The Game-Changer: An Interview with John Cho
John Cho

The Game-Changer: An Interview with John Cho

Oliver Wang talks to actor John Cho about rising from the basement of Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall to becoming Hollywood's most visible Asian American.

By Oliver Wang

I first met John Cho when we were classmates at UC Berkeley in the spring of 1994. We weren't close but in the interactions I had with him, he struck me as warm, congenial, and thoughtful -- the kind of guy who was easy to root for. As it turned out, Cho would soon start creating many opportunities for folks to root for him.

His first major acting gig came with a touring production of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior in 1994. Three years later, he popped up as one of the major stars of the "Class of 1997", a quartet of groundbreaking Asian American feature narrative films that all debuted that year. Cho had a smaller role in Chris Chan Lee's Yellow but was much more prominent in Shopping For Fangs, directed by then first-time directors Quentin Lee and Justin Lin. (The other two major features that year were Rea Tajiri's Strawberry Fields and Michel Idemoto and Eric Nakamura's Sunsets).

If 1997 was Cho's "Asian American Year," then 1999 would be his "All American Year." You may not remember him in Sam Mendes' American Beauty, where he was being shown a home by Annette Bening's character. But in the raunchy teen comedy, American Pie, Cho helped launch one small acronym -- M.I.L.F. -- into the grand lexicon of American slang. Had his acting career evaporated right then and there, he at least could have laid claim to being "The MILF Guy."

Instead, John Cho has become one of the most influential Asian American actors of his generation. He currently is in two major franchises -- the Harold and Kumar film series (soon to be a trilogy) as well as walking in George Takei's shoes as Sulu in the new reboot of Star Trek. He also has a new TV series, Flash Forward, debuting this fall on ABC. On behalf of APA, I caught up with Cho and in a two-part interview, discuss his remarkable career (thus far). Go Bears!

Asia Pacific Arts: Did you have a performing bug as a kid?

John Cho: I never thought of performing as possible, so I don't remember thinking about it growing up. I was in Korea having dinner with some of the studio executives there, and we were trying to figure out why there was such a Korean American presence in the acting community, and why we were so over-represented. I couldn't figure it out. And we decided it was this: my generation -- I was born [in Korea] in '72 and came to the States in '78 -- we didn't have cable television and there wasn't Korean television available. The kids that were born here later -- 1.5 and second generation Korean American kids who came in the '80s and '90s -- they had Korean television available to them, and they grew up watching Korean entertainers every night. And I know a lot of those kids prefer Korean entertainment, and buy Korean CDs. Those kids, I believe, thought it was possible watching those dance groups and hip hop artists. Whereas my generation, we just didn't. This was never a possibility.

APA: That's interesting, I had never thought of that. I was born in '72 as well and in that time, you weren't exposed to Asian cultural products or many Asian faces performing in American pop culture -- except, appropriately enough for this discussion, Sulu. But outside of that, there wasn't the same level of Asian media saturation that today's teenagers would have access to.

JC: Yeah, it's interesting. It's a technological explanation, more than anything else, to me. The advent of cable television brought the stuff from across the Pacific into everyone's homes.

APA: Your father was a minister. What denomination?

JC: This was a denomination called Church of Christ.

APA: Many of my Asian American friends growing up attended Christian churches where they would have weekend night services filled with singing, playing music, and performances. Was that what your father's church was like?

JC: Actually no. There were no musical instruments allowed in this church. Their philosophy is based on the absence of the mention of musical instruments in the New Testament. They took it very seriously.

APA: Wow, so no organs or guitars, I'm assuming?

JC: This church would call all that stuff entertainment. And the church wasn't a place for entertainment. So we didn't have a choir. It was only communal singing. We sang together from the pews, four-part harmonies, and no one was allowed to get up in front and solo. Or have a special light shown on them.

APA: Did you do any acting or performing in high school?

JC: [No], aside from being a bit of a clown in high school.

APA: I have to ask -- you attended Hoover High in Glendale and were probably about two classes ahead of Eva Mendes, who went to the same school. Did you know her at all then?

JC: I didn't know her. Unfortunately. [laughs]

APA: When did you start doing drama or theater more formally?

JC: Berkeley. I've told the story before, and I don't even know if it's true at this point. I was just on The Tonight Show and the producers asked me how I got started acting, and they go over the pre-interview with Jay before the show. Jay [Leno] says he doesn't believe this story. "It's too cute." [laughs] But this is how I remember it. I was in a writing group and a guy in that writing group -- Dan Kwon was his name -- asked me how much I weighed and how tall I was. And he said, "I have this guy who dropped out of a play, he's sick, and I think you'll fit the costume."

APA: And so, Jay Leno didn't believe the story, and you are now doubting the veracity of your origin story?

JC: I am! It does sound friggin' cute. But according to my memory of that guy, it doesn't even quite make sense. He's asking me height and weight instead of waist size, shirt size. But the guy did have a flair for the dramatic, and he was a little ridiculous, so it does sound like he might have said that. But that's how I remember it.

APA: What about acting drew you in?

JC: I liked rehearsing more than anything else. We rehearsed and performed in Room 7, which is below Zellerbach Hall. It was a black room in the basement and it was just a womb-like place that I felt safe in, and I liked meeting actors who felt crazy like me. They were just entertaining and ridiculous people, like me, so there was a kinship that I felt there. The buzz that I get from rehearsing is probably similar to the buzz that other people get from cooking. Or music. It's putting all your focus on one task. I liked forgetting about everything else, going into the dark room and really solving problems -- solving script problems -- which is what rehearsing is. Why doesn't this work, why doesn't this line work? Let's try and find a solution.

APA: Whereas in performance, you have theoretically ironed all of that out.

JC: Yeah, hopefully you do that, and then what's great about theater versus film is that you have a series of performances. Theoretically, you have a run of several weeks where you solve more problems, on a night-to-night basis. That's the charge I get out of it.

APA: Did you gravitate more to comedy or drama?

JC:  I believe that the first play that I had the two lines in was a drama, and then after that, I auditioned for another play and that's where I had a real, substantial role. That was a comedy, and that play did very well, as I recall. It was called "Eye of the Coconut," by Jeannie Barroga.

APA: You've become known for your comedic roles, although you've certainly done your share of drama as well. Is that by design or by circumstance or opportunity?

JC: Some of it was complete chance. It all started with American Pie, and that was a one-off that grew into more opportunities to work with the director of that movie, and to do more of those movies. And because of the American Pie movies, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg wrote Harold and Kumar and wanted me for it. So, that's kind of a circumstance thing. But one of the things I liked about comedy was: it doesn't seem that way now, but people didn't think Asians could do comedy, when I started in the business.

Back in the '80s, the stereotypes were kind of vicious and there was a very strong insulting stereotype, the nerd or whatever, and it swung the other way, from making fun of Asians to writing these noble Asian characters, which were kind of narrative blanks, just a very kind nurse or the cop who told you to be careful, and that sort of thing. They pulled their punches really hard because people were complaining. And I found those roles boring and unexciting, and I liked that you could be irreverent in comedy as an Asian and that was one way to combat this very dull stereotype. I found that comedic roles were often the place where I would find roles that I was willing to do. Politically, I felt that they were more interesting than the son of a grocery store owner. So, it just felt like I was able to find politically interesting stuff in comedy.

APA: It's interesting you're talking about this idea that Asian Americans can't be funny. I often think of this after Pat Morita's recent death -- that he was really a comic actor for most of his career but Mr. Miyagi changed that perspective.  

JC: It's funny. I always think of him as Al, from Happy Days. That's the deeper impression for me.

APA: Going back to what you were saying about why you enjoyed rehearsing when you were in college, is that social aspect something that's still important to you, at this point in your career when you're not working out of basement black rooms?   

JC: Well, I have to preface this by saying, now that I do more film and television more than anything else, you get a lot less rehearsal, so there isn't that same feeling. In college, we felt a little bit like a gang -- a nerdy, goofy gang, but a gang nonetheless. That kind of kinship I felt then is partial to being that age. I remember my first professional job [on The Woman Warrior], and [when] we went to Boston. They provided me with a studio apartment and a paycheck, and in my entire life, I had never had my own room. Up until that point. And I thought, "this is insane. You mean I get to go to Boston, you are giving me my own room, and a very small paycheck?" I couldn't believe my luck. So I tell that story, because it seems so preposterous today, but I felt like I was living the high life, but it was only because I was that age.

APA: In regards to being in that production of The Woman Warrior, were you a fan of the book?

JC: I was. It was probably during that show that I realized I was interested in acting. Up until then, I think I was just goofing around. When I did that, it was just interesting because I was a fan of the book, and doing the play was another way of studying that text, and I just found it to be so much more interesting. All these political issues we were talking about, we were living. All these classroom ideas, we were putting up on their feet. It's a very curious and rare circumstance in life, when you can have a real comparison like that.

APA: Not to get all lit crit about it, but I'm curious to know what kind of insight into the book did performing give you.  

JC: What I recall is, The Woman Warrior was such a lightning rod, if you recall the whole Frank Chin-Maxine debate [over] cultural authenticity. We were reading essays and articles about them, and then all of a sudden [those issues] were there in front of us. We were discussing them as they were happening. A white woman wrote the [play's] adaptation. The director was a white woman who was fascinated by Asian theater after visiting Japan. In casting, there were people who were Japanese American and Chinese American, and there were discussions about accents. So the whole authenticity debate -- we were living with this debate in the smallest of decisions every day. Set dressing: as actors we would look at these set pieces and discuss whether they were authentic or not. All these things we were just dealing with every day in a real and substantive way, and it was just exciting to discuss with craftsmen over beers, these things that I was reading in articles up until then.

APA: After the tour, you moved down to Los Angeles and you ended up teaching in West Hollywood at some point.

JC: Yeah, I was teaching seventh and tenth grade English. Two classes. That was a very difficult year, though gratifying.  

APA: Were you also pursuing full-time acting at that point?

JC: At the time I was doing plays at East West Players at night, which made things difficult. If I had to do it over, I would have taken a job that I was comfortable giving 50% at. I should have become a waiter or something, but I thought, I just got this degree in English, maybe I can get this job [teaching]. It was extremely difficult. I think I did an okay job, but who knows? If you have a classroom of 30 kids, there are 30 different reading levels, and really, modern teaching is very difficult. People come from different schools, people move. You have to have 30 lesson plans a day. It was difficult.

APA: Especially in the LAUSD...

JC: I taught at a private school, which I was able to do because LAUSD requires you to be credentialed, and private schools do not. And I've since realized, I really am a proponent of public schools. I hadn't thought about it much until then, but it's almost absurd to let someone right out of college walk into a classroom and start teaching children, without doing any further coursework.

APA: In between teaching and working at East West Players, you started to pick up bits parts in television and film. Was that for the paycheck or were film and TV mediums you wanted to explore, alongside theater?

JC: On a political level, I just found that I was more excited by what my skill-set could bring to film and television. Asian [American] theater has stretched the boundaries a little bit, but at the time, [it] was much more involved in what I thought was an older form of expression. It was much more about identity plays, explaining who we were as Asian Americans through dramas. And that didn't interest me as much.

I was interested in people who weren't going to theater, and reaching them. That always excited me more, and to this day, theater, though on a formal level is the ideal place for an actor, on some political level, I find it frustrating that theatergoers are mostly rich -- maybe that's unfair -- mostly white. I mean it's $75 a ticket, it's just not a form of...  

APA: It's not a mass culture form.

JC: It's just not. And I suppose in Broadway, tourists come and it's exciting and they go see Miss Saigon. But I just wasn't excited by it.

APA: 1997 was a watershed year within the Asian American film community and you appeared in two big narrative features, Shopping for Fangs and Yellow. How did you land roles in both films? Did you know any of the three directors prior, or was it just open auditions?

JC: I believe it was open auditions. I'd come into town and I think people were just aware of me through my work at East West Players.

APA: Which did you end up doing first?

JC: They actually got shot simultaneously. And I remember Quentin Lee and Chris Chan Lee got on the phone and hammered out my dates. I was working on one film, then the other. It was kind of a crazy summer.

APA: Did you ever find yourself slipping into the wrong character?

JC: I don't think I was skilled enough to differentiate the two. [laughs] No, I was a little confused. I was just young and didn't know any better, and I just went from one to the other and thought it was normal. It was a charmed year.

APA: Next would come 1999 where you appeared in American Beauty and of course, American Pie. What's really struck me are the ways in which MILF-ology has become such a huge part of mainstream American culture, and to think that it really began with that film, and your role. I'm wondering if this has ever struck you -- the ways that this simple term has become so resonant in pop culture since then.

JC: It is odd. I could never understand why people remembered me at all from that movie. This isn't me being modest, it's just strange to me, and I guess it was about opening up a new arena of sexuality really, and it was a word that was floating around. But I remember I was in China shooting a movie [The Pavilion of Women], the summer that American Pie came out, and so I missed it all. I wasn't aware that it was a box office hit at all, and came back and people were just screaming "MILF!" at me. All the time. And I was like, "what is going on?" I couldn't understand it at all.

And it seems even stranger because I didn't even audition for that movie. I couldn't go into the audition 'cause I was working on something else, and I just had a friend in the casting department who said, "you know, I talked to them, and you're in anyway." They just wanted somebody who could sing to be in the jazz choir, and -- in a strange parallel to my Berkeley story -- they said, "there's a guy who can't do this part. Can you do this other part?" And they asked me to do the MILF thing, and I thought, "Wow, vulgar." But I did it anyway. So the whole thing has always seemed strange to me.

APA: And the rest is history, as they say.

JC: Yes [laughs]. I remember I did one of my first jobs, The Tiger Woods Story, a Showtime movie, and LeVar Burton directed it. And I remember going to set with LeVar Burton, and I remember tripping that he was involved in so many different cultural moments. Roots, Reading Rainbow, Star Trek. And as I look back now, it's odd. I've had more vulgar touchstones, but the American Pie series just seems to have changed the business, and Harold and Kumar is a bit of a game changer too, and to be in Star Trek. It's been a strange career, now that I look back.

APA: It's funny because the next question I was going to ask was: you have footing in these very strong franchises but if you look through the resume of your career, you've also clocked in dozens of jobs in these one-time roles for movies and television. I'm wondering out of these smaller parts, what have been some of your favorite projects that you've done along the way?

JC: Charmed was an early, substantive role for me and I remember having a lot of fun with that.

APA: I forgot where I was reading this -- and you might be aware of this -- but someone was saying that it was great that John Cho got cast not only in Charmed but in a romantic role, but because he's a ghost, he doesn't get to kiss the girl and isn't that messed up? I don't know if you'd ever caught wind of that complaint.

JC: Right, right, right. I've heard it all. It's funny. It's almost perverse how much I've thought about my Asian American audience, and my whole career, every job -- every audition -- that I've ever been offered, I think about how it will serve the community or not. If people will appreciate it or find it offensive, and it's almost the single factor by which I take jobs or not. Because as soon as I started, I realized it was so important to people. From my experiences as a boy, I realized that those images meant something to me. Mostly, it's not grandiose to where I thought I could affect positive change. I was really just trying to avoid doing damage to the Asian American psyche. I just figured, I don't need to contribute to that.  But it's funny, as much as I've thought about Asian America, I've had to ignore them as well, after I make my decision, because you can interpret it any way you want it. Earlier, we talked about how I felt like I was battling a stereotype that Asians weren't funny and can't do comedy and couldn't make the jokes. We're always the butt of jokes, and we're never the funny guy. And I was in Korea a few weeks ago at a junket and one of the journalists asked me, "Why is it that Asians are always the funny people?" And I thought, "well, this is really strange." Whatever it is, it's like statistics. Sports statistics, you can see the pattern you want to see. You can tell the story you want to tell based on these numbers. So, I've heard that. Harold and Kumar, I believe, is largely a positive portrayal and there are people who don't appreciate it. What can you do?

APA: I'm curious, is that self consciousness a product of coming out of an environment such as Berkeley, especially in the early-mid 90s, which was knee-deep in identity politicking?

JC: I think so, and it probably has something to do with that formative experience of comparing the two Women Warriors. I've always thought about performance as a political act. I've always recognized that people are going to see patterns in the work that we do and patterns based on race. And that applies to White America, and it applies to Asian America.

APA: Speaking of race: with Harold and Kumar, when did you first become familiar with the script?

JC: Jon Hurwitz was one of the writers and he approached me at a party and said, "I have written a movie with you in mind as the lead, and I would like you to read it." And I think I gave him a dirty look, because there was no White man who had ever said those words to me. And I've had Asian writers who had said that to me, but never a White guy. So I kind of was bracing myself for a buck-toothed Chinaman role. I had a healthy dose of suspicion. I laugh about it now because we're such close friends now, but I couldn't believe it when I read it.

APA: Had he had Kal Penn in mind as well for the Kumar role?

JC: I don't believe so. I think they were talking to him about it, but I think he really thought of me early on because there was a real Harold Lee. There was not a real Kumar. And when they were thinking about this, American Pie came out, and they said: there's our Harold. So they had a very strong idea about the Harold character, and the Kumar character was a little bit greyer.

APA: Wait -- there's a real Harold Lee?

JC: Yeah, they met him through school. He's an attorney.

APA: Have you ever met him?

JC: Yeah, he was at my kid's birthday party a few days ago. We're friends. I decided to take him on the world tour for Star Trek for my +1. It was really fun going around with Harold. [laughs] He really is my doppelganger. He can enjoy these cities I visit, where I have to work all the time, so I appreciate that he can have fun while I can't.

APA: That's gotta be a very interesting situation, where you're friends with someone who you're essentially riffing off of as a character.

JC: He's morphed a little bit. I think he's gotten much more outgoing as the years have progressed. He's a bit of a party animal now, so he has really drifted, and I'm playing this version of Harold from the time capsule.

APA: I was very surprised to learn that Harold and Kumar's main creative team was not Asian. Even though I don't think the humor in the film requires an ethnic insider's knowledge, it certainly does play to that. Watching the Asian American student group at the party in Princeton struck a nerve for me because it reminded me of some of my own college experiences. Were you struck by how well that script was able to hit these inside jokes?

JC: I was struck by it. I later found out there was some extra motivation to write that because they were afraid, while writing the movie, that whoever bought the script would change the ethnicity of the characters. So they said, we had better hit them over the heads with the fact that they're Korean and Indian. So they made it part of the movie. They just tried to make it very difficult for them to imagine changing the ethnicity of the characters without a big ruffle. So, it was a defensive maneuver.

APA: When you guys wrapped the film but before it actually came out, what kind of expectations did you have for it?

JC: Our expectations were very modest in terms of the first one. I think the second one fell short a little bit in terms of box office, but it really is such a DVD movie. It's done very well on DVD and it's probably exceeded expectations on that level. I don't think anyone in their right mind would really expect that there would be a second and a third one, and there's almost a stupid level of confidence from the writers to set up the first one to have a sequel. But I'll tell you -- faith goes a long way in this town.

APA: You've been involved in some of the most important Asian American films that have come out in the last 15 years, especially Better Luck Tomorrow. But I think one could make the argument -- and I've made this argument -- that Harold and Kumar has probably been one of the most important because it demonstrated that you can make a financially viable film with two Asian American male leads. Do you think the film and franchise's success has opened up more doors?

JC: I don't know. I'm not the best person to ask about my own legacy. I started thinking about it once when a friend of ours, her husband, who is White by the way, went on an audition, and the casting office was looking for a "John Cho type." And, you know, the fact that there is a John Cho type is great news, because they figure a John Cho type is profitable.

APA: You had mentioned to the folks at that you thought that the climate had improved for Asian American male actors.

JC: I think so. I think I just look around and I see more Asian American male actors, and there are certainly more Asian Americans in advertisements, which is a strange place to look for hope. But if there are corporations that are saying, I can sell my product if I use Asian American faces, and the only reason they're doing it is 'cause they think it will be profitable, then there must be data out there that suggests that. And the more data there is that suggests that pattern, that's a good thing for the commercial side of the arts industry.

APA: I was thinking about this too -- J.J. Abrams, through Lost, has created perhaps the most prominent Asian/Asian American television roles in a generation. Then there's his casting of you in Star Trek and how the character of Sulu has been upgraded. Whether consciously or not, Abrams has helped facilitate some of this change.

JC: I see it generationally as well. He obviously is a young man. I think he's in his mid-30s now. When I was at Cal, it felt like there were a lot of 90210s [on TV or in films]. You see these college campuses and there are no Asians, and you're thinking, "where are these people going to school?" It just seemed like this very artificially White world, and I remember thinking it just seems like the writers are probably in the 40s, and this is their memory and this is their idealized experience. I just couldn't imagine that the situation would be the same if our generation started writing, and that was a bit of a pipe dream in one sense, but it has proven to be real to some extent. Jon and Hayden -- they were friends with Harold Lee and wrote a movie because they were friends with him, and they thought he seemed like an entertaining person to put in a movie. And J.J. Abrams is young and I've met many of his friends, and he has a very diverse set of friends. And that more diverse experience is starting to make an impact in entertainment, I think.

In part 2 of our interview, John Cho discusses his upcoming ABC TV series
Flash Forward, blasting off into space as Sulu, and whether there's life after Zed.