John Cho has been on and off the road promoting a parents’-worst-nightmare thriller about a father who follows his missing daughter’s digital footprints from Facebook to Venmo to the wild world of livestreaming. But when the actor is back at home with his kids in L.A., it’s all about Laura Ingalls Wilder. “There is a natural attraction to physical things,” he says of his son and daughter, aged 10 and 5 respectively. “They really get off on, like, ‘Here’s how Pa built the door to the house.’ You know, he went down to the creek bottom, and he cut saplings, and then he hewed a hole for the latch. They like those descriptions.”
There’s more than a little relief in his voice when he talks about his kids. Cho’s new film Searching is about teens, social media, and the increasing gaps of shared childhood experience from one generation to the next as our digital lives take over more of the sum total of our life experience. Cho, 46, knows it’s not long before his kids start building their own lives online, hopefully with nothing close to the degree of secrecy that his Searching character’s onscreen daughter maintains. But for now, thank goodness, it’s all about those saplings. “Scintillating interview topic,” he laughs.
He’s joking, but the thing about Cho as an interview subject is that most topics with him end up pretty scintillating. Over the course of our conversation, in the dim, vampire-friendly lobby of the Bowery Hotel, we get into everything from food critic Jonathan Gold (“He was an important political figure … this was a white man who really ate, and had no preconceived notions”) to a recent viewing of The Big Sleep on a plane (“I can’t believe how weird and how sexed up everyone was … people were just like ripping Humphrey Bogart’s clothes off.”) Like Gold, he’s a bit of an omnivore. For a guy who rose to fame as a comedic actor — coining the term “MILF” in the first American Pie film, and playing one-half of the stoner duo in the Harold and Kumar films (if you haven’t watched Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle recently, do yourself a favor and rediscover the still–incredibly relevant American classic) — he’s found big-name dramatic work both in film and TV as Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek films and in network dramas Sleepy Hollow and The Exorcist.
And tucked in between his busy TV and franchise schedule, there’s been a steady, adventurous stream of indie work. If he has a specific objective lately with his more off-the-beaten-path choices, it’s stepping into the kinds of film worlds that are becoming increasingly rare. “Columbus was a nod to Ozu,” he says of director Kogonada’s critically acclaimed, architecture-obsessed indie drama. “I don’t really have a primary connection to Ozu, but, I wanted to help this guy who [did]. And then Gemini,” — this year’s moody millennial mystery by Aaron Katz — “was, for me, such a nod to noir that I just wanted to jump at it.”
But when first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty came to him with the script for Searching, it took him a while to bite. The defining feature of the film is its storytelling technique — it plays out entirely on computer and smartphone screens, another exploration of the desktop cinema technique producer Timur Bekmambetov’s been honing with the Unfriended horror films. As a total non-actor, the challenge of acting for a built-in laptop camera opposite a FaceTime screen seems like an interesting one to me, but Cho found it more daunting than anything else: “I kept asking Aneesh, ‘Can we just make this story but not have it on computers?’”
Cho turned Chaganty down at first, but the director continued to pursue him — he had written the role for Cho, after all. In the end, the motivating factor was one of genre — he wanted to see if he could pull off a thriller. “I really miss the thriller genre,” he says, a sentiment he also has about romantic comedy. “It’s this genre that’s disappearing that I have a lot of affection for. And like the economy, the film business is fracturing into just haves and have-nots. We’re missing a middle class, and thrillers are definitely in the middle class.”
It’s rare to hear an actor take such a clear-eyed, macro view of the industry and where he fits into it. But then, not every actor has seen his face photoshopped on mainstream blockbuster posters from The Martian to Mission: Impossible. Sure, other actors have seen their names bandied about in fancasting threads and blog posts, but Cho literally became the face of the Hollywood representation conversation at one point, thanks to the #StarringJohnCho campaign in 2016. In some ways, his visibility has meant he’s had to become a scholar on this stuff. Cho is thinking about aspects of representation that still haven’t quite cracked the mainstream dialogue, but are absolutely issues that will have to be reckoned with in the coming years.
“I’ve always said that it really bothers me that so much of Asian representation in cinema has been people running away from their Asian-ness to find love elsewhere,” Cho says. “So, the fact that [Searching] was [about] a loving Asian family was very impactful.” This is, of course, the same guy who, when the Hikaru Sulu of the recent Star Trek movies was revealed to be gay, said he pressed for his character’s partner to be another Asian man. (“I’ve always felt that there was some extra cultural shame to having two Asian men together, because it was so difficult to come out of the closet, so difficult to be gay and Asian … It’s easier to run away from people that look like your family,” he told the AV Club’s Esther Zuckerman in 2016.)
“I used to get pats on the back from Asian-American men — or still do, as a matter of fact, sadly,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘You were in that thing with the white girl,’ referring to the much-loved, cancelled ABC series Selfie, a romantic sitcom in which he starred as the love interest opposite Guardians of the Galaxy star Karen Gillan. “‘Way to go, sailor.’ That kind of thing. And I can see why that would be important. I really do. On the other hand, I wanna see Asians in love. Asian-Americans in love. Or like, hungering for each other, physically. These things happen!” he says, his voice rising an octave, now taking on the role of an overworked scientist trying to win over a room of skeptics. “There’s a lot of evidence in the world that it happens!”
The industry seems to be catching up to where his head’s at: The week before Searching’s theatrical release, Crazy Rich Asians cleaned up nicely at the box office, proving that there is an audience for an all-Asian cast engaging in whimsical, aspirational hijinks and falling in crazy love with each other. That being Asian isn’t something to be redeemed from, some emotional defect to overcome. It’s clear that the hope around Searching is that it will be another step toward normalization not just of Asian faces in Hollywood, but Asian families, and Asian relationships.
But Cho is already thinking ahead. “I’ve spent my life trying to figure out what Asian-ness means,” he says, “but you know, I really gotta figure out what whiteness means. We all have to figure out what it means, apparently, for our survival.”