John Cho didn’t think to dream big, or at least he didn’t when he took up acting in the early ’90s. And it’s not a surprise he didn’t, considering the film and television landscape for Asian actors at the time was so “limited.” Cho says he initially planned to dabble in acting, “hit forty and get a straight job,” but that didn’t happen. Now, the 46-year-old actor is starring in a major franchise, will star in an upcoming episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot and his latest film, the internet-based drama Searching, is receiving a heap of attention with year end awards pundits. But amongst all the praise, Cho wants to do more by “stretching what an Asian-American is supposed to be on film.”
“I want people to be sick of me. I want to be overexposed,” Cho says with a chuckle. He’s paid his dues as a performer, playing a daffy stoner in American Pie before working his way up to a leading role in the cult comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Over the last year the actor has kept audiences on their toes, playing a melancholic Korean man struggling to cope with his father’s death in Columbus; a detective in Aaron Katz’s L.A. noir, Gemini; and a father scouring the internet for his daughter in Searching. He’s also been dubbed this year’s “hot dad” by the denizens of social media, a term Cho is very surprised to hear associated with him. Laughing he says, “I did not that expect that! I don’t know how to feel about that,” though he says he “humbly” accepts it.
Roles like Cho’s are a far cry from the characters Asian-Americans were shoehorned into a few decades ago. As Cho mentions, Asian performances were usually “heavily accented.” The actor says it’s a “bummer” performances like his are being considered ground-breaking. “I look forward to all those firsts being behind us.” Representation has become a hot-button topic over the last year, reaching out beyond the frames of a movie screen and trickling down into film criticism. The need for diverse voices to discuss film is an essential component, according to Cho, who believes “when a reporter or a critic is a person of color there is a different entrance point to the conversation when we’re talking about issues like [representation].” He cites L.A. Times critic Justin Chang’s recent review of Chang-dong Lee’s film Burning as a prime example. Chang doesn’t “talk necessarily about culture” in the substance of the review “but I wanted his perspective and was curious about his perspective, knowing that he’s an Asian-American.”
Cho finds nothing limiting about having diverse voices, both writing about films and working on them. It’s a way of “broadening” one’s “understanding” of a particular work. And it’s easy to see how this extends to the performer’s own choice of roles. Cho says he gets “impulses” when it comes to balancing studio projects with more nuanced features that have a specific cultural perspective. When he read the script for 2017’s Columbus “I immediately felt something very personal,” he says. What’s shocking is that, Cho says he can’t afford to be choosy when it comes to projects, a common lament from actors of color. ” I’ve realized I can’t go searching for blockbusters. I can’t go hunting for that game. I’m gonna come home empty-handed.” This leaves him in search of a deeper connection with a story rather than a “strategic” one. Earlier this year Cho starred as Detective Edward Ahn in the Los Angeles-set thriller, Gemini, a film he says “tickled” him. Outside of its great story, Cho wanted to put an “Asian face” onto what is usually a white character, that of the hardened detective. He also wanted to put more Asian-Americans in the city of Los Angeles since “Asians are not in Los Angeles narratives, for some reason,” Cho says.
Lacking “a desk overflowing with scripts and choices” the actor has become a risk-taker, valuing “first-time filmmakers and new voices” he can collaborate with. While not willing to share any specific dream projects of his, Cho says he is determined to work again with the directors he’s starred with recently. “Aneesh [Chaganty, director of Searching] is a talented filmmaker. We’re gonna work together again, and Kogonada [director of Columbus] is someone who I WILL work with again.”
After twenty years making movies and television shows Cho says he’s excited to get older. “It’ll be fun to play ‘the heavy.’ The cynical lawyer. The crabby police captain.” The goal continues to be taking characters and “do things people haven’t seen.” The actor is ready for when the world doesn’t think his presence in a role is revolutionary, but in the meantime he’ll keep blazing a trail (and wearing his “hot dad” badge with pride).