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Heroes returns for its fourth season on September 21st, and last Friday NBC lined up Masi Oka (“Hiro”) and Hayden Panettiere (“Claire”) for a conference call with journalists. Check out the transcript below, where the actors offer hints on what’s to come, Masi reveals what pastry is most useful in combat, and Hayden briefly thinks a member of the press has asked to teabag her. Sadly, the prose will never convey to you how adorable Hayden was while singing a bar from Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” but it will have to do.
Going into the fourth year of the show, do you feel like you have a tight grip on your character or are you still learning things as you come along?
Hayden Panettiere: It’s a little tough because even though we are playing the same characters, you really do have the whole writing staff taking us in whichever direction they want to. And on this kind of show, there’s infinite amount of possibilities of where you could go, whether you stay good, whether you turn bad, who you’re working with.
So it’s always a surprise. We know our characters so well now that we can see what they -- or figure out what they would do in these situations and go from there. But really you never know what you’re going to be playing.
Masi Oka: Yeah, I agree. And I think that’s what keeps it interesting and challenging, you know. There’s definitely something to be said about the familiarity that we want to give the audience with our character portrayals, but the writers put us in very different situations and combinations and I think that’s always the fun part.
So, we might have a grip on our character, like, as we do in life, as we grow, the characters grow and evolve as well, so there’s always a constant change and surprise.
What do you see your characters going through this season that maybe they haven’t before?
Masi Oka: Well, for my character, Hiro’s going through the whole terminal illness and the bucket list. So, I think he’s taking life a little bit more seriously, yet at the same time, trying to keep hope alive, and it’s that duel and the juxtaposition between life and death and the hope and despair that I think Hiro’s balancing well. So, this is kind of a new thing for him.
Hayden Panettiere: Yeah. I’m in college and dealing with a new best friend and roommate with a very – who has – we have a very interesting relationship together. But she’s really the first person that she’s been able to let in on her secret and somebody that’s really a confidant. But that’s a very delicate balance that can easily fall apart.
And one little misstep and her dad will bring The Haitian in to wipe their memories and that will be that. She’s happy that she’s semi caught up to normal life, that normal life that she’s been chasing. But where exactly we’re going to go, I think there’s going to be some manipulation and just some fun stuff. We really don’t know, so that’s why we get so excited to read the scripts every week.
Masi, what about your role continues to challenge you?
Masi Oka: I think the writers give us, as Hayden said, different people to work with, different situation scenarios to be in, and there’s always that fun balance of trying to keep it light and light-hearted and put in the comedy while trying to make it into drama.
So especially this season, I’ve just been absolutely creatively excited and jazzed about where the writers have been going with our characters and the constant evolving and new challenges they throw me. That’s what’s real exciting for me.
And Hayden why do you think people continue to tune in and watch the show?
Hayden Panettiere: I think because just like we get excited to read our scripts and see what we get to do next, they get excited to see what adventure we’re going to go on next. And there’s always these little twists and turns that are exciting, and it’s just a really fun show to watch.
I found myself Tivoing because I was working so much last season, I Tivoed all of the episodes so I could come back and watch them back to back to back, and I found I could not put my remote down. I was like, “Just one more episode, please.” And this is a show that I’m on, and I don’t generally like to watch myself. But it’s just exciting and it’s smart and I don’t think it belittles the audience and I think it’s just one of those rad shows. Did I really just say rad show? Wow, I did.
Masi Oka: I’m giving you a rad check.
Hayden Panettiere: Whoops.
Hayden, it seems like at the end of the day this is going to come down to a battle between Claire and Sylar on some level. So what can we expect on that relationship this season?
Hayden Panettiere: Wow. You sound like you know more than I do. I actually have no idea. And I’ve not seen anything thus far that has the two of us going at it or even in the vicinity of each other. But I assume there’s going to be something with him ultimately because Nathan and the whole Nathan and Sylar thing that’s going on right now and what happened at the end of the third season because he’s my dad, our paths are obviously going to cross.
I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I’m still reading the scripts and chugging away and excited to hear about it. But, yeah, I’m not positive yet, but it’d be fun.
Masi Oka: You don’t want to talk about the Sylar/Claire kiss scene?
Hayden Panettiere: Masi, they told us not to say anything.
Masi Oka: Oh, shoot. Well, actually, Sylar says, “Claire, I’m your father,” or something like that.
As far as the media goes, it’s kind of been a roller coaster relationship with this show. How has it been on set over the years? Has it always been cohesive or have you felt some of that tension on set?
Hayden Panettiere: We hate each other. We don’t get along at all, no.
Masi Oka: We’re a big family and we just love working with each other. And I think it’s definitely hard not to ride the highs and the lows of the show. Without a doubt Season 1 was absolute lightning in the bottle, and we knew we had something absolutely special. Season 2 and 3, it was definitely hard for them to meet the expectations in some senses.
But Season 4, I think there is a sense, you know, our backs might be a little bit against the wall, but because of that we’re swinging – creatively swinging for the fences. There’s so many bold choices and risks that are being made and a lot of creative freedom in some senses because of that.
And I don’t know, but I’m really, really excited about this season. I would probably say this is as favorite of a season as Season 1, if not my second favorite season so far. It’s fun to ride the wave’s ups and downs, and it’s great to be on the crest again this season.
Do the writers sometimes come to both of you and say, “Hey, what do you think about this idea?” Or is it pretty much, “Here it is, go for it”?
Masi Oka: Our writers are very collaborative. At the beginning of the season, we talk about the arc and where our characters might go, and they’re very open to it. But at the same time, because of how many revisions that goes through, sometimes you kind of lose focus of what the original intention was. But overall it’s been an amazing experience. I’ve been on other shows where the writers have been a little bit more rigid. Our writers have been very open.
Hayden Panettiere: If you think about it, 25 episodes, you’re going to ask every cast member to come in and tell them what you want to do. And they have such deadlines, you know, we move so quickly. We’re constantly working, and when we’re on set it’s constant. They have so much information and so many little pieces and connections to string together. How does this person run into this person? How does this match to this? And so much history to remember, too, because this is a big show of those little tidbits that you have to keep in mind, those powers you have to keep in mind, what somebody said when.
I’ve seen it happen on set where somebody goes, “Oh, well what if -- don’t you remember when...” And we go, “Oh, crap.” We would have been screwed if we didn’t catch that before we did this stuff.
Masi Oka: Yeah, definitely a butterfly effect there.
Hayden Panettiere: Masi I think they actually think I kissed Sylar. They’re going to be like, “Yeah, Claire and Sylar having a relationship.”
Masi Oka: Let me add a “just kidding” into that.
After so many seasons of playing these characters, how territorial and possessive are you about them? Not even necessarily if they said, “Okay, you’re a villain forever now,” just some little thing?
Hayden Panettiere: I’d be very excited. I’d be like, “Yes!” Looking at the stuff that we do and the character – the changes we’ve had and all these different places that they’ve taken our characters, it would be a little difficult if we were territorial. I’m not saying that there aren’t storylines that you go, “Wait, hold on, she really wouldn’t do that.” Or you’re not such a fan of little lines here and there, and you go, “I just can’t figure out how to say that the way Claire would say it. I don’t feel like that’s something that she would say.”
I mean, we’ve gone to the future and back again. We’ve gone to the past. We’ve gone all over the world. We’ve become good and bad, and I think there’s nothing but excitement that we all get from that, especially being on a show for four years, you want nothing but spontaneity and change. You’re like, “Yeah, let’s make her this.” You get excited from that kind of stuff.
Masi Oka: You definitely care about your character, because you wear it and you’re associated to it by all means, and I love the change and spontaneity. At the same time, acting is a profession and you realize that this character is not necessarily your property. It is the property of Tim Kring and NBC Universal and of the audience, as well. It’s a character that’s shared by everybody.
The writers have a bigger picture towards the whole thing, of where the whole season goes, where each character’s arc will go. It’s our job as professionals to go with the flow. It’s important to fight for your character but at the same time realize there’s a bigger picture involved and this is a character that’s shared by everybody. It’s not just purely your own.
Looking back at Season 1 and where your characters were then, going into the fourth season is this how you thought your characters would evolve?
Hayden Panettiere: God, I didn’t even try to guess. My brain never even went there. It couldn’t. I couldn’t let it.
Masi Oka: Well, it’s good that you’re going to college at least.
Hayden Panettiere: Yeah, there was always that discussion of it, but didn’t know it was going to actually happen. I knew high school, because I don’t think they wanted to put out there that Claire was a high school dropout. But college is something that’s optional, obviously, because I didn’t go to college.
But no, I didn’t specifically know that she was going to be there, that she was going to be bad at one point, or that we were going to go to the future and come back. I didn’t really try to guess. The scripts just surprise me so much all the time, and they have such a tough job to do, our writers and creators, so I don’t even try to guess.
Masi Oka: By the way, even though Hayden hasn’t gone to college, I think she’s smarter than 90% of the people who have graduated college so...
Hayden Panettiere: Aww, thanks Mas. Your check’s in the mail.
Hayden, what’s it like for you playing a character going to university when you haven’t had that experience yourself?
Hayden Panettiere: You know what, they’re all kind of similar. Similar in the way that being around friends and feeling out of place and being new in any situation. You can pretty much figure it out how it would be. And I really had a rough time in middle school. Middle school to me was the way most people explain high school. Then in high school I had a blast. I basically did everything that you would do in high school or in college, so it really wasn’t a difficult thing to pull out.
Would you like to go to university maybe after you finish working on Heroes?
Hayden Panettiere: I love to learn, but just going back into school, because of what I do, I’m so set in this path that I’m on right now and I’m so excited about it, I like to focus myself on one thing at a time. But I’ve found that I really don’t like that there are subjects which are necessary to learn but you don’t really want to learn, on top of those ones that you do want to learn. So to take a class or two on subjects that I’m really, really interested in and curious about would be awesome. But I spend so much time with the brightest and most talented and well-rounded people. I’ve had the privilege of having long and very intellectual conversations with people, and sometimes I just sit there and listen. It’s like a better version of a class. Even though I’m not sitting at a desk and in school, I’m still learning all the time.
Masi Oka: And what you don’t know is that Hayden will be getting her Ph.D. next year.
Hayden Panettiere: What you don’t know is, I’ll be running for the president.
Masi, in the conference call you were talking about the character of Charlie from Season 1, and it’s now being revealed that she’s going to be appearing this season. Are you looking forward to working with that actress again?
Masi Oka: Jayma Mays was absolutely fantastic. We just finished yesterday shooting that episode, and it brought me memories and it was absolutely fantastic working with her. Lots of laughter, lots of crying, it was sweet, it was heartbreaking, it was everything that I loved about that storyline all bundled into one.
Episode 8 is a really heavy Hiro/Charlie storyline. It was an absolute pleasure and an honor to be working with Jayma Mays again. And I know Episode 9 is going to be a very heavy Claire episode, too. So we’ve got some great episodes coming up.
Is there any chance we’re going to be seeing Hiro’s sword again in the future?
Masi Oka: I don’t know. I think it depends on how well we’re doing on our budget, because last year we had some budget cuts and we had to use a stale French bread instead of a sword.
Hayden Panettiere: We did have baguettes.
Masi Oka: Maybe this year I might have to use a poppy stick or something.
Hayden, Claire’s been pretty unlucky with love up to this point. What’s going to happen with her this season?
Hayden Panettiere: Well, she has a roommate who is the biggest relationship in this season thus far, because she has finally got what her friend Zach was in the first season. A confidante and somebody who she can tell her secrets to, who would be there for her and who she could trust. She hasn’t had anyone like that since then. Then this new character, Gretchen, my roommate, comes along, and she becomes that person for me. And it’s a very interesting relationship because there’s a little bit of a flirting with the whole, are we friends? Are we more? Do I have feelings for you in that way? That’s the relationship so far, and where exactly it’s going I have no idea.
Masi Oka: The two key words are flirting and roommates.
Did you enjoy playing that kind of complicated relationship?
Hayden Panettiere: Oh, yeah. [singing] I kissed a girl and I liked it.
Masi, can you talk about how important the hero Ando bromance is to the show?
Masi Oka: The bromance is there. Unfortunately, it’s going to get broken up because Ando goes and gets married. It’s important to have that duo. The kind of relationship progress from being a friend, like partners, like brothers in a sense, and literally they become brothers, at least brothers-in-law, for real. And, of course, he was going through his own trauma dealing with a terminal illness. You have that great happy news and it’s all about Hiro in some sense sacrificing himself to make sure other peoples’ lives are happy at his own expense.
Do you think it fundamentally changed the relationship when Ando got his powers?
Masi Oka: It always changes. Because characters do have to grow and the relationship does change. But once Ando got his powers, it’s more on equal footing that they became partners, so it wasn’t Batman and Robin. They became more of a Batman and Superman. And I’m not sure if that was good or bad. There is something to be said about familiarity of the characters and what the audience wants and expects. But we also want the characters to grow and relationships to grow as they do real life.
Claire also has to deal with her parents breaking up.
Hayden Panettiere: Yeah, I mean I think that’s always the pull and tug. Right now it’s not quite at the forefront of the storyline for me. But yeah, that is a struggle, and it’s something that sometimes can be very suppressed in somebody who’s so young. But she is very much on her own right now, in a good way. And finding that normal life and her biggest relationship being this friend and not living at home anymore. But there is an episode coming up, I think we all have a family time, which is going to be fun.
What have your sci-fi convention experiences been like?
Hayden Panettiere: It’s been very, very interesting experience. The cool thing is you run into true, die-hard fans. They’re not fans necessarily of you all the time; they’re fans of what you do in your character. They’re all very legit and very real and genuinely love and live for the show. They don’t want anything from you. They’re not there for that reason. They’re just there for the love of the show.
Masi Oka: Yeah, it’s great. It’s always great to be able to talk to fans and interact with the fans. I kind of wish I’d been to these sci-fi conventions before I was on Heroes, just so I could experience it from that side. That’s something that we really appreciate. When people love our show and they put on the costumes, they know everything about our characters. It is overwhelming at the same time, but, you know, it’s something that we’re grateful for and that’s the reason why our show’s continued to succeed.
Hayden Panettiere: We’ve been known to put on a stormtrooper mask from time to time. We’re running around the convention.
Masi Oka: If you see a Wookie and a stormtrooper making out, that could be us.
Hayden Panettiere: But a really, really short stormtrooper. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stormtrooper as short as I am.
Masi Oka: Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?
Hayden Panettiere: Absolutely, but look how big my gun is.
Hiro has a terminal illness. I don’t like the sound of that.
Masi Oka: Dun-dun-dun...
Is it possible that we might see the last of him, because I know his power is not going to be able to save him.
Hayden Panettiere: Can you imagine Heroes without Hiro?
Masi Oka: I can. I mean, it would be a very bold move. I don’t think anything has been set in stone yet, to be honest with you. We don’t know which way we’re going. At the same time, we already have our Kenny from South Park on our show: that’s Nathan Petrelli. I can guarantee that Nathan Petrelli will die this season finale. It just happens. Every season finale Nathan will die.
Regarding Hiro, we don’t know. Whatever it is, because it’s a terminal illness and a whole bucket list, it’s something that we’re going to be asking the audience to go on a real emotional ride on. Whatever that’s decided, I want to make sure that it’s going to be something that won’t betray the audience. We’re asking them to take this really emotional, sincere, and sweet ride with Hiro, and we don’t want to just pull the rug and say, “Oops! It’s not that.” Whatever outcome we come up with, we think we will do it poetic justice to the storyline.
Hayden, Claire is in university this season. Can we expect to see her in school the entire season?
Hayden Panettiere: I have absolutely no idea. We shall see. I’m still in school now. She may go back and forth, I’m not positive. I know that she will be spending time elsewhere occasionally.
Have either of you worked with T-Bag – I mean Robert Knepper?
Masi Oka: Oh, yeah, I’ve had a lot of scenes with Robert.
Hayden Panettiere: I’m sorry, hold on – can you clarify? Was that T-Bag or D-Bag?
Masi Oka: It’s from Prison Break. He’s not asking you if you’ve been T-bagged.
Hayden Panettiere: Sorry. I wasn’t up on that joke, so it kind of threw me a little bit.
Masi Oka: Yeah, Robert, he’s such a phenomenal actor, and I had the opportunity to work with him on two episodes or three episodes. We’re having a blast together and he just adds such a new energy to the show.
Hayden Panettiere: He is one of a kind. He has the same car as me, but he has a taxidermy mouse with wings dangling from his mirror. Which is really uncomfortable. I sat there for 10 minutes, staring at it, going, I hope nobody thinks this is my car.
Masi Oka: He’s very generous and very focused.
Masi, are you studying any particular type of illness to play for Hiro this year?
Masi Oka: If I was a good actor, I’d say yes. But I’m not. I have had people near me with similar types of illness. My mom went through the whole breast cancer thing last year and the whole idea of teetering on the brink of life and death brought me a realization and appreciation for life. And just talking to my mom and what she had to go through helped me prepare.
That’s kind of like the wrong word to say, but I understand a little bit. There’s no way, of course, to fully understand what an illness does to someone or what emotional state or physical state it puts you in, but to show respect, yeah, definitely I’ve had a chance to talk to many people. I just wanted to pay respect without putting too much into it.
Hayden, Claire didn’t use her powers too much in the third season. Are we going to get to see you get to do any sort of action-y stuff this season?
Hayden Panettiere: I hope so. There’s an episode that we just shot that’s pretty action packed.
Masi Oka: The awesome action sequence involved stale French bread.
Hayden Panettiere: They’re much sturdier that way.
After four years on the show, what are some of the special effects that continue to really astonish you?
Hayden Panettiere: It’s all real. It’s all us. I lend my blood to the show all the time. You gotta take one for the team. I mean, Masi’s probably not quite as astonished because this is something that he’s very, very good at in computer graphics and that kind of stuff. So it’s something that I don’t understand in the slightest. It’s all shocking to me.
Masi Oka: Well, I am an effects snob, so – but I do have to say that I am impressed about the speed and what they can do. Because I know the budget that they’re given and how much time they have and the resources they have to do what they have to do. And the quality they maintain on the show is quite impressive without a doubt.
Has doing a shorter season affected your work yet at all?
Masi Oka: It’s actually fantastic, to be honest with you. You know, doubling up always puts a strain, because it becomes about quantity and not quality. Twenty-five episodes, as much as it’s great to have that work, it stresses out a storyline that should have been perhaps in 22. You have to dilute a storyline and make a filler. And that last episode is not going to be as strong as it should be.
Having 19 allows you to be really creatively tight. Make every episode so packed with story, character development, action, all that. Ultimately, it’s great for the show, and that’s the one thing I say about the great British shows. You know, I see it on the series on HBO where the season is shortened to 12 or six or whatever it is. There’s a reason why there’s a quality behind that. The writers, as well as the crew and the cast, do get burnt out after doing continuous episodes, and it feels like a factory rather than a creative process. We get tapped out.
Hayden Panettiere: I definitely, definitely agree. I feel like the past four years have kind of been like one run-on season, not that we’re doing anything the same or the characters haven’t changed or the storylines aren’t different. But, you know, this has been like 80% of our life for the past four years. It does get drawn out sometimes, and sometimes you’re trying to slow yourself down and with this amount of story. It’s nice when you can keep it moving. There doesn’t have to be any filler.
Masi Oka: The one thing about season one was that it was so fast paced. It’s hard to maintain that pace, and 19 is just such a perfect number. It’s not like the writers’ strike in season two where we got cut short. Knowing that we have 19 allows everybody, especially the writers and creators, to come up with that perfect arc for the 19 episodes. And what would usually take 22 would be compressed to 19. That means we get to pack more stuff in there. So as long as it’s not cut short involuntarily, a shorter season is actually, in my mind, more preferred. Of course, I would rather have the crew to have more work, but creatively, for longevity’s sake, I think it’s a better decision.
The illness that Hiro has sort of seemed like it came out of left field at the end of last season. That had never been brought up that this might affect somebody adversely.
Masi Oka: Right, I think the justification for that illness is because Hiro let someone into his world. The first time he stopped time while touching someone – in that case it was Ando. That was the first time he froze time with someone else in that freeze-time world. And that’s what started the adverse effects in Hiro’s brain.
Is it just the freezing? Because you had blinked people away.
Masi Oka: Yes, well, it’s all about manipulating space and time while having someone else. It’s the strain on what the power was meant to be for, the capacity of one, when you start adding Ando, Suresh, and other people into that world. It’s a strain on Hiro’s brain. That’s the way it was explained to me.