New hit show Heroes has some big ideas

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Just two episodes in to the first series of Heroes, 28-year-old star Santiago Cabrera was sent a film script. He was thrilled. Until then he was better known for his soccer skills than his screen presence. Too bad it wasn't a very good script.

"I definitely feel I'm on a different radar now," he says from his home in LA. "People know you're on a hit show. They look at you differently." That radar equates to the 14 million US viewers who have tuned in to watch Heroes each week, making it the top-rating drama in the 18-49 age group.

The blockbuster-sized drama, about people with super powers, is up for a Golden Globe for best show, and its star Masi Oka for best supporting actor. It's not hard to see why. These aren't your run-of-the-mill superheroes. They're Joe Schmoes who discover they have extraordinary abilities. And they're just as amazed as we are, which makes it a lot easier to relate to them than some muscle-bound guy zooming through the clouds in Lycra.

The show taps into the same pleasure gene that made us crave Idol (people next door doing big things), comic books (the pacing and action is similar, and there are references throughout), and to some extent, Lost (mysterious premise, big cast).

"Even though it's got this sci-fi thing and people compare it to X-Men and Lost, I think it's something very different," says Cabrera, whose character is more of an anti-hero. "It's more mainstream than that. It follows the lives of these people from all over the world."

The universal theme was part of the reason the Chilean actor, who spent his childhood travelling the world with his diplomat father, was drawn to the role. He plays Isaac, a heroin junkie and artist who specialises in apocalyptic, violent imagery. When he gets high, he paints the future.

"One of the big things Isaac is tortured by is that he starts to think that these things are happening because he's painting them," says Cabrera. "I think they come to him like visions. It's just like any artist will get lost in a painting and then step back and look at it - he can't quite control it but there is some inspiration from inside of him."

Isaac isn't the only one in the running for the Guinness Book of Records. His fellow superheroes can fly, hear people's thoughts and walk through fire unscathed. As their powers are revealed, their lives begin to intertwine. Others don't discover their powers until further down the track.

So far, so fantastic - a dramatic pilot Heroes doth make. But there's a rather serious side to the show that may appeal more to American tastes than ours, one that suggests Heroes is not just the real-life version of The Incredibles. It asks some probing, philosophical questions. To set the mood, they're posed over a plaintive piano line and dream-like film sequence. Namely, "Why are we here?"

"I think it's something that we always ask ourselves," muses Cabrera. "And I think every guy has at some point in their life wanted to be a superhero. It's that thing of 'Who are we?' and wanting to be special, wanting to stand out. That's the issues these characters have."

Cabrera had his own issues. Painting didn't come naturally so he bought some canvases and started copying images by other artists. Most of the art seen in the show is by Tim Sale. "He's a messy painter, moving around a lot, splashing."

Cabrera also went to rehab clinics and talked to heroin addicts to avoid portraying his troubled artist in a cliched way.

"It freed me to approach Isaac like a normal human being. The most insightful thing they told me is they get a lot of artists, musicians, writers, painters, people who have a hyper-sensitivity.

"They're very insecure and they use the drugs to protect themselves from the world. Even though Isaac believes he can only paint the future when he's high, it's clear that it's inside of him and he has to find himself to do better."

Cabrera is so confident in the show's longevity he's already thinking five years ahead.

"He's a junkie hero. That's what I loved about this role. He's someone with a lot of layers, a lot of depth. When you think you might tie yourself up for many years to play a character, this is the right guy to be attached to. We just have to take it one season at a time. I'm sure there will be a second."

He acknowledges that before Lost, it would have been virtually impossible to get something like Heroes on air, with its vast cast and quasi-spiritual themes.

The notion of a world in which superheroes might predict terrorist attacks or save us from them also has a certain appeal. "Apart from the fact that it's entertainment, it's something to go to and hope. There are heroes out there.

"Maybe they're not predicting the future in painting but there are definitely people who do great stuff."

* Heroes begins on Monday, 8.30pm on TV3 with a two-hour series premiere (and from next week, a one-hour show at 9.30pm).

SUPER STARS

HIRO
(Masi Oka)
Office worker, Tokyo
Superpower: Can alter the space/time continuum - if he concentrates hard enough, he can go back in time or teletransport himself into the women's loos.

NATHAN Peter's brother
(Adrian Pasdar)
Politician, New York
Superpower: Flight - he doesn't need an airline ticket to get an aerial view. Just don't expect him to do it in spandex.

PETER Nathan's brother
(Milo Ventimiglia )
Unemployed nurse, New York
Superpower: Power mimicry - he can pick up on the powers of those within the vicinity. Which comes in handy given his brother can fly.

NIKI
(Ali Larter)
Webcam stripper, Las Vegas
Superpower: Super-human strength via alter ego - her reflection seems to be telling her something other than that her lippy needs reapplying.

CLAIRE
(Hayden Panettiere)
Cheerleader, Texas
Superpower: Spontaneous regeneration - can leap off bridges, walk through fire or shake hands with a waste disposal unit without the need for painkillers or plastic surgery.

ISAAC
(Santiago Cabrera)
Artist, comic book creator, New York
Superpower: Precognition - he paints violent images of the future. We're talking car bombs, maimed bodies and general devastation.

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