'Heroes' Co-Star Masi Oka: 'Hollywood Still Won't Cast Asian Leads'

Masi Oka Headshot 2011

The Golden Globe-nominated Japanese-American actor discusses bringing Second City political satire to Japan and why there aren't more Asian faces on U.S. screens.

OKINAWA, Japan -- Japanese-American actor, writer and special effects creator Masi Oka -- best known for his role in NBC's Heroes -- says Hollywood isn’t ready to cast Asian faces in lead roles yet.

“It’s changed in Hollywood, but only so much,” Oka tells The Hollywood Reporter. "You can’t get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African-American. But Hollywood is fickle, it follows trends. If a show or a film did well with an Asian lead, then it would take off.”

STORY: Can Okinawa Become an Entertainment Hub?

Oka spoke with THR at the fifth Okinawa International Movie Festival, which he is attending to help establish a collaboration between Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan’s biggest talent agency and organizer of the fest, and the Second City comedy troupe.

“I grew up bicultural, reading manga in America. I’m a product of that,” says Oka. “I want to act as a bridge between Japan and America.”

Taking a group of local high school students through an improvisation workshop, Oka spent an hour and a half schooling the youngsters in the Second City method, which he learned when trying to make the transition from SFX to acting.

Oka believes the long tradition of political comedy in Second City is something that Japan can learn from. Japanese television comedy is almost entirely lacking in political content, despite the country’s politicians being ripe for satire: The prime minister has changed no fewer than six times in as many years.

STORY: Hollywood’s Share of Japanese Box Office Falls to Lowest Level Since 1965

“Japan needs political humor and satire,” says Oka. “The political system here isn’t working; it needs to change.”

The workshop, a trial project due to be expanded this summer, is part of Yoshimoto Kogyo’s plan to turn Okinawa into an entertainment hub and give the local economy another industry that can help replace its reliance on the U.S. military bases that occupy nearly a fifth of its land.

Okinawa hosts three quarters of the U.S. military facilities in Japan and nearly half of the 50,000 American troops stationed in the country. There are plans to reduce the island’s burden, including a shift of 4,000 Marines to Guam. However, Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture, with an average income less than half of that in Tokyo, and the local economy relies heavily on the money the U.S. forces bring.

Earlier in the week, Oka appeared on a panel advising Asian creators how to pitch shows to Hollywood.

Although Oka says he would like to do more work in Japan, he concedes that the lower budgets -- a fraction of those in Hollywood -- are a stumbling block.

“No offense, but the money is different," he says. "I would consider something if it was a really meaty role, but my agents know I’d be asking them a really big favor.”