You Haven’t Seen Everything John Cho Can Do

TLP-BEAR-0009 Photo: Benjo Arwas/The Licensing Project

The last time John Cho went to Seoul, the city from which his family emigrated when he was 6, he was called a word he’d never heard before. “I didn’t know whether to be flattered or not,” Cho says. “But I had to admit that maybe I have this quality.” The word is Um-chin-ah, an abbreviated phrase that roughly translates to “your mother’s friend’s son.” That is, the kid you’re compared to growing up: the one who gets perfect scores on the SATs, plays soccer and the violin, volunteers at the hospital, and is elected prom king. He’s the ideal Korean kid, and “he is a ghost,” Cho tells me. “He doesn’t exist!” And yet, looking at John Cho on a bench in Brooklyn Bridge Park with his sunglasses in his hair, I can’t help thinking it’s exactly the right word.

He looks good at 44, tall and lean in slate-gray jeans, a marled gray T-shirt, and a black denim jacket when I meet him for a walk around Dumbo. Cho has an easy gait, and when he considers something you have to say, he folds his arms across his chest and bobs his head, taking it all in. He’s likable onscreen, but that likability is way more intense in person, in part because it’s tempered with jokey self-assessments. “I don’t know what this means or why it’s so, but people like me,” Cho says. “It’s been a surprise, because people who know me are split, man. It’s a hot topic; 50-50 at best.”

The following Q&A occurred that day in Brooklyn as well as during a follow-up phone call while he was on the press tour for Star Trek Beyond, which is in theaters this Friday. Cho was candid and cerebral, as we discussed everything from race to his ability to conjure up weed at will to why he pushed to have Sulu’s husband be Asian.

When was the last time you went to Korea?
I went to Korea the last time for Star Trek. I was there for 24 hours and I was instructed by my mother to call X number of relatives. I was like, “Do I have to? I'm there for like 24 hours, honestly.” She said, “Yes, you have to. You're doing press. They'll read it in the papers. They'll be very insulted.” I got there and was like, I can't make all these calls. It'll take forever. So I asked the person arranging things to call them and maybe get them together at the hotel when I had my lunch hour.

I wanted a translator. I've found that one's language abilities, especially for Korean kids like me, get frozen at the age you immigrated. So I've always associated Korea with being a child and being infantilized through my inability to speak. We go down to lunch, and the translator [who was helping me do press] asked, very off-handedly, “Am I coming or no?” I said come just in case. We sat down to lunch and it was weird. I hadn't seen these relatives in many years, and I had this guy whispering in my ear like it was the U.N. But then I was able to start talking with freedom. As an adult. In English. And they were able to talk to me. So as awkward as it was to have this stranger at our family lunch, it was really an enormous blessing. It was a moment where I could be who I thought was myself. It was a bizarre circumstance that led to a very authentic transaction.

If you had stayed in Korea, do you still think you would have become an actor?
I don't think so. I feel I stumbled into it because I was interested in cultural expression. It seemed like an active and fun way to do that. The first professional show I did was The Woman Warrior, based on the book [by Maxine Hong Kingston]. So I remember thinking about it, reading about it, writing a paper on it. And it was all theoretical. It turns out they were making this play, dramatizing it. Then you end up playing out all these issues. So I just found that to be engaging and interesting.

What are the ideas that interest you now?
I've been thinking about this because of the hashtag #starringjohncho: What is at the root of all this? Is it a political thing? I really feel like it's this collective dream that we all want to be a part of. Culture is this thing that exists apart from our real life but is something we all have tacitly agreed to in America. And what film and television do, particularly in this country, is lay out the characters involved in this invisible agreement, and dictate who and what can participate. So I feel like it's tied up in this idea of personhood, that Asian-Americans are looking to be affirmed as real people. 

How have you seen that manifested in media?
I've seen many instances where we’re seen as a little less than human, or maybe a little more than human — like ultrahuman, rather than subhuman. What is wrong with film representation? Some of it is mechanical, surprisingly. I've thought about why Asian stars — from Asia, I mean — look so much better in their Asian films than they do in their American films, and now I can answer that to some extent. There's an eye, and it's not a malicious eye, which is a way that the people working the camera and behind the scenes view us. And then they process it and they put it on film. And it's not quite human. Whereas Asian films, they are considered fully human. Fully heroic, fully comic, fully lovely, fully sad, whatever it is. And it's this combination of lighting, makeup, and costume.

If you don't think of a person as fully human, you sort of stop short and go, That’s good enough. Do you remember Doug Liman’s film Go? I remember Taye Diggs in that movie, and he was charcoal black. I was surprised to see him in How Stella Got Her Groove Back — I realized that Go was not an accurate representation of his skin tone whatsoever. And I've met him. He was carelessly lit. Why is that? Why is one carelessly lit? The white people were carefully lit.

Technology is often built around white skin tones. There was a funny Better Off Ted episode where the motion-sensor technology couldn't recognize dark skin, so the black characters were literally invisible. They were parodying the HP face-recognition technology that also couldn’t recognize black people.
That's telling. I did this show called Flashforward. My fiancé on the show [Gabrielle Union] and I are both different colors, but I look at the pictures from that and go, Oh, well done! We're both visible. We look like real people. But there was no one white in that scene to calibrate the camera or the lights to.

Now I really see it in children's programming, which is a much more direct representation of what people think. It's crazy how different Asians look, how they have to put racial signifiers all over it. We're obsessed with race, this country. And unfortunately now I am too. Because I've had to be, in response.

I feel like there’s this need that the Asian-American community has to feel like people. It's something that Asians in Asia do not understand about us. They don't have that issue, so they have no sympathy. Which makes them sound callous. They haven't experienced that feeling. They enjoy being a foreigner. It's funny.

Difference can exist purely as difference, versus difference that exists as oppression.
Right. My wife and I were worried when we had our firstborn, about how he was going to think of himself in a mostly white neighborhood. Particularly Asian men, I feel, we suffer more than Asian women, because we're told we're not worth anything in general. We thought casually about moving to an Asian-heavy neighborhood. And I'm glad we didn't, because there are a lot of drawbacks to that too.

Do you feel like the culture has shifted in a positive way around this conversation? With a hashtag like #starringjohncho, I feel like things take a life on social media that they wouldn't have been able to in the past.
There was a moment where I was like, How should I feel about this? Am I childhood leukemia? Am I pediatric AIDS? I didn't know how to feel about it. Now I think I feel correctly about it, which is that it's a precise way of talking about a general issue. And I'm happy that it's been so effective. I'm happy that the guy behind it is so thoughtful and that he's able to talk about it, and I don't have to talk about it.

Do you feel there's a burden of symbolism on you?
Yeah, some of that I bring upon myself. I could just not care. Like Ken Jeong doesn't care, or I feel like he doesn't. But I do. When I told my dad I wanted to try this acting thing, he said, “Are you sure you don't just want to be a television news reporter?” Because it did seem like a better road for Asians. He said, “Well, if you do, then maybe one day you can tell the history of Korean-Americans in the U.S.” And I was like, Oh shit. More burden. And I just couldn't help myself. And that's probably why early on I didn't want to take stereotypical roles. I've always had a sense of responsibility. Like that was the unfair burden of being 23 and looking at the sides as they came through the fax machine wondering how would a young Asian-American person feel about this? How would this be regarded?

Is race a reason why you haven’t booked jobs?
I always feel like it’s amazing how frank people are. Even this past pilot season, I was sent a script and I was talking with my agents, and they said, “We pitched you for such and such a role, but they can’t go Asian obviously because of blah blah blah,” because it involved an era where cinematically we didn’t see Asians. And I was like, Oh, okay. But that’s a fiction created by cinema. There are people of different colors, but it was copying a film history that excluded people of color, not reality.

They’ll say, “We can’t cast an Asian because this other person is Asian,” or “We’ve got another Asian.” The fact that people are very open about it is very surprising to me, because you assume it, based upon the product. It would be weird to be in human resources and say, “Oh, we can’t hire another Asian in accounting, because there’s a black dude in accounting, so, thank you very much.”

Would you want to be a superhero?
I mean, when it’s done the right way they have an interesting problem, or a scar that they’re dealing with. I don’t particularly want to diet. Or work out like crazy. That doesn’t sound fun. The problem now is whenever you do a movie they sign you to like, a three-picture deal, because if you play, you know, Condorman, you’re young, you’re just in from Ohio or whatever, you’re signing a 15-year contract, and they have the option to make three or four. That’s the weird thing about it — all these indentured-servitude contracts.

What about James Bond?
James Bond is different. I wouldn’t have to think about that at all, because you would get to wear cool suits. I mean, that’s dope. Getting into a skintight suit, for some reason, that’s the only drawback for me. And then the pretend pew pew pew!

I have this thing — I like to take off my costume at lunch because I think I like to replicate the stage experience. After lunch I like to get dressed again. Getting dressed in my costume is a little bit of a ritual and then when I’m needed I come out feeling fresh, and the curtain’s opening. I remember doing the first Star Trek, and I had this crazy suit for when we were skydiving, and I always needed help to get into that. There was a person assigned to me that had to put baby powder in it, and they had to zip me up and all this stuff.

I can imagine that you would stop drinking water just so you could avoid having to pee.
Yeah. I don’t know whether Willem Dafoe was shitting with me, but he told me that during Nosferatu, someone had to literally take his dick out to pee, because he had these crazy fingernails.

Do you feel like you're getting interesting roles?
Yes, more and more. I was never Matt Dillon hanging out on a street corner getting discovered by a casting director. My real break was American Pie. It really did flip the whole thing. From that came Harold & Kumar. Sometimes little surprises come, like Selfie.

That show was secretly a gem.
You know, you discover weird things. There's this whole emotional realm that Asian-American male actors are genuinely prohibited from doing, like being able to explore romantic love as an artist. That's too bad, because it's interesting and fulfilling, and you discover lots of things.

There is an acting idea to figure out what your essence is: What does the camera understand you to be? Maybe you should know what you communicate, and exploit that or don't exploit that. Part of my mourning Selfie was I felt that it was right in the pocket of my essence. Why people loved that American Pie bit was that it was an Asian not acting Asian. It was transgressing. Now I’m tired of that trope. I was very uncomfortable with that because it didn't feel like me. I think it turned me off of comedy in general, in some ways. I can't do this if they want some loudmouth Vince Vaughn type. I can't do it. Selfie was a chance for me to be centered, confident. There was some kind of stillness to the character that I felt was much more me than any other person I played.

Do you feel like you've made it?
Huh. Sure. I have wildly exceeded my expectations for myself. I've made a living for myself acting, which seems extraordinary. And then in the bigger picture, sadly, I do think of my life as the second half of my parents' life. The story we're sold is we came here for you, our parents. If that's the truth I feel like I flourished in a lot of ways.

And it's not just the fact that I'm settled and have a house and a family. But this idea of being part of American culture is an idea of success my parents couldn't even have dreamed of. I think about it all the time when I'm going to a premiere and I'm in the limousine, and I've had someone dress me and apply my hair. I think about my father who was born in North Korea at the time of the Korean War, and walked down south as a refugee and attempted to eat bark because he was hungry. And I think he could have dreamed that his children would be prosperous. But I don't think he would have dreamed that his children would be a part of movies in the United States. That seems like something beyond their ability to imagine. So even if my career had ended a while ago, I would have declared it a success.

How have you navigated fame?
This is going to sound douchey, but I was always surprised by how famous I was. It didn't make any mathematical sense. I’ve been famous since American Pie. I liked American Pie. I thought it was really warm and honest and well-acted and well-cast, but it was a cultural phenomenon. I had shot this movie in China. What I thought might be an important film. It starred Willem Dafoe, and it was a period piece based on a book by Pearl Buck called Pavilion of Women. It turned out to be not a great movie. It just didn't do anything.

That summer while I was shooting, American Pie came out, but I came back to L.A. and I was just full of myself. I came back to America and people were like, MILF! I just didn't even compute it for a second. I was like, Why are they shouting at me? What are they talking about? It took me a few days to understand. I've always said that being famous is like having big tits. People are like, Hey! Big tits! In a way I was lucky that my first thing was American Pie, because I wasn't fooled into thinking that being famous was a show of respect. If I had done The Outsiders maybe I would have drank my own Kool-Aid, but I was sadly prevented. I knew what it was: I was a big set of boobies.

Still, I think a lot of people feel as though you deserve a lot more.
I would put myself in that group too! [Laughter.] You know, I'll toot my own horn. I have become a real actor. I'm capable of good work. And I think, while my career is fucking great for an Asian actor, I haven't been given the chance to do all that I can. And I feel like that instinct has something to do with my color. But yeah, in the business, I feel like I could do [more]. I feel like I'm starting to finally get good at acting and I really would like to do more challenging stuff. I think every five years or so I get really bummed out and want to quit.

As a celebrity, though, I think a lot of people genuinely care about you. 
My Uber driver gave me some weed last night. I took it, to be polite. Maybe I’ll smoke it, I don’t know. It seems like a lot to do.

Do you trust weed from a stranger?
If they’re giving it to Harold, sure. You know, I was in San Francisco with a buddy of mine, just traveling with me for something, for an event, he was my plus one, and uh, I don’t really smoke weed but he does, and he was like, “Ugh, I didn’t make weed arrangements.” And we were walking in Union Square and I said, “Let’s see if I can get us some weed,” and I just said, “Yo, where my weed at?” like loud, and a joint appeared. I was like weed Merlin. No, weed David Copperfield. I was pretty impressed, I did it twice at different points in the day.

The other thing I’ve noticed is at first I used to think I was being recognized only when people said something to me, but now I know that it’s happening all the time. And so that took me years to understand. So I just assumed that, that’s why I could just yell it out. The second time was a Chinese busboy, or maybe he was kitchen staff, I don’t know, but he had a ponytail and a goatee and he had the biggest blunt I’ve ever personally seen. It was like the size of a Swiss Army Knife, this thing. It really fucked me up. But I can conjure it. Like that was a crowded city square, so it worked. It would take me a few minutes, but I’m sure I could get us some weed if you wanted some.

That’s a kind gesture. It’s funny walking around with you outside; I can sense the gaze.
It’s funny because I hear a lot of stories about Asian guys who have been mistaken for me. People come up to me like, “I used to get mistaken for you all the time.” And it’s funny to see the phenotypical variety in these men. Manny Pacquiao types sometimes. It’s funny, on the one hand, that so many people have been mistaken for me, but then, how come the inverse doesn’t work? If there are so many John Chos out there, couldn’t I just be the non–John Cho? But it doesn’t work that way, apparently. I guess I look more like John Cho than those other guys. That’s my edge.

What was the casting process like for American Pie?
I didn't go out for that. If you're a connoisseur of American Pie you'll note that I'm in the jazz choir. A friend of mine worked in the casting department, and she said, “Can you come in today for this movie to be in the jazz choir?” I said, “I can't come in because I'm working.” She called me back later and said, “I just convinced them to use you.” And it was the first time I booked a job without auditioning. So it was a very big day for me.

But I went into work for that, and they asked me to read a bunch of bit parts, because I was available and not everyone could come. The directors took a real liking to me. I had wrapped shooting the jazz-choir stuff, and then at some point they said, “Can you come in for another scene?” I did that. In fact I remember being really prudish about the language. I was like, A Mother I'd Like to Fuck? Geez.

You reunited with Justin Lin, who last directed you in Better Luck Tomorrow, on Star Trek. Did you reminisce about your careers?
We did! Justin was more like, “Can you believe this? This is crazy.” He's obviously had a much bigger career. But thinking about the fact that we're both Asian, that we had these separate paths, coming back together seems, I don't know, against the odds — or it had to happen. It certainly felt momentous and right.

What was it like for him to direct you again?
It was interesting to watch him. It felt like an independent movie. We had this director, Roberto Orci, [who left the movie]. I don't know what really happened. But what happened was, they weren't delaying the release of the film. A lot of the budget was spent. So Justin was starting from zero with a lot less time, so he had to be creative. He was stressed. It did feel like Better Luck Tomorrow to some extent. But I recognized his work ethic as that of somebody who's in an industry where you have to work harder. I feel like that’s probably being informed by his being a person of color. He was just a crazy work-beast.

I recently rewatched Better Luck Tomorrow, and Sung Kang and Jason Tobin are both so great. It struck me that everyone should have bigger careers, and that if they had been white, they would be.
It is the taboo topic that you can't bring up. I can go into a meeting and we can talk about how positive it would be to cast this character as Asian. But you can't talk about what one's career would be like if you were white. What you still can't really say to a white person is, “If I were white, do you know where I'd be?” You can't do that. And I understand why. But it is something that I've thought about all my life. It's the flip side of "If I'd stayed in Korea …"

I must have been 10 or younger and having this conscious thought — and now I think about this and it breaks my heart — I thought, Geez, life would be so much easier if I were white. I remember thinking that thought to myself explicitly. If my son said that to me, I would weep. I would never stop weeping if he thought that. But we're having this thought right now. And it's so real to me, it's so sad to me, and yet you can't really say it. Because it's this “what if?” that you can't prove. It's unquantifiable. But I know it. And other Asians know it in theory. We all have thought things like that.

Whose idea was it to reveal that Sulu’s character is gay in Star Trek Beyond?
It was Simon's [Pegg, the screenwriter] idea. Then he and Doug Jung, his co-writer, spoke to Justin about it. I heard about it from Justin early on, when he had accepted the gig and was at Paramount getting his team together. I went to his office and we got reacquainted, and that's when he threw that out at me. It was very early. "You know, there's this idea floating about. Just wanted to let you know and ask you what you thought about it." I thought it was a beautiful idea. But I had three concerns I expressed in that office that day. They were immediate and clear to me. 

My primary concern was that I was wondering how George [Takei] would feel, because he's a gay actor that played a straight part and crafted a straight character. I didn't want him to feel that we had reduced him to his sexuality by sort of borrowing this bit, if you will, from his life. You know? And his opinion was important to me, and I would have rather had him support the decision than not, so I wanted to reach out to him. I was concerned also that there might be Asian-American backlash. There has been this feminization of Asian men, so I thought this might be seen as continuing that lineage, which I disagree with personally, but I brought it up. I was also concerned, scientifically speaking [laughs], that we're in an alternate universe but I'm assuming that Sulu is the same genetic Sulu in both timelines, and I thought we might be implying that sexual orientation was a choice. Does this sound super overthought? 

No, I’ve heard all of these concerns. What was the conversation with George like?
I reached out to him and told him that this might be happening, and I just wanted to know how he felt. His objection was the same as it was a week ago. It turned out that George's objection was mostly, as I understand it, “This isn’t canon.” It didn't turn out to be a political argument at all. It was interesting, but that's who he is: He is a devotee of Roddenberry's. Everything he does in the Star Trek universe, it's like What Would Jesus Do: "What would Roddenberry do?" I’ve got to respect him for that.

What ultimately made you decide to support that decision?
I was like, This is good. I just thought it came from a real place, and I also thought that it personalized Sulu a little bit, which was a good move. We just see him steer the ship mostly and do his job, and I just wanted to give that some other weight. I thought that having the family deepened his character a little bit. Arguably that could've been with a wife and daughter, but in any case I just thought that having a personal life was a nice addition to the character. This is an important point for me and I'd like to know your opinion on this too. Early on I said to Justin, "Dude, it would be important to me to have an Asian husband." He's played by Doug Jung, the screenwriter. 

Read our conversation with George Takei, the original Sulu »

How did that come about?
We were in Vancouver first and we finished up the production in Dubai and that scene was in Dubai and I was like, “Hey, so who'd you get?” They were like, "We can't find anybody! Doug may have to play him!" It started out as a joke. I was like, "Haha." And then at some point they were not joking. We definitely had trouble finding East Asians first off, and then actors willing to play gay. We had a guy and then his parents really objected. Basically, we couldn't find an Asian actor willing to play gay in Dubai is my understanding. 

Why did you push for that?
Basically it was a little Valentine to the gay Asian friends that I grew up with. This may be presumptuous, but I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues. This is probably more so for my generation than for yours, but I felt like those guys didn't date Asian men because of that cultural shame. So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future. I thought that would be the most normal thing, that there was zero shame in the future. I don't know if that hit or not, but it was something that I felt in my gut and asked for that.

And they were receptive to that suggestion?
Justin was. There was talk of, Should he have a human husband? So it went that far. I wanted that relationship to feel super familiar, you know what I'm saying? I didn't want to push the difference envelope; I just wanted it to be very, very traditional looking. 

But it’s very rare to see two gay Asian men together. It’s both traditional, and in some ways radical.
Yes. That was my thought. There was something about this pairing that would seem very old-fashioned, and then something about it to gay men that would be radical.

Is there any sort of intimacy in that scene?
There was a kiss that I think is not there anymore. 

They cut it?

That's too bad. 
It wasn't like a make-out session. We're at the airport with our daughter. It was a welcome-home kiss. I'm actually proud of that scene, because it was pretty tough. Obviously, I just met the kid, and then Doug is not an actor. I just wanted that to look convincingly intimate. We're two straight guys and had to get to a very loving, intimate place. It was hard to do on the fly. We had to open up. It came off well, in my view.

*A version of this article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.