Taking the Lead
This is typically not the kind of place I like,” says John Cho. He takes off his sunglasses to better appreciate the rotunda on the second floor of the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a breathtaking space—vast yet cozy, with a vibrantly painted ceiling dating back to its construction in 1926 and a chandelier depicting the zodiac that spills amber light throughout the massive dome. This is the 45-year-old actor’s first visit to the library, despite having lived in LA since he was in eighth grade, and he admits to being impressed: “I don’t like Rome or Beijing because their buildings always communicate power over the citizens,” explains Cho, who’s dressed simply in jeans and a white T-shirt. “But I like the idea that this is where the books are, and we’re going to build a grand place for them.”
Perhaps you’re wondering why the star of the Harold & Kumar movies is so keen to talk about architecture. For one thing, to spend any time with Cho is to quickly adjust to his discursive style. “I’m a rambler,” he says, apologetically. But mainly it’s because this month he stars in Columbus, a rare movie that derives understated poignancy from its setting—the eponymous city in Indiana, a Modernist mecca dotted with buildings by masters like I.M. Pei, James Polshek, and Richard Meier. (Hence our visit to a Los Angeles architectural landmark on this sunny June afternoon.) In the film, Cho plays Jin, a book translator who arrives in town begrudgingly after his father, a visiting professor, falls into a coma on the eve of a scheduled lecture. There he befriends Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a smart young woman who is postponing her promising academic future to care for her recovering-addict mother. “You know that R.E.M. song, ‘(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville?’” Cho asks. “Columbus is Rockville. It’s your mom and dad. Everyone has to reconcile themselves with Rockville. But you have to individuate yourself too.”
In a pensive, lacquered voice, Cho goes on to describe the film—the directorial debut of Kogonada, a visual essayist best known for his arresting digital compilations of scenes from cinema classics—as “these moments that are adjacent to other moments. You could interpret the whole movie as about a girl and her mother or a boy and his father. Yet the scenes you see are them talking about architecture.”
To audiences who came to know Cho as a mini-hamburger-craving stoner or as Star Trek’s most recent Sulu, Columbus will mark a surprising, maybe even unrecognizable turn. Among many other things, this is what drew him to the role. But he wants to cut through the bull first. “There’s so much less planning than people think to my career,” he says. “I don’t have that many choices.” He shrugs.
He is interrupted by a scruffy stranger who swears he knows Cho from somewhere. “The Hangover?” Cho offers, gamely. Television, thinks Scruffy. “Heroes?” Cho asks.
Those are not his credits, but Cho is banking on many people’s general inability to distinguish one Asian-American actor from another. Last year, a young advertising strategist in New York created the site StarringJohnCho, a hashtag-driven campaign that took posters of Spectre, Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, and countless other blockbusters and expertly Photoshopped Cho onto them, symbolically asking the question: Why does mainstream Hollywood refuse to see an Asian actor as a leading man? “At first I was like, What is this? Is he making fun of me?” says Cho, who eventually met with the site’s founder, William Yu, for a drink in New York. “But it was a way to talk about a heavy-handed topic in a light way, and people were being moved to conclude amen to that sentiment.”
#StarringJohnCho has taken on particular resonance in the wake of recent incidents of whitewashing, in which Caucasian stars are given roles in films that could have gone to Asian actors: Scarlett Johansson in an adaptation of the Japanese manga classic Ghost in the Shell; Matt Damon in The Great Wall, a monster movie set in China. This only exacerbates the dearth of opportunity. “You have your Captain Americas and Star Treks and what have you, and I’m glad I’m in one of them, Jesus,” says Cho, laughing. But even his Sulu is pitifully underutilized, mostly obeying orders or shouting spaceship-related jargon. At least in the last installment, Star Trek Beyond, Sulu was revealed to be gay, and while George Takei, the openly gay actor who originated the role, was unhappy about the change to canon, Cho applauds the deepening character development. “You have all this built-up affection for him,” he says. “It’s almost like when a family member comes out.”
For fear of being shushed by library patrons, Cho suggests we head across the street to the Millennium Biltmore hotel, another downtown architectural landmark, to talk at full volume. He pulls open the doors to the building’s gilded interior, which was designed to outswank every hot spot in town when it opened in the 1920s. Cho has attended charity events here in the past. “I think it’s fallen out of favor,” he says, crossing the lobby. “It’s run-down now.” We pass through the lounge area—the Rendezvous Court, with its Spanish Baroque decor—and Cho grabs a mint from a dish at the hostess stand before we sit down to lunch. “An aperitif,” he explains with a quick grin.
Cho came to America from Seoul when he was 6 years old, and he and his parents and brother moved around for a few years before settling in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. He developed an affinity for The Little House on the Prairie books, relating to the Ingalls family’s nomadic lifestyle. “I’ve gone on Wikipedia deep dives looking for photographs of them,” he says. “Mary looks exactly like my publicist!” In high school, he was something of the class cutup—the snarky kind, not the full-blown clown. He became good at imitating people, a form of teasing that his wife says he’s better at dishing out than taking. “I’ve heard that mimicry is something immigrants are good at,” he says, scanning the menu. “They become observers of the culture they arrive into.” It was at UC Berkeley, where he was studying English, that a friend asked him to play Thug No. 2 in a student film. “I didn’t think I’d make a career of it,” he says, “but here you are.”
Cho worked for a while as a schoolteacher before his big break: a minor scene in the 1999 sleeper hit American Pie that spawned perhaps the 21st century’s first meme. “For a while, I thought that my gravestone was going to read ‘MILF,’” he says, referring to the slang term his unnamed frat-boy character uses to describe beddable moms. “Why it was significant to my career, and maybe to other Asian Americans, was because it was a very popular movie that in this little role said, ‘Hey, that guy with that face is for sure American. One-hundred-percent.’”
This was a fertile era for Hollywood films. That same year saw the release of The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, and The Blair Witch Project. The industry was taking creative risks on new storytellers, so when Cho was cast in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, the debut film of Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin, about Asian-American overachievers gone wild, the future looked promising. Two years later, he landed a starring role alongside Kal Penn in the massively successful stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. “I remember thinking it was a hoax,” he says, as his (full-size) hamburger and prosecco arrive. “I hadn’t been the lead in a movie, and it was this genre that hadn’t featured anyone but white kids. I was like, People are spending millions of dollars on this movie? When we went to Toronto to shoot, I thought someone was going to knock on the hotel door and say, ‘Actually, turns out we’re not allowed to do this.’”
But then, the momentum started to slow. There were sequels to American Pie and Harold & Kumar, and Cho popped up in shows like How I Met Your Mother and Grey’s Anatomy, yet nothing lived up to the early hype. The tragically underseen ABC sitcom Selfie, a modern-day
Pygmalion in which Cho played the droll, dashing romantic lead, was canceled in 2014 after seven episodes. “I thought this was the beginning of something, and literally it was the end,” he says. “Then, I went off in my career, and I wasn’t playing people who were Asian, really. They were written white, which initially I was proud of, because I didn’t want to play stereotypes, and I thought this was the way to get around that. But my characters weren’t rooted in any specific psychology. Like, who is this person?”
Which is one of the main reasons he was so intrigued by Columbus—a movie with a fully realized leading man that also honored his ethnicity. “He was Korean, but he was a human being,’” he says. “It was and it wasn’t part of his identity, which I feel is accurate to the human experience.” In the film’s production notes, the director, Kogonada (who is also Korean-born), recalls that when his producer first suggested Cho for the role, “I admittedly thought, ‘but I’ve never seen him in such a role’—which tells you how difficult it is for Asian-American actors to get a lead role, when an Asian-American director falls into the same trap as others.” Working with Cho, Kogonada tells me later, was a thrill. “Regardless of opportunities, John has made the most of every role that he’s been in, and I think that’s why he’s had such a long career,” Kogonada says. “I told him there’s not going to be a lot of places to hide in this movie, and what he was able to do in the quietest ways was really fantastic.”
Cho has never been one to hide—something very clear in his latest TV project. This month he joins the cast of Difficult People, a Hulu show upholding the Seinfeldian tradition of hilarious misanthropes, playing star Billy Eichner’s boyfriend, Todd. Eichner, who’s also known for his fearless Billy on the Street interviews, says he thought of Cho for the part of his boyfriend after watching this year’s Oscars, during which Cho and copresenter Leslie Mann made the most of handing out the scientific and technical awards. “It was one of the funniest bits of the night—not as funny as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, but intentionally funny,” recalls Eichner. Cho was initially apprehensive about the role. “I could be a joke real fast,” he says, finishing his prosecco. “[Difficult People] is almost like pure, mainlined ideas. You’re stepping into someone else’s style. My concern was: What character can I play in this?” In fact, casting the part of Todd had been a challenge. “We’re not cartoons,” explains Eichner. “It’s not just quips and insults. You want someone who plays a real person. And there was always a question of whether someone is going to be comfortable, not because it’s a gay story line and John isn’t gay, but because any time you have to make out, it can be awkward. John completely threw himself into it. We’re lucky to have him.”
Cho is also turning up in more compelling indies, most notably as a detective in Gemini, a neo-noir courtesy of mumble-core director Aaron Katz, starring Lola Kirke. He’s pretty stoked about it. “I’ve taken jobs to wear a hat,” he says, wryly. “Like, I did a thing because it took place on the Hindenburg [2016’s The Hindenburg Explodes!], and I was like, Oh, then I’ll be in one of those hats! I don’t think anyone else is going to give me a chance to play a detective in a noir thriller, and I wanted to. And I literally did wear a trench coat at some point.”
Of course, he’ll also be resuming Sulu’s duties on the flight deck of the Enterprise when the next as-yet-untitled Star Trek installment goes into production, but aside from that, he’s not sure of his next project, big or small. What’s crucial to Cho at this point in his career is exercising as much discretion and professional control as possible. “I don’t think I’m going to play a startup CEO anymore,” he says, alluding to the type of role Hollywood regularly hands out to Asian actors. “I’m done with that. That’s easy. There’s nothing easier than to write something that will pacify Asian-American media watchdogs. Just cast an Asian judge. Which seems nice—they’re a judge!” He throws up his hands. “They’re also superfluous. You don’t get to see them fail or love or be courageous.” Unless it’s a movie about judges, presumably. He laughs. “Right. Then, I’m not just sending the main character to prison.”
Styling by Mark Holmes
Grooming by Frankie Payne