Mega Bites: interview with The Meg actor Masi Oka

For inSing

MEGA BITES
Masi Oka talks being hunted by an ancient killer shark in The Meg

By Jedd Jong

Even in 2018, there are still corners of the world’s oceans that remain unexplored, and while it might seem implausible, it is tantalising and terrifying to imagine that hiding in one of those corners might be something like the Carcharocles megalodon. Scientists estimate that this fearsome ancestor of the Great White Shark stalked the seas between 23 to 2.6 million years ago and could grow up to 18 metres in length.

In the sci-fi action thriller The Meg, based on the best-selling 1997 novel by Steve Alten, a Megalodon rears its toothy head. the titular shark terrorises our heroes, led by Jason Statham as former deep-sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor.

Jonas had a traumatic run-in with the creature five years earlier, but nobody believed him then. Jonas’ ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is the pilot of the submersible Mana-One Origin, which is trapped in the Marianas Trench and effectively held hostage by the Meg. Jonas is hired by oceanographer Dr Zhang (Winston Chao) to lead the rescue effort, despite the insistence of Zhang’s daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) that she can spearhead the rescue herself. The other crew members stuck alongside Lori in the tiny capsule are ‘the Wall’ (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and Toshi (Masi Oka).

inSing spoke exclusively to Oka about his work on the film. Audiences might be most familiar with the actor from his role as Hiro Nakamura on the TV series Heroes and Heroes Reborn. A man of many talents, Oka started out in Hollywood as a visual effects artist at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), working on films such as the Star Wars prequels. His diverse CV also includes a stint as an English, Spanish, and Japanese translator at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Photo credit: Lisa O’Connor for AFP/Getty Images

Oka has recently taken on projects as a producer, including the Netflix film Death Note. He is a cultural envoy to the U.S. Embassy, endeavouring to bridge the gap between Japan and Hollywood in the realms of arts and business. His acting roles in film and on TV also include Hawaii Five-0, Get Smart, Punk’d, Jobs and Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Oka told us what it was like working on the submersible set, how his behind-the-scenes expertise informs his acting when working on a visual effects-heavy film like this one, the camaraderie between the cast and crew, and how the nature of the co-production between American and Chinese studios influenced the final product.

INSING: Hi Masi, thanks for talking with us. Please tell us about your character Toshi.

MASI OKA: He is a Japanese co-pilot for the Mana-One submersible. We are the first expedition to go 11 000 metres under the ocean’s surface, and we also have a fateful run-in with an enormous creature, later revealed to be an ancient species of shark long thought to be extinct. He’s an overall fun tech guy, very smart, but also very goofy and loves to joke around.

Is Toshi very much like the screen persona your fans know you to have?

I think there’s a piece of me in it. Any character I play, whether it’s on TV or on film, I always approach it with a part of me, by exaggerating a part of me.

Were you a fan of the books by Steve Alten before you got the job?

To be honest with you, I hadn’t read any of Steve Alten’s books before getting the job, I didn’t know what The Meg was. When you get the opportunity to work with Jon Turteltaub, who did National Treasure and who’s such a great director, that was very inspiring. There’s such an international cast, and ensemble cast, and to be able to create a new Jaws for a new generation, was just something I couldn’t pass up. It’s a great opportunity.

This movie has a really eclectic cast. Which of the actors do you share most of your scenes with, and what was the vibe like on set?

I shared most of my scenes with Dari and Jessica McNamee. We’re the three pilots of the Mana-One submersible. The vibe on set was so fun, it was amazing. Jon Turteltaub took us out for dinner, he took care of the cast and everyone, and we felt like a family. It was like being at summer camp with friends and family. There was a camaraderie, we were collaborative, and we were just goofing around – sometimes goofing around too much. We improvised a lot on set, hopefully you see that in the DVD extras.

Was it harder for Jon to wrangle the shark or you guys?

It’s probably harder to wrangle us. At least with the shark, he just has to press some buttons. It was just a fun atmosphere. Jon is very self-deprecating, he’s an amazing leader.

You worked as a digital effects artist at ILM. From your perspective having been in the industry, what can audiences expect spectacle-wise from The Meg?

It’s amazing, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s an over-the-top thrill ride with action, humour and fun. It’s a family movie that the whole family can enjoy. This shark, you’ve never seen anything like it before. I think the CG artists did an amazing job creating this. I had to imagine what it was going to look like on set because it hadn’t been created yet, but it really exceeded my imagination in terms of the sheer size and epicness of it, and the fear factor.

What have you learned from working both behind the scenes and in front of the camera?

I’ve learned a lot in terms of the process that goes into creating these things. Many times, actors don’t understand that us standing in one place and standing two centimetres to the right – there’s a reason for that. Those two centimetres help the post-production folks to save not only money, but hours and hours of work and headaches. Being a visual effects supervisor, having worked behind the scenes, it gives you an appreciation of everyone’s work. Also, it helps me communicate. When people tell me “we’re going to do some comps and roto you out here,” I don’t have to have that explained to me. To be able to communicate with people and speak people’s languages allows the set to be more efficient, and gives everyone mutual respect for each other’s work.

Yeah, that’s something you hear from actors who talk about working with directors who are actors themselves, they understand the craft from that perspective.

Exactly. It goes both ways – to understand both ways is really important.

It’s no secret that, unfortunately, there are more bad movies about sharks than there are good ones. What makes The Meg a good shark movie?

I’m actually happy there’s been a lot of bad shark movies, so The Meg can blow them out of the water. The amount of resources that went into creating this is amazing. We have a great director, an international global cast – the CG, the acting, it’s still grounded, it’s based on reality, it feels like the stakes are real. We want to have people scared, but also laughing, crying, maybe even angry at times, and then scared again. People go through a huge range of emotions, and that also makes The Meg something in the class of its own, compared to other shark movies which jump the shark.

This film has been in development hell, or development hell’s aquarium, if you will, for a while. What do you think were the challenges the production team faced in bringing this book to the big screen?

I think Warner Bros really believed in the film. It took time to make sure we did the film justice. That means we had to have the right budget to create the special effects, the technology. There’s a lot of reasons why things go through development hell, but I’m really glad Warner Bros. persisted and found the right creatives and the resources to make this. It took a while. Nothing’s easy when it comes to moviemaking. That’s a credit to everyone that Warner Bros, Steve and the producers continued pushing forward.

Jason Statham is one of the actors who’s pretty close to the action heroes of the 80s and 90s. What was your impression of him?

Absolutely. Jason’s a wonderful actor, he’s very generous and very charismatic. He’s definitely a lot larger than life, but he’s really just humble and a generous guy. When he gets on the screen, he is that persona – he’s everything you expect of an action hero and he encompasses all the qualities of an action hero.

The Meg very much plays on our Thalassaphobia, the fear of what might be lurking in the ocean. Do you have that fear?

Yeah, I definitely do have that fear. I’m also afraid of dark places, small spaces [laughs]…I’m glad that I’m playing a character. If this were me in real life, I would not be able to do what Toshi’s doing.

Movies like The Meg are sometimes described as “B-movies with an A-movie budget” – do you like that characterisation of the movie?

Not really – I think it’s a strange thing to say something’s a B-movie when the production quality is super-high. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we’re definitely not campy. There are campy movies out there, but this is a real film, it is a creature film but it is grounded and has real stakes. People will go on an emotional ride. It’s an A-movie with A-production value.

That’s a difficult balance, making a genre movie that people are emotionally invested in.

Yeah, it has to do with Jon’s direction, the way that shots are laid out, music, acting, it all comes really well together, a nice blend of humour and emotional stakes.

In the movie, the characters who were originally Japanese in the book are replaced with characters who are Chinese, but who serve similar functions as the original characters. How do you think this change affects the story, or if does at all?

I think we got a bigger budget because of that, with the Chinese studio. I’m glad that they kept at least one character, my character Toshi, Japanese. In fact, that’s what the Chinese producers said, they wanted to improve on Japanese and Chinese relationships through film, which I love. I’m always trying to use entertainment to bridge cultures. I’m really grateful for that.

It sounds like The Meg has a really big thrill ride element to it, and I love theme park rides. If you could design a theme park ride based on The Meg, what would it be?

Oh wow! If I could design a theme park ride based on The Meg…wow. They should definitely be in that submersible and get plopped down into water. It’s hard to say anything without giving a lot away. It might be more of an escape room – you’re in a submersible and you know the Meg is approaching in 30 minutes, and you need to find a way out of there.

What are some of your favourite creature features besides Jaws which you mentioned earlier, and how do you think The Meg measures up?

My other favourite is probably Godzilla. Being Japanese, I grew up on manga and anime and iconic monster movies. The Meg is completely different – the technology is different, we don’t have suit actors or maquettes. It’s a 75-foot shark that’s completely CGI. It’s definitely in a class of its own.

Finally, if you could bring one prehistoric animal back from extinction, could be a dinosaur or anything else, what would it be?

A prehistoric creature? What would it be…hmm…you know, dinosaurs are great, probably a Brontosaurus because they don’t seem to be too dangerous. One of my favourite anime movies is the first Doraemon film, Nobita’s Dinosaur. Nobita befriends a [Plesiosaurus] named Piisuke. Jurassic Park kinda ruined it for me, but the one prehistoric creature I would want to resurrect would be that. It would be my bodyguard. Meg 2 can be the dinosaur.

You’re commanding the dinosaur into battle against the Meg.

Exactly. You’d need a dinosaur who can actually swim.

The Meg opens in Singapore on 9 August 2018 

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