John Cho On Acting And 'Columbus'
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Actor John Cho is Korean-American. But should I have just told you that? That's a question the 45-year-old actor has been grappling with his entire career.
He is starring in a new film that's called "Columbus," which is named for a small town in Indiana, where the movie takes place. Cho's character Jin, a Korean-American translator, rushes into town from South Korea to take care of his father who's in a coma. Jin forms a friendship with a local girl, Casey, who senses the friction between father and son.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLUMBUS")
HALEY LU RICHARDSON: (As Casey) Why aren't you at the hospital?
JOHN CHO: (As Jin) Nothing's changed, you know?
RICHARDSON: (As Casey) You could talk to him.
CHO: (As Jin) This isn't the movies. Nothing's going to happen.
RICHARDSON: (As Casey) You know, there has been research...
CHO: (As Jin) I don't want to talk to him. We never talked. He was never interested. Why should I bother him now?
GREENE: John Cho told us that this is the most nuanced part he has ever played.
What did you learn about yourself as an actor or as a person in...
CHO: Oh, jeez...
GREENE: ...Playing such a subtle role?
CHO: ...Big question (laughter).
When I was younger, I think that that machine, the one-eyed machine was very scary, so you just try and please it. And...
GREENE: The camera - play to the camera.
CHO: The camera - and give as much as you possibly can. And as I get older, I'm just trying to be - and it's very difficult (laughter). I'm not a natural-born actor. So it's been a very slow learning curve for me. But this film was a great opportunity for me to try and grow in that regard.
GREENE: Now, when John Cho got his break, it was as one of Hollywood's best-known stoners. He starred as Harold in "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." That movie came out in 2004, and just listen to how it advertised Cho in the trailer.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: New Line Cinema presents that Asian guy from "American Pie."
GREENE: That Asian guy from "American Pie" - did that bother you back then?
CHO: Looking back on it, I'm more onboard with that joke than I was at the time (laughter). I...
GREENE: But did it bother you back then?
CHO: Yeah. It bothered me back then more than it does now. It doesn't bother me anymore.
GREENE: What - is - has Hollywood changed? Is that why you might not be bothered listening back to it?
CHO: My feeling, ultimately, is that there are more Asian faces. I'm just not sure that there are enough Asian faces in roles that matter, that drive narratives. But I'm sure it's changing.
GREENE: But how does Hollywood increase diversity without falling into stereotypes? Cho said he thinks that his new movie may find that balance pretty well. We spoke to him in our studios at NPR West.
CHO: One of the things that I liked about the script was - it's very confident in its identity. And what I mean by that is, you know, race and ethnicity are such a - you know, we obsess about it in America so much. And everything is either playing to a type or playing against the type. And they're really just two sides of the same coin. You're still ensnared by the trap of race.
And as a story, this - race exists very naturally. It's simply a component of this person's identity, and it doesn't drive the narrative. But neither is it ignored. And it's - I think it's a very difficult balance to achieve, and it requires a deft touch.
GREENE: Did you achieve that balance here, do you think?
CHO: I think so, yeah.
And, you know, I'll tell you a story that made me realize how comfortable I was with it, which is - particularly since I've done a lot of comedies, I've been asked a few times in my career - if my character is recalling one of my parents - my dad said, leave me alone. And I've been asked, can you imitate your father's accent? So they would ask me to say, you know, (imitating accent) leave me alone.
And I always resisted that. I didn't want to do the accent for a laugh or - I just didn't want to give that to them, and it didn't seem natural. And there was a scene in the movie where I'm recalling - my character's recalling his father. And I did an accent, and it just happened. And I realized I had a totally different and unique posture to politics and race in this movie.
GREENE: I read that you were really interested in exploring Korean culture and film. Did this movie give you what you were you were looking for?
CHO: Yeah. So I've been wanting to tell - you know, this - that impulse goes back to - I'm sorry I'm answering your question in a roundabout way.
GREENE: No, no. Don't worry.
CHO: For a while, I was feeling like I was always playing characters that weren't specifically Korean or specifically Asian even - that they were characters who were originally written white and then they would cast me. And I used to consider that a badge of honor because that meant I had avoided stereotypes.
And then on the other hand, as I got older, I started to become resentful that they weren't written Asian. And so their family history doesn't quite match up. It exists in this, like, cinema fiction that their name is Smith but they're - has an Asian face and their character history doesn't seem authentic. And it all felt - I was having a problem feeling like, this doesn't feel real.
And so that's where my impulse comes from. I wanted to explore Korean-American characters. And "Columbus" did address that. The father-son dynamic felt very real to me.
GREENE: Your father's roots go back to North Korea, right?
CHO: Yes, my father was born in North Korea.
This is creepy. You know a lot.
CHO: Yeah, he was born in what is now called North Korea. Of course, he wasn't - it wasn't North Korea at the time; it was just Korea - and, as a boy, walked south when the war broke out. So I'm very interested in - I don't know. Whenever I meet a Korean, I ask about their immigration history.
CHO: It fascinates me to know all those red lines on the map will go back to the same place. And, you know, it's almost like a glass shattered and the shards went all over the place. And I'm just - that is intellectually interesting to me.
GREENE: Does "Columbus" sort of - did it give you a new kind of awakening when it comes to subtle characters...
CHO: I will say...
GREENE: ...Like this?
CHO: Absolutely. And I've had a couple of points in my career where it was tough to find the joy in acting. Once it becomes a job and you start getting checks and you get a mortgage and kids and all that stuff, you have to work at being delighted to work. And "Columbus" - it was just a real, I don't know, revitalizing project for me.
GREENE: That's great to hear. John, thanks for coming by. We really appreciate it.
CHO: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOONLIT SAILOR'S "CLARITY")
GREENE: That was the actor John Cho. His new movie is called "Columbus."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.