John Cho had many hours to think about Spike Spiegel, the slick, droll, wild-haired intergalactic bounty-hunter in the upcoming Netflix live-action remake of the genre-bending neo-noir space-Western Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop. It began with the pilot script, of course, but then there was an unexpected hiatus when the entire production went on hold after he tore his ACL a couple of episodes in. They had been shooting long into the night when he took a slight misstep — he’s still not sure exactly what happened — and went down. He had to get surgery and spent the ensuing months of physical therapy thinking about his character. “I’m at home doing these knee exercises, coming off the drugs, and I was thinking about Cowboy Bebop. Every day,” says the 49-year-old actor. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought about a single role more.”
He’s aware of how high the stakes are: Hollywood has a vast and ever-growing morgue of failed live-action remakes of beloved anime shows from Dragonball Evolution to Death Note to Ghost in the Shell. He generally hates disappointing people, and he can sense the expectations around embodying many viewers’ first anime crush. Still, he put on the blue suit, grew out his hair, and trained relentlessly. “I was so scared of failure that I thought, Well, yeah, I guess you have to do it then. So I took a chance,” he says. “To clarify, the chance was me failing.”
I reread our old interview from 2016.
Yeah, one of the best dates I’ve had.
[Laughs.] Me too, man. Me too.
At the time we talked about superhero movies and you said you wouldn’t really want to have to “diet and work out like crazy” for a part like that. I get the sense that there was probably some dieting and working out.
[Laughs.] Yes. The regimen was to become functionally athletic rather than show-horse athletic. But, yeah, I had to watch what I ate. I did have to take my shirt off in the first episode, which was really stressful.
Yeah. I mean, you get really self-conscious. I guess I’d rather eat the sandwich at lunch, that’s all. In a lot of ways, Cowboy Bebop was my entrée to that world, but in a character that suited me — and a tone or a posture that felt close to my personality. When I watched the anime, I was like, I wish I could have invented this. This is tremendous. It’s really interesting and smart and funny, and it’s all the things I wanna make. All the characters are coming from places of loss, and there are a lot of defense mechanisms to deal with that sense of loss that informs the whole show.
Were you a fan of the original anime Cowboy Bebop?
I didn’t know it. The first thing I read and fell in love with was our episode-one script, which I thought was really brilliant, and I thought, what the hell is this? And then I investigated the anime and just thought this was the most unique piece of entertainment I had seen in a long time: the combination of genres, characters, the music. I called Aneesh Chaganty, who directed Searching, to talk about it. “Are you aware of a show called Cowboy Bebop? I’ve got this offer to do an adaptation of this anime.” I remember him telling me: “You have to do it.” I didn’t realize what a big deal it was.
What made you say yes?
I don’t know, it was a real gut thing. I don’t think that I’ve ever taken a role more seriously. I don’t feel that I took any shortcuts as I’m prone to do. So even if my performance is perceived as a failure, what I will take away is I’ve improved at my craft. I was also interested in how to put character into a role that is a killer doing action sequences. How do you perform emotionally in those kinds of scenarios? There were some itches I was looking to scratch.
Is it the most physically demanding role you’ve had?
[Inhales.] Yeah. It was actually a cool lesson. As a nonathletic person, I was kind of a dick the other way. I didn’t give that kind of acting enough credit. I was a … nerd snob. For this role, everything came from training; my character decisions came from that. Training is also a more accurate parallel to how to get a good performance. When I was younger, I thought I could tap into some sort of muse and have the thing strike me. But it’s actually more banal and harder than that, which is you just drill it, drill it, drill it until it’s muscle memory. That’s something, when I was 19, that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear. I fancied myself an artiste — that if I could hear the right piece of music before a scene, I would get into character.
There was news that production shut down because of a knee injury. What happened?
For some reason Netflix originally didn’t want to publicize what happened, but I [tore] my ACL.
It was real wonky. We had been shooting all night, and I was doing kind of an athletic move as the sun was coming up. It was probably a lack of sleep. Just a little move and [I was down]. So that was a low moment. It was 5:30 Saturday morning when I arrived at the emergency room and it was filled with people who had gotten super drunk on Friday night and then got in a fight or fell and cracked their heads open. Ironically a sobering experience. Then you have your surgery and you go into rehab. I’m at home doing these knee exercises, and coming off the drugs, I was thinking about Cowboy Bebop. Doing those knee exercises, I was like, I gotta put my focus into this. So I think that’s also fueling my fear. [Laughs.] This interview is all about me freaking out. But the amount of thought and worry and effort and number of days I’ve logged thinking about Spike is now equaling the fear I have about the reaction.
What was going through your mind as you’re in physical therapy?
I wanted to shore up any deficiencies in my body. It’s really hard to tell what precipitates a freak injury like that, so I was determined to come back stronger. I felt very guilty that I had let the production down, and my cast, and the crew in New Zealand that had had a job, and then they didn’t the next day. And I didn’t feel that I could come back and half-ass this role. I had to take it deadly seriously. It was people’s livelihoods and I wanted every single person on the set to know that I was doing my best every single day. Which sounds Boy Scout-ish, but it was the truth. Maybe it was an apology that took a whole season for me to express. Because I felt so responsible for that upheaval in a whole crew’s lives.
I don’t know if you were privy to conversations around casting, but I was interested whether race played a part in them.
I’ve been curious and I should’ve asked. I never really did. I’m pretty sure that they had made a decision that this character should be Asian. Having said that, I’m not sure whether the Japanese creators of the show cared. Because when I look at anime, there’s not really an answer to the question of what this person’s race is. And I think that partially has to do with the genre; it’s its own thing, and it’s not necessarily reflective of the planet Earth that you and I inhabit. However, we live on planet Earth and we’re making a product for people in 2021. And so if I were a viewer and saw that a white man was cast as Spike Spiegel, maybe I would say, ah, there they go again. I’m not sure if that’s fair.
Americans also have a tendency to impose their ideas of race onto everyone else.
And there’s two ways of looking at it for me. I flip-flop. I’ve seen a lot of animation in my house because I have kids, and sometimes you go, okay, I wish that there were more Asian characters in animation. Flip side, sometimes when I see American animation, I feel like when they do draw a person of color, it’s so focused on the phenotypical differences between a white person and a person of color that it gets almost … creepy. Like, who cares, you know what I mean? There’s something loose and free about the way anime handles race, that it seems less meaningful. And I go, maybe this is what we should strive for.
Some fans thought Spike, who is 27 in the anime, should have been played by someone younger. Were you concerned about that?
The biggest fear that I had was I was too old. I knew people were gonna have issues with my age. And I had to get over it. I’m not a person who says age is just a number or whatever. It was gonna be harder — physically. And I was gonna look different than a 25-year-old guy. At some point, the opportunity is “Yes or no — do you wanna do it?” And I did wanna do it. So I wasn’t gonna stop myself from doing it.
How does that approach change the character, as opposed to if you had done it when you were 27?
First of all, I couldn’t have done it when I was 27. I mean, maybe I would’ve been better suited athletically, but in terms of my discipline, I am strangely better suited at this age. I don’t think I would’ve done justice to the emotional depth we tried to give Spike. There’s always a trade-off. What young men are typically best at as actors is rage. And that might’ve been a more pronounced element in the character. What I’m better at, being older, is showing weakness and vulnerability and love. Those things are more accessible to me. Personally, I’d prefer the version I’m able to do now. That’s my taste.
You’ve had good onscreen chemistry with people like Gabrielle Union in FlashForward and Karen Gillan in Selfie. Do you have tools for unlocking that or is it a situation where you either have it or you don’t?
I don’t know, I think it must be real to some extent. This is sort of the opposite of chemistry, but a lot of it is being professional, being respectful, doing the work. That allows you to have chemistry when the cameras are rolling. I try to approach my castmates with curiosity about who they are as people and as actors, and hopefully they reciprocate. When you have people who are being systematically open with one another, if you do that honestly, good things happen. I think that’s where the chemistry is.
Are you and Gabrielle going to work together again?
Oh yeah, I would. We came close on one, but there’s nothing on the burner at the moment.
Can you talk about the project that almost happened?
I wouldn’t want to without everyone’s consent.
Can I just ask if it was a rom-com?
[Pause.] Yeah, it was a rom-com of sorts.
Okay. Did you get to meet Yoko Kanno, the composer of the series?
I haven’t. She was in Japan the whole time. I made sure that she was locked in before saying yes. I didn’t think the show should go forward without her involvement. [She is] too integral to the show. Our iteration minus her would suffer too much.
Was there anything else you needed to know in order to say yes to the show?
I was like, we’re not gonna just remake each episode, are we? I didn’t want to re-stage everything exactly frame by frame. I didn’t want to do that artistically, and I also thought that that was a recipe for encouraging unflattering comparisons. How could you do it better? You can’t. You have to do something a little different. I guess that’s the tightrope you’re walking, which thankfully isn’t my job. But it touches on me.
But it’s your head on the platter, so.
It really is. At least my hair. My hair’s on the platter.
Spike also has very iconically poufy hair. What were the hair conversations?
I don’t know if I like the hair. My hair’s such a mess, and it’s very hard to make it do anything. My discussions with hair and makeup were “We could do this exact version that would match the anime, but I want him to look like this is natural” and “He just washes his face and goes.” And “I don’t want to wear a wig” — I didn’t want to [do action scenes] while having my scalp pulled. And so I had to try and make my hair grow as fast as possible before episode one.
Did you eat a lot of miyeokguk [seaweed soup] or something?
[Laughs.] That’s … almost literally true. I had a really short haircut, so I was really sweating it. I was like, I gotta keep growing, I gotta keep growing.
Is your hair naturally wavy?
Yes. You know, I was born with very straight hair. And I remember in eighth grade, my mom did a home perm. And I was so upset. I was like, “What is this you’ve done to my head?” It looked like a LEGO wig or something. But strangely, as I grew older, it got curlier and curlier.
Did the perm permanently change the trajectory of your hair?
Wow. That’s a good alternate theory: that my mother had the most permanent permanent of all time.
Cowboy Bebop will premiere on Netflix November 19.