheet. No, it’s just fun! Maybe my mind is like Google -- try a bunch of different things and things will work out and connect in the future and a lot of things don’t require 100 percent of your attention, so sometimes it’s good to go back and forth, back and forth because using your left side of your brain and right side approach things in a different way. Having that flexibility of thought allows me to bring in a different perspective to all kinds of projects. Maybe it’s because I have ADD, but it’s nice to be able to bounce back and forth and not just do one thing forever.
Tell me more about “Death Note” -- a lot of big names attached there.
We’re very excited. I saw the first cut and it looks great. I think it’s going to be a great movie and great adaptation of Japanese manga.
It has a fascinating premise : You write a name in this magic notebook and that person dies.
Well, we don’t call it “magic.” It’s a notebook bestowed upon the death god, a grim reaper, so it kind of poses a moral question: If you had the ability to give the death sentence to anybody, would you do it? What would you do with that power? In this day and age where there’s a lot of crime and uncertainty and you have ISIS, shootings, a lot of evil in the world -- if you could take that in your hands, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
What would you do?
That’s a tough question. It’s a lot of responsibility but I think I might use it for one or two people and just not deal with it after that and just let go of it. Everybody has a different point of view and not that I agree with any of the terrorists, but some of what they’re doing is right to them. It’s just matter of their point of view. Ethically and morally we know it’s wrong, but those people have a different perspective and if you think about the goodness of the world, if you can make one change and save the world, you know it’s definitely something you think about. Especially if you can save millions of lives, you might consider it.
You have a tech background and you used to work in visual effects. What made you get into acting?
It’s something i studied in college. I loved “Star Wars” and I loved the movies, but I never saw it as a career, because how many Asian actors do you see on TV? We had Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Long Duk Dong and Short Round, so those are the characters we looked up to. It was like, “Well, there’s not many options,” but I always loved it because it gave me a different perspective in the world. In college, I hated being stereotyped and labeled: “You can do this; you can’t do that.”
I always strove for harmony of left brain and right brain so having both sides enhance me as a person. Being an artist made me a better engineer, and being an engineer made me a better artist. I think that’s why I loved it -- and I was very lucky to be in the right place and time and get “Heroes” and then “Hawaii Five-0.”
The season finale of “Hawaii Five-0” airs at 9/8c on CBS.