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.”
The arc of Cho’s career mirrors America’s post-September 11 reckoning. By the time of the Harold & Kumar 2008 sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, people were ready for change. Barack Obama won his bid for the White House six months later. Cho’s Harold & Kumar co-star, Kal Penn, left Hollywood behind to work in the Obama White House, while Cho landed the iconic role of Sulu in the reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise. He’d grown up watching the television series and was struck by the singular fact that Sulu was played by George Takei, among the very few Asian faces on TV. “He was the only one,” he says. “And it was a really thoughtful show. Even then I was, like, ‘The special effects are hokey, but the ideas are pristine.’ I knew they were trying to say meaningful things.”
When the producers of Star Trek began casting for a new Sulu, Cho quickly realised how badly he wanted the role. “That was the last time I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going do if I lose out on this part’,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to start weeping, maybe I’ll quit. If I don’t get this, the world is going to end’.”
Why was it so critical? Cho had long wanted to do a sci-fi picture, and to work with director JJ Abrams, but it was primarily because of the totemic weight of playing a role made famous by a pioneering Asian actor. Although slowly changing, leading roles for Asian Americans in film and television are still scarce. Takei had proved that it didn’t have to be that way. “It was a mantle that I wanted from George Takei,” Cho says. “I wanted the baton. When he threw it back, I wanted to be the one to grab it.”
Star Trek turned Cho into a bona-fide box-office draw – there have been three movies to date, with a fourth, untitled sequel currently in preproduction. But in recent years he’s gravitated to smaller, less showy independent movies to showcase his repertoire – films like the elegant, emotionally complex Columbus, in which Cho plays the son of a critically ill, architect father, or the 2018 mystery thriller Searching, an unexpected hit, in which a father attempts to track down his missing daughter.
Now there’s Don’t Make Me Go, which recasts the well-worn tropes of the American road movie through the prism of a single parent, Max (Cho) and his mixed-race teenage daughter Wally (played by newcomer Mia Isaac). Cho, who has a daughter of his own, gives a beautifully modulated performance, authentic and true, as a father trying to temper his anxiety for his daughter with respect for her growing independence.
“The attraction of the movie was this elemental bond between father and child,” he says. “It’s weird how we can divide ourselves in so many ways, when the most overwhelmingly important parts of our lives, something we have in common with every human being that’s ever lived, is wanting to do right by the people we love. And yet we’re bickering over everything else that is so much less important to each one of us.”
In Don’t Make Me Go, the purpose of the road trip is for Max to spend quality time with Wally before he succumbs to a recently diagnosed cancer. Along the way, father and daughter bicker, reconcile and deepen their relationship against the rolling backdrop of America’s vastness (in fact New Zealand, where the movie was filmed), and a soundtrack of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger.
Although Don’t Make Me Go plays down the virtues of its multiracial casting, it’s rare to see a movie in which neither of the leads is white. The casting decisions are not lost on Cho; he was drawn to the script in part for the opportunity to play an Asian character with a fully fledged romantic life. “In America there’s scant representation of Asian love,” he says. “And that was really important to me. It goes against the grain of what we see Asians do on screen, which is part of the attraction for me always.”
Cho isn’t wrong. Numbers compiled by the University of Southern California suggest that 58% of Asian men on screen are presented as devoid of romantic attachments. “I don’t want this to sound whiny, but we have been seen as less than men for so long,” Cho says. “I fully appreciate that Asian men who are younger than me may be living in a different world, but certainly my generation was dismissed by larger society so much, and I just know from all my friends that they had a breaking point. And when it happened, you didn’t want to be around to see it, because the clenched fist in the pocket was often literal – it could come flying out. It was definitely a young man thing, but it was also informed by a culture that doesn’t value us very much. We grew up with that, and it took me some time to untangle it and to calm down and to not think that people are after me.”
Much of this is generational. Cho has noticed that his father’s generation – men who grew up in Korea – have thicker skins. “You can call them every ethnic slur in the book,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to them. They didn’t grow up here. I was thinking people in Asia don’t really think of themselves as Asian per se, because they’re the majority – they just are, just as a white person walks around without needing to put an adjective before white.” At university he was similarly struck by Hawaiian students he met. “I was, like, ‘These guys, why are they different? They look like me, but they’re different.’ And then I realised it’s because they grew up in the majority and they had a different posture towards the world. I said to myself, ‘I need some of what they’re drinking.’”
Cho moved to the United States with his family when he was six years old, settling first in Texas, but then frequently on the move. His favourite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series about pioneer-era settlers, Little House on the Prairie – tales that celebrated endurance and resilience, but were also very white. What could they offer to a young Korean boy in 1970s America? “Actually, it was the immigrant that made me relate so much to those books. I was reading about this family in a covered wagon, all alone, travelling across America,” he says. “And I thought, ‘This is us, except it’s a Ford Pinto.’ They were literally alone in these unsettled territories and we felt similarly alone in that we were apart from our extended family, and in another sense, we were often the only Asians around.”
Melting-pot America felt far from the Houston suburbs of the 1970s. Cho recalls bringing home a notice from his school announcing the date of the annual “American Dress Day.” If you need to ask what American Dress means in Texas, you’ve not watched enough westerns. “My mum, a Korean immigrant who has just arrived here and doesn’t speak English very well, has to get cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and a western shirt for her son to wear to school.” Cho smiles wryly. “So, that was definitely culture shock, right there.”
Last year, Cho published a young adult novel about the LA Riots of 1992 that were sparked by the police beating of Rodney King, and the related shooting of a Black teenage girl by a Korean shopkeeper who wrongly assumed she was stealing orange juice. It’s a complicated story of race and community with no real heroes. Suffice to say it was another exercise in Cho-style complexity.
“I’m not sure why I needed to go back to that event, but it seemed like it was just a part of our genesis story,” Cho says. “And it lays out a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about lately: how are we here? What are the forces that shape the conditions of the world we’re living in right now? Right now, our discourse has become very slogan-based, and I often feel like it sounds good, but it doesn’t completely work because it’s simplified too much, to the point that you can’t really apply it. It’s not useful any more. We have to actually take it apart to understand it. And the LA riots was one event that I thought could use some disassembly and examination.”
Cho is deeply sceptical of social media’s tendency to reduce complex issues to rhetoric. “If you were to physicalise social media, it would be entering an auditorium full of strangers, two or three times a day, and reading a sentence into a microphone. And then everyone would write down comments on that sentence, and you would read all their comments. Let’s do this every day. What does it do to your brain? Is it good for you? It would be absurd – transparently unhealthy – to feel the need to rush into auditoriums and shout our opinions at people.”
What slogans does he think have simplified a complex question? And here I feel Cho shifting his stride. His voice rises and quickens, the canter turns into a gallop. “I still don’t understand why people are punching elderly Asians in the face,” he says. “I can’t get a handle on that, but I also think, ‘Stop Asian Hate’ [a popular social media hashtag], is that right? Is that what’s going on? What is the dynamic at play here? I feel it’s a slogan that may or may not be useful. I’m not sure that hate is what’s behind it. Is it the non-recognition of our humanity? Is it scapegoating? It’s some combination of things. I don’t know that Asians experience hate in the way that, say, Mexican Americans experience hate in America. There’s a component of hate, but it’s really easy for people to say, ‘I don’t hate Asians so this isn’t my problem, there is no problem.’ But there’s something going on across the nation, because it’s happening all over. And I want to know what it is. I want to know what the root cause is, but you put a slogan to it and then you don’t have to examine it any more.”
Instead, Cho says he’d prefer to reframe the conversation as a question: what’s happening? “We could ask what’s happening a million times, and that’s fine with me,” he says. “We’ll come up with a different answer each time, as long as we keep interrogating it. But the instant you put a label on it and call it something, then you don’t have to examine it any more. Maybe for some people that’s good because you could say, ‘I’m against it.’ But as well as being against it, what you have to do is examine it. And keep burrowing and burrowing under it, and say what’s happening? And then when we learn what’s happening, how do we prevent it from happening again? Because it keeps happening every 30 years. What is the root cause? And when are we going to solve it?”
Cho’s eloquent, raw soliloquy hangs in the air. And then a voice from behind us breaks the silence. It’s the publicist.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, we’re over time,” she says. The energy leaks from the room. Behind us three people sit in chairs facing us.
Cho smiles awkwardly. “Getting incendiary,” he says “Sorry.”
We stand up to shake hands, before I exit through the hotel and into the bright chaotic street wishing that actors would get incendiary more often.
Don’t Make Me Go is now on Amazon Prime Video