q & a with john cho
About a month back, I had the opportunity to sit in on a roundtable talk with actor John Cho, in town for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. He stars in Michael Kang's indie crime drama West 32nd, and reprises his co-titular role in the stoner buddy comedy Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bayboth of which played at the festival to sold-out houses. He talked about these roles, his career, and the general state of Asian Americans in entertainment. He's been hard at work, and you'll be seeing a lot of him soon.
I tried to get him to reveal a few details about his role as Sulu in J.J. Abrams' upcoming re-imagining of Star Trek, but his lips were sealed. He was, however, nursing a bandaged wrist for an injury that may or may not have been sustained on the bridge of the starship Enterprise:
What's up? You hurt that doing Star Trek?
You know, it could very well be a video game injury, for all I know. But I think it's from Star Trek. I tweaked something in my wrist, and I'm just being careful with it. But honestly, it doesn't really hurt until I do something really ridiculous like, um, try to unbutton something.
So, your movie is crazy popular. Harold and Kumar's screening at the film festival is completely sold out. When you look at the Harold and Kumar phenomenon, I think the movie has come to mean a lot of different things to different people, particularly to Asian American audiences. What sort of reactions have you encountered, and did you anticipate this kind of response?
I'd hoped for this kind of response, a good response from Asian Americans. I was a little trepidatious with the first movie, and I think some Asian Americans were as well. Particularly the old guard that kind of wanted... well, there's an inclination with the previous generation to want noble Asian characters, and certainly we weren't giving them that. So I wasn't sure whether people would take this to heart, or whether people would consider this an Asian American movie, in a positive sense. And you know, I think it was slow to catch on with Asian Americans. We didn't have big Asian American support that first weekend. You know, in the previewsand this is an example of internal racism tooI mean, from watching some of the previews, I think a lot of Asian Americans felt that it was a racist portrayal. It could've been the advertising tagline, you know, "Starring the Asian guy from American Pie and the Indian guy from..." um... what did he do?
Van Wilder. And also, I know some Asian Americans thought that I was playing a nerd, which is a stereotype. And I was not. But to me, that's the example of internal racismwe see that, and we're quick to jump to that. For me, I was playing the straight guy in a buddy comedy, and I was playing kind of an everyman, in my mind. But it's what we set up for ourselves when that's what we've been fed.
Why do you think the movie resonates so much with Asian American moviegoers? I mean, I know there are some rabid Harold and Kumar fans out there.
I don't know. I think there's something, from a racial standpoint, an attitude that feels accurate... And I think it might be the fact that it addresses race as we doas people of color dothat we're aware of it, that we live with it, but it doesn't consume us. And sometimes, white media thinks that we're obsessed with it, and then Asian American films... we make films that obssess over her our race. It's an hour and a half of people talking about what it means to be Asian.
But Harold and Kumar addresses it, then doesn't, then addresses it, then kind of addresses it, then laughs at it... and then somebody smokes pot. You know, which kind of feels like life, which feels accurate. And there's something that resonates about that attitude. That's a guess. I really don't know. It really does beat me.
To say this movie lacks political correctness is an understatement. How much do you work with the directors when you might feel like there's something that might be too over the top?
Well, I think if I had a problem, or if I was touchy about anything, there's no way I'd be making these movies. So you sort of go with it, and hope for the best. But as far as communication with the directors, it was very open line. I'm sure we could've said something about that. But we were mostly really on board, trying to nail the jokes. And every night, the directors and I would get together in my apartmentwe were on locationand we'd have a glass of scotch, and we'd talk about the events of the day, what went wrong, what we could've done better, and then discuss the scenes we were shooting the next day, and maybe do a little re-write or whatever. Because there wasn't a whole lot of time for improv. So that's kind of how we worked. Really 24-7 filmmaking.
Do you feel like this film has a political message of any kind?
It might, and probably does for some people. We weren't really focusing on that, so I feel like I should really stay away from that. We're really using politics in this movie as a device to make fart jokes.
Do your parents and your family watch all your movies?
I think they do, as far as I know. But my parents always complain that I forget to tell them that I'm on certain things. And they're right. I quite frequently forget to tell them I did something. Especially televisionI don't keep track when something's coming on. I do it, then forget about it. Movies, I have to do something like this, so I'm very aware that a movie's coming out. But you know, I do an episode of something and I'll forget about it, then it'll air, and then my mom's friends will call my mother. And then she gets very angry that I didn't tell her that I was on TV.
Do they "get" the Harold and Kumar movies?
I don't think so, entirely. As far as all the racy stuff, I think that they recognize the movie comes from a good place, in terms of attitude, that it feels like it has a good heart. Even the sexual stuff, it's such adolescent kind of sexuality, you know? It's like, ooh, boobies. It's that kind of boyish attitude towards sex...
We have a "bottomless" party in this movie. And we didn't get a NC-17 rating. We have a lot of women walking around without pants.
What does your wife think of that?
It's not her favorite part of the movie. The other parts she likes better.
Considering the way Asian Americans are generally represented in media, I think you've become one of the few Asian American actors with some degree of marquee recognitionas "the Asian guy in American Pie," Harold, and now Sulu. Do you consider any of these roles have been your "breakthrough" in any way? And do you feel this recognition comes with a broader sense of responsibility with respect to our community?
I'm not sure whether I've had a "breakthrough" anything. Maybe American Pie was the closest thing I've had, because it led to some more comedy jobs. It gave me more comedy cred, because everyone saw that movie. It was an incredibly successful series of movies. I just happened to, you know, stumble into that movie, really. And Harold and Kumar probably wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for that movie. Because the writers saw me and started following me career, and had me mind when they wrote it. I really do feel like I'm one of the few people Hollywood where... it really has been a ladder for me, rung by rung. As close as you get in L.A. to climbing a ladder steadily.
And yes, I do feel a responsibility, and always have, and it's been an odd burden for me. Even when I started and no one gave a shit, I was trying to avoid doing rolesand it's no accident that I've never done something with a chop suey accent. It's no accident that I've never played those parts. I strongly believe there are a lot of Asian American actors who think that that's the price to pay before you get to wherever you're going. And I take real issue with that. Because you have to maintain integrity from the start, and on a personal level, you have to not do something that's going to make you sick to your stomach.
But on a political level, how are things supposed to ever change if there's someone willing to do it? I can tell you now, having worked in the business, that you can gather an army of people to hold picket signs and stand outside the studio, and say, "we destest this portrayal"... but it doesn't matter if there's a guywho they know, a peerwho's willing to do it, who stands in front of the crew and does the buck-tooth accent. If he or she is willing to do it, it makes the protestors look like extremists. It makes this guy look like the normal guy. Because we all work in the same industry. So the willingness of one actor negates a thousand protestors and a thousand angry letters.
Do you still see a lot of those limitations for Asian American actors?
Well, yeah. There's a limited palette. You turn on the television, you go to the movies, you don't see a lot of Asians. So you have to deal with that. But I want to emphasize on the other hand, it's tough being an artist, and it's tough being an actor. The odds are against you at every turn, and being Asian is one of many limitations that you have to deal with. I get frustrated with them, but I also try to look at it as my opportunity, you know? The way I deal with this particular Rubik's cube, maybe some good can come of it. I hope to leave the situation better than I found it. If that's on my tombstone, I'd be very happy.
Do you think it's getting easier for Asian Americans actors? Do you think you have a part in that process of making it easier?
You know, I'd like to think it's a little easier, and I'd like to think that I'm a part of that. A friend of my wife's, he told me recentlyhe's an actor, a white guyhe was at a commercial audition, and he said, "I went to this commercial audition yesterday, and the casting breakdown called for a 'John Cho type.'" It was odd. And I said, "They didn't ask for an Asian man?" It was an odd moment. So we were trying to figure out what that meant, and that discussion took maybe two or three beers. But yeah, it's getting better. But having said that, I want to throw out the caveat that we're not where we should be. There's reason to be optimistic, and there's a reason to strive further.
One thing I'm oddly encouraged by though, there's a lot of Asians in commercials. The reason why I think that's important... you know, there's the casting where they say, okay, we're going to make our show look cosmetically multicultural. We're gonna try and do this thing that you guys keep asking for. And then there are commercials, which are just pure commerce, in that we're trying to sell you this product. Asians, buy this detergent. And if they're trying to sell us detergent, or trying to sell us a Lexus, maybe eventually they'll try to sell us movies, you know? Come see this movie. We've put together a cast of people that look like you. So maybe that's the next move.
You're also in another festival film, West 32nd. What was your experience with that film like? Do you prefer comedy or drama?
I don't have any preference for either. In some ways I had to just forget the comedy in Harold and Kumar, because Harold is a real straight character, so it's best not to think of it that way, at least in the moment. But no, I have no preference. It's nice to go back and forth. It's funny, there's a gallows humor about doing a drama too. I remember it as a funny experience because there was so much joking in between scenes [on West 32nd]. You kind of have to do it, to keep it light. Because it's some dark subject matter. But it's a fantastic film that I'm really proud of. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot because I got a chance to shoot it in New York.
One thing I'm excited about with West 32nd, financing came from Korea, and I hope it leads to more co-productions between Korea and Hollywood. I feel like it's a good way... I mean, in the independent film community, we always feel like our hands are tied because we're always peddling for money in Hollywood, and going to the same investors. But if we can shift that overseas, maybe it'll shake things up. I think that's probably a very healthy thing.
Also, there's been like a political attitude with Asian American films where it's very pan-Asian-oriented. West 32nd is very specifically Korean, and that's a very refreshing attitude. Because I know Koreans think of themselves as Korean, and Korean Americans will also think of themselves as Korean before thinking of themselves as Asian American. I think maybe that'll switch as the generations go on, but at this point, I feel that the former is the case. So I think this film is an interesting reflection of that attitude.
I really liked your work in West 32nd, but what I was really surprised by Jun Kim's performance, because I had never really heard of him before. He was solid. What was it like working with him?
Yeah, he's a good actor and it was a pleasure working with him. He's probably one of the most dedicated actors I know. He's sort of always thinking about the movie. I, in contrast, really relish breaks. Be it five minutes or a day, I feel like that's very necessary. And I like to laugh between scenes, because it relaxes me. Relaxing is the hardest thing to do when acting. The tension is a killer. But Jun, in contrast, is the most intense guy I've ever known. Unbelievable.
What was it like working with director Michael Kang?
I had a great time with Michael, and it probably had something to do with the fact that we were all Korean. A lot of the crew was Korean. We had Korean actors from Korea. And you know, I've done Asian American movies, and there was a certain kind of brotherhood to that... but this was very specific, and it was a Korean movie, and we were shooting in Flushing and Manhattan's Koreatown. So, we really lived that experience. We were in noraebangs all the time, and it was great. I had more Korean food than I've had since, basically when I lived with my parents. That movie's been a real gift in that way.
I know you can't talk a lot about the details of Star Trek, but can I ask...
The ending of the movie... (laughs)
You heard it here first! In what ways have you taken cues from George Takei's Sulu? He's sort of defined the role for forty years. And in what ways have you tried to make the character your own?
Well, I think... I won't speak to any particulars, partially because I don't think it's a good idea, and I don't think we're allowed to, but I'll just say this. For myself, the filmmakers, the other actors, I think we've all tried to honor the original series and do something new at the same time. I think that's been a general ethos around the set, and it seems to me that we're all doing that. The actors, the desigers, the director.
Did you watch Star Trek while growing up?
Not as much... You know, I'm of the generation that dug Star Wars, and that was sort of my sci-fi thing. Star Trek was sort of a slow burn for me, because I would watch it on reruns whenever it was on. Over the years, I was like, this is a very interesting show. Things didn't get solved generally by beating somebody up. It was probably a bit of ingenuity and thinking that got the job done on that show. And I was always just blown away by George Takei's presence on the bridge. In contrast to what other Asians were doing on television, it was just such a beacon.
Have you talked to George Takei? Has he called you up to make sure you're playing the young Sulu properly?
We talked. I wrote him a letter and asked if we could have lunch. We did, and it was very pleasant. He had some words of wisdom, but we also just had a good time and got to know each other a little bit. I'd been acquainted with him, we'd run into each other a few times, but hadn't really gotten a chance to talk. So it was nice. And for the record, if you don't know him, he's like this renaissance man. It's like he stepped out of a time machine. They don't make guys like him anymorehe's well-versed in all these subjects, he's literate, and interesting.
And the voice!
I don't know where he got that voice. I don't know where he bought that voice. It's very low.
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