LET’S talk about the view from this hotel room. Perched high above LA’s nondescript sidewalks and located off a buzzy, celeb-friendly strip of the city, the glitzy, oversized penthouse is the perfect place for album-worthy sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills, and to observe the tangerine glow of the late afternoon sunset. It’s also the perfect place for a photoshoot, and today John Cho, in the centre of all the action, is taking it all in.
It’s 2019 and things are looking up for Cho, both literally and figuratively. After a string of memorable roles in films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and the rebooted Star Trek series, Cho earned the biggest raves of his career last year as the lead in Searching, a slow-burning thriller that followed a distraught father trying to track down his missing daughter through the help of social media. Told through the confines of a computer screen and featuring Cho on screen for almost the entire film by himself, Searching earned Cho an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and positioned the 46 year old as a lead actor poised for his next major breakthrough. For the Korean-born, US-raised preacher’s kid, it also made him an instant symbol for Asian-American representation in the entertainment industry – whether he liked it or not.
Cho says he isn’t bothered by the new set of expectations placed upon his shoulders. Quite the opposite actually: he’s thankful that the success of Searching will allow him opportunities to show you what else he can do (to wit: the actor stars in the horror film, Grudge, out this summer, and has a role in the new Twilight Show reboot on television). He’s also embraced his role as an ambassador of sorts for the Asian community, ready to champion projects that expand the perception and breadth of the Asian-American experience.
“It’s a lifelong quest to be able to self-define without using the vocabulary of other people,” Cho says. He’s referring to being typecast in the industry, but says it’s also about speaking up for yourself, to tell your own story. And so, this is his …
What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to act? My dad asked me, “Have you considered being a TV anchor?” I think he thought, “I don’t see Asians in shows, but I see Asians reporting the news.” This was back in the ’90s, so we’re talking about the Connie Chung era, and that’s what seemed reasonable or attainable to him.
When did they realise you could actually make it as an actor? I remember when I was starting out and I was doing plays, they were like (makes grunting noise). But at some point, The Korea Times wanted to talk to me for a little blurb or something, and that’s when my parents were like, “Ohhh.” When the newspaper of note wanted to talk to me, that’s when they finally started paying attention (laughs).
I think people really started noticing you after the American Piemovies (Cho played a small but memorable character known as “MILF Guy #2). Is it fair to say that was your big break? I don’t think I felt like I “made it” until very late. After I did American Pie, there was this novelty of an Asian man being funny in this sort of “American” way. It wasn’t the accent that was funny or an Asian thing. Then it seemed like after the Harold & Kumar movies, there was going to be a ton of comedy roles available to me. That turned out to be wrong.
In the beginning, it was really about survival and trying to book gigs and get a job. To be honest, I’m only now enjoying acting. Because I can finally relax.
What do you mean by that? I don’t know how much I enjoyed it back then. I was trying to please people and make sure I didn’t fuck up, and now I feel like I’m relaxed enough to collaborate with the director. I’ve read a lot more scripts now so I’m feeling more confident and willing to try different stuff. People say you have to do something a bunch of times before you enjoy it sometimes.
What about Star Trek? Star Trek was a big moment for me. The Star Trek franchise is as close to permanent as it gets in pop culture; it’s something that will be around for a while. I felt like I had arrived somewhere when that movie came out. I would love to do another Star Trek. But I’d be very open to doing another Harold & Kumar, too.
Do you want to do more comedy? (In addition to his film roles, Cho was also the lead in Selfie, a short-lived but well-received sitcom that played out like a social-media-savvy version of Pygmalion). I thought I would be a commodity as an Asian guy doing comedy, but to be honest, I don’t get comedy offers any more. Now there’s this boom of talent among Asian men, and they don’t need me. We have Randall Park, Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee, the list goes on.
Does that bother you, to be lumped into the “Asian actor” category? It depends on where it’s coming from and who’s saying it. It’s certainly problematic. But mostly I’m less concerned with the outside perception versus what it does to me. Like I don’t want to think of myself that way. And the more the outside world does it, the more you have to work at not accepting the outside world’s vocabulary for yourself. It’s very complicated. What I cancontrol is how I see myself. And that takes some work.
Are there times when you wish you were perceived differently? As an example, (Cho lets out a deep sigh), there will be talk of casting me as the “first Asian congressman” or in a political Asian documentary, and I’m not the OWN Network. I also don’t know if that’s the right path for me as an actor. On paper it sounds like a great idea, but I don’t know in practice if those moves are right.
I guess it’s just not wanting to feel typecast right? I was thinking about it on a macro level, like why is cinema so important to our culture and us Asians? We have integrated in a lot of ways. In fact, we have made a number of advancements in other industries, but our lack of progress in cinema has been very notable. It’s ridiculous how far back we are. But why do we need that corrected so badly? I think it’s because cinema is our collective cultural language. And we need that to be straightened out.
Do you ever wish you could do an interview without race and ethnicity being brought up? Searching has spawned a lot of conversations about other things. And the film itself tends to discourage talk about race. But as long as the conversation goes somewhere interesting and fruitful, I think it’s fine. But I have noticed that white actors don’t have to do that. And I’m not saying I wish I didn’t have to talk about it; I’m saying we should alltalk about it. I would love to talk to Ryan Reynolds about his whiteness.
How would you begin that conversation? When we talk about race, we’re much more eager to define the experiences of people of colour than to describe the experience of whiteness, because we consider that blank. And it’s not blank – white is a colour. And I think if we understood that, it would help us figure out why we have the president that we do, and why we have these things that are going on in this country in 2019. I think it’s important that we talk about it. We need to have really honest dialogues about what it’s like to be white, what it’s like to black, what it’s like to be Asian, and what it’s like to be brown. We’ve got to figure this out.
What did you think of Crazy Rich Asians? The name begged a certain kind of discussion.
Did you like it? Yeah.
Why? There was one particular thing that I found really notable about it: how the actors were photographed. And that’s a thing people don’t really realise when you have all white leads in a film or on a show. The lighting is always lit for someone who doesn’t share your complexion. So people of colour suffer, I think, because of this. And it sucks, because we all want to be photographed beautifully.
The lighting thing is something I never would have thought about. I started thinking about it when I saw Asian actors come to the United States and I was like, “Oh, they look way better in their Asian movies than their American movies,” and I was like, “Why?” It’s a combination of hair, make up and wardrobe too, but it’s also the lighting. And to see a film lit for Asians – an American movie with lighting for Asians – is a different experience. It was great.
People talk a lot about how Searchingand Crazy Rich Asianshave opened the door for more Asian stories, and more roles for Asian actors. Do you think that’s the case? I hope so. I’ve definitely struggled with finding good roles. I’ve turned down a lot of stuff, even when I was desperately looking for work, because I didn’t want to do anything stereotypical ever, and every role I was offered, especially in comedy, I was filtering through this “Asian filter”, like, “Is this stereotypical?” Even if the intent wasn’t there, could it be interpreted as such?
What about your upcoming movie, Tigertail? Tigertail is by Alan Yang (the Taiwanese-American writer and producer of Parks and Recreation, and the co-creator of Netflix’s Master of None). I’m very excited by that. That film was really gratifying for a lot of reasons. It’s a classic New York movie and I never thought I’d be in one. And it was shot in an interesting way. Especially after Searching, it was great to go back to traditional cinematic staging.
It’s also an Asian-driven film. Tigertail is a very personal movie about a woman and her father and their complicated relationship. It takes place in present-day New York and 1960s Taiwan and it has a primarily Asian-American cast telling a very specific Asian-American love story. And that’s another thing I’ve become really obsessed with: I love seeing Asians love each other on film. I think that’s weirdly absent.
Maybe because Asians aren’t brought up to be outwardly affectionate? I would disagree with that. My parents are pretty affectionate. I just find it weird as an actor that your love interest is rarely Asian. It’s almost like it’s “too much” for audiences, or somehow we don’t believe that could exist. I don’t know how many Asian on Asian kisses actually exist in American cinematic history. I couldn’t even name more than a couple of examples, and yet there are billions of Asians in the world today. Why would cinema be so far off from the actual numbers?
What’s your theory on that? I think we’re taught that this is what people want to see. We don’t want to see ourselves on screen. Or rather, we want to see “us, but better”.
It goes back to what you were saying about seeing ourselves in a more forward-thinking way. The thing that most excited me about Searching was that it was a hit in Korea. That fact that it was an American film starring an Asian person that was popular in an Asian country, that’s very important to me. And what’s interesting is that it wasn’t a cultural film. It was just a thriller. But it culturally spoke to them. So it up-ends a lot of Hollywood thinking, like, “We’re selling some superhero movie with an Asian in a minor part and then taking it to Korea like, ‘Here’s an Asian’.” It was just an interesting movie that people wanted to see.
Are there particular roles you wish you had gotten, or types of characters you’d like to play? I never know how to answer that question because there are so many movies that I love and that I want to be in. And also, I’ve done so little. There’s so much more I want to do.
My easy answer is that I’d like to do Shakespeare on film. I’d love to be part of that canon. But I almost think of my career in visual terms, like, “What would be disruptive for this face?” I’d like to punch someone on a moving train y’know? I’d like to wear a bandana and stick somebody up. And how emotionally complex can we get? Those are the ways I think.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind in this industry? I used to think, “Boy, if I can make it to the age of 40 [as an actor] and not wait tables, that would be awesome, that would be the milestone.” Now, on set, I’m always like, “Does this work? Is this real? Does this feel authentic?” All I want is to be a part of something that works and to tell stories that feel authentic and real. I mean, it’s really not much more complicated than that.
by Tim Chan
From the Glass Archive – Glass Man, Decade, Issue 37, Spring 2019
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