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]
Written by Mouza on July 20
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]
Written by Mouza on April 21
Whenever North Korea makes the news, John Cho is overcome with sadness and by what he calls a sliding-doors effect — an eerie vision of a parallel life had his parents not escaped to the South.
“I mean, there but for the grace of God go I,” he said.
The Korean War, which erupted five years after the country was divided in 1945 — the United States supporting the South, and the Soviet Union the North — was rarely discussed in front of the young Cho, who at 6 emigrated with his family to America from Seoul.
But its shadow still looms, and he leapt at the offer to narrate “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” a two-hour chronicle of Korean Peninsula history airing April 29 on PBS (check local listings).
“My life was very much changed and strangely continues to be shaped by this event,” he said. “It’s the defining experience of modern Koreans.”
“Korea” is the second part of a weirdly wonky Cho double-bill in the coming days: On April 25, he’ll play a presidential campaign strategist in “The Wunderkind,” an episode of Jordan Peele’s revival of “The Twilight Zone” on CBS All Access.
In 2016, Cho — then best known as the stoner Harold Lee in the “Harold & Kumar” comedies and Hikaru Sulu in the “Star Trek” franchise — became the unwitting beneficiary of #StarringJohnCho, a social movement that imagined Cho standing in for, say, Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” and Daniel Craig in “Spectre” as part of a wider calling for diversity in entertainment, and an Asian-American leading man.
More recently, Cho was tagged to helm a motley crew of bounty hunters as Spike Spiegel in “Cowboy Bebop,” the coming Netflix live-action spin on the space Western anime in which he’ll flex some martial-arts skills.
In a phone interview fresh from a training session in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, the actress and director Kerri Higuchi, and their two children, Cho, 46, spoke about coming to America and how Hollywood has surprised him. [More at Source]
Written by Mouza on April 21
John was one of multi-celebrities covers Glass Magazine have done celebrating their 10th anniversary issue. I’ve updated the gallery with the digital scans of the issue and the accompanying photoshoot.
Written by Mouza on August 29
As he weaves his thoughts between different subjects — from his relationship to his race (what does Asian American mean when you’re a Korean immigrant who just wanted to fit in?) and the characters he chooses to depict on screen (which almost always leads to a larger conversation on representation) to measures of success (“The career is just something that is not a part of me; it’s something that walks next to me, it’s not me”) — one thing becomes clear: At the end of the day, Cho just wants to make good movies that allow him to stretch his creative muscles. And so it is with “Searching,” his new film.
Helmed by first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty, the indie thriller explores the grief of David Kim, whose teenage daughter (Michelle La) goes missing following the death of his wife (Sara Sohn). The entirety of the film plays out through David’s eyes, which functions as a camera of sorts as we watch the story unfold on his computer screen.
Chaganty, a self-described John Cho fanboy, and his writing partner Sev Ohanian wrote David with Cho in mind, but it required several entreaties before the actor came around.
“[The film] was out of my comfort zone, so I said no at first,” Cho says. He’d seen “Unfriended,” really the only approximate example of a movie that takes place completely on a digital screen, and didn’t like the idea of acting for a static camera. And he definitely did not want to feel as though he were making a YouTube video. But at the same time, he did like the screenplay, if only interpreted as a more traditional picture, and was flattered most of all that the role — an explicitly Korean American one at that — was created for him.
To his credit, Chaganty doesn’t give up easy. He sent off a few nervous texts, and Cho eventually acquiesced to a meeting. “When we met face-to-face, I just really liked [Chaganty] so much,” Cho says. “He had vision and conviction and a lot of charisma, and he convinced me it would be a movie. I just had a feeling about him. So I said yes.” [Source]
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