A telling snapshot from the young life of John Cho. He is at college, majoring in English Literature when a drama company commandeers the campus theatre to mount a production of Woman Warrior, based on the best-selling memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston. There is, however, a caveat. In return for the use of the theatre the production company is required to cast a few college students. Enter Cho, who scores a small role. The die is cast.
“It was the first time I met professional Asian actors,” Cho recalls. “Frankly, I didn’t know they existed. I guess I’d seen some Asians on television, but, in my head, they were just people recruited off the street or something. I didn’t know you could work all year, and do that.”
Cho, now 50, and I are sitting in a nondescript room in a mid-town hotel in New York, where all morning he has been answering questions from groups of writers about his new film, Don’t Make Me Go, a small indie with a lot of heart and an unexpected twist in the tail. Cho is tired, having arrived from LA the night before. We sit in chairs opposite each other, while a publicist lurks in the gloom behind me, but directly in Cho’s sightline.
But it turns out that even when John Cho is tired he thrums with a bright, nervous energy. And once in his stride he can take you by surprise, kicking up a dust storm of acute observations. Where others like to simplify, he prefers to complicate, like someone rescrambling the squares of a Rubik’s cube, determined to figure out its logic. He navigates questions with the same care and scrutiny that he’s applied to his work, avoiding the industry’s tendency to pigeonhole by moving nimbly between genres, from comedy to artsy indie to blockbuster, and back again. For someone who came to fame by playing “MILF Guy #2” in American Pie, before his break-out in the gross-out stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, it’s an impressive evolution.
Then again, Harold & Kumar was not your typical gross-out stoner comedy, deploying a classic American narrative – the road trip – to subvert and obliterate racial stereotypes. The timing, three years into the so-called war on terror, coincided with a growing backlash to the war in Iraq. People were receptive to the movie’s witty but unambiguous critique of what we now call white privilege.
“Its posture towards race is to laugh at it,” says Cho. “Instead of elevating it, it took the stereotypes and turned the sock inside out. Looking back, I think we were ahead of our time a little bit.”
Turning the sock inside out is something that Cho spends a lot of time thinking about. “In America, everyone sees your race first, but that’s not the way you feel,” he says. “I never feel Asian, necessarily – it’s the world that makes me think about it.” Early in the Covid pandemic, Cho wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times in which he described having to warn his parents to be careful at a moment when Asian Americans were subject to a wave of attacks. “The pandemic is reminding us that our belonging is conditional,” Cho wrote. “One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who ‘brought’ the virus here.” Although it won him plaudits, he’s ambivalent about being a spokesperson for Asian Americans. “I don’t think I’m informed enough as an actor, and I don’t know the ins and outs of policy, but when something strikes me close to the bone I’ll do it for myself,” he says. “I don’t consider what I’m doing as some kind of clarion call, it’s a self-serving expression.” [More at Source]
Feature: John Cho for The Observer
Written by Mouza on July 20
Feature: John Cho for the LA Times
Written by Mouza on March 12
Some of the most enduring images from the Los Angeles riots are the photos of armed Korean shopkeepers patrolling the rooftops of liquor stores and laundromats to deter rioters.
In some Korean Americans, those images inspire pride, and in others, shame. The actor John Cho, he told me, felt mostly panic and fear. Then 19 years old and a student at UC Berkeley, he could see how the images were being interpreted and worried that they would spark more hostility toward Koreans.
In his new young adult novel that he wrote with Sarah Suk, “Troublemaker,” his goal was to start with those photos, and zoom out.
“We wanted to start at that stereotypical image of the rooftop Koreans. Our thinking was, ‘What if we could humanize this person? What would that look like?’”
Though written for a young adult audience, Cho’s novel is a sincere attempt to make sense of an event that we are still trying to understand. This year is the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, and though we are still trying, I don’t think we have fully made sense of what happened. In 2017, for the first time since the riots, a Loyola Marymount University poll found that 6 out of 10 Angelenos surveyed believed that another uprising is likely within the next five years.
Cho doesn’t see himself as an expert author or historian on the subject. But now, at 49, he is a father too, wrestling for the words to explain an event that his own parents have always discussed in hushed Korean behind cupped hands.
So in the summer of 2020, as the George Floyd protests broke out and anti-Asian violence was on the rise, Cho decided to write a book about the Los Angeles riots. He describes it as the book he wished his younger self could have read.
The novel follows a Korean American boy named Jordan trying to reach his father, a liquor store owner, on the night that the riots break out. His goal is to deliver a gun he found at home to his father so that he can help protect the store. The narrative locates itself around the violent chaos of that night, but never inside of it, turning down the volume to focus on the relationship between Jordan and his father. [More at Source]
Feature: John Cho for GQ
Written by Mouza on August 16
But it doesn’t stop people from asking him the same questions. The actor talks about being a focal point for Asian-American representation and why nobody wanted him to do his new movie Searching.