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It’s been a long time coming but John Cho is finally leading a studio picture – this week’s cyber-thriller Searching – but there is still so much more he wants from his movie career, and rightly so.
The Korean-American actor has been a Hollywood stalwart for the last 20 years, first catching audiences’ attention through his small but memorable role in 1999’s American Pie.
He’s since appeared in the stoner comedy franchise, Harold & Kumar, as well as enjoyed supporting roles in several TV shows and films including Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s rarely had the opportunity to headline a major studio release, and that’s not been lost on him or many fans.
Two years ago, the actor became the subject of the #StarringJohnCho social movement which highlighted the lack of representation for Asian-American stars in Hollywood by Photoshopping his face over white actors in major movies.
Now he’s playing the lead in Sony’s latest thriller, Searching, as a harried father looking for his missing 16-year-old daughter.
The film goes against the grain of conventional filmmaking by being shot entirely from the point of view of smartphones and computer screens. Yahoo Movies caught up with the actor to talk about his experience making it, his career, as well as what’s to come for Star Trek.
Yahoo Movies UK: People are really celebrating the fact that this is the first Hollywood thriller led by Asian-American actor but, at 46, is it a little bittersweet this opportunity wasn’t available when you were in your 20s?
John Cho: You know I’ve been thinking about that a little bit later. In some ways, it worked out for me in that I learned as I went and I feel as if just now I’m learning to act. It seems like for me, such a ridiculous problem that we’re still incrementally making progress. It’s hard not to see the absurdity of it, it’s ridiculous that it’s been going on for so long. I’ve known generations of Asian-American actors who have just really didn’t have the work available for most of their career.
I kind of want to get away from “firsts,” but when it comes to diversity Asian-American cinema seems to be having a moment. Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have come out recently. Do you think progress will happen faster now or will it take another 50 years for Hollywood to show more equal representation?
I certainly hope it’s not 50 years, I want to be more optimistic than that and I think there is certainly cause to be more optimistic. There are ways to get around gatekeepers in the way that there wasn’t before. Also, the economy is much more globalised than it was ten or 20 years ago so there is more of a financial incentive to not be patently restrictive with casting as studios were before.
In the last 20 years I’ve seen a rise in behind the camera talent as well as in front of the camera, in terms of writers and directors, so that could coalesce to a moment into something here, and whether it takes five years or 20 years I don’t know that’s too big of a question for me. I’m with you I want to get to a place where we get past the firsts. I’d loved to be overrated, overpaid and overexposed.
You’ve said in the past you turned down this role when you first got it because it was not shot in a traditional way. Was the experience better or worse than the filmmaking you’ve done in the past?
I mean it was both, for me the experience was one of discomfort because I couldn’t rely on anything that I knew before so for me acting is really talking to a person in the face, to their face, and sort of seeing what they’re doing and reacting and that’s the whole bottle of wax. That was not the case in this film, so some of that is generational. Michelle La, who plays Margot, she was very comfortable being in front of a webcam. I find that in my real life to be unsettling and it just makes me uncomfortable and difficult to be authentic, even when I’m just having a FaceTime conversation with someone.
I didn’t feel like I had a tremendous amount of control over my performance. It was really one angle and extreme close-ups so there weren’t any other angles to play with and a lot of physicalities was absent in the role so my body wasn’t much a part of the storytelling. The film elements were not necessarily difficult, it was just weird and all these kind of weird factors happening simultaneously.
Is that what you meant earlier about only now learning how to act?
I think I spent, and this is just a real personal thing, I spent the first half of my career being obsessed with two things. One was being scared of the camera on the set that I was sort of distracted by its presence and I’ve learned to make my peace with it and work with it. I know that sounds kind of ridiculous, or actor talky, it’s just an unsettling thing for me.
The second thing, I think I spent a lot of the early part of my career making sure the directors and producers were happy, kind of ignoring my own, you know, “did I feel happy with my performance, do I feel like I’m connecting with the other actor.” Not that that should be the only measure of success but I was certainly excluding myself from the conversation, but when I turned inward a little bit I allowed myself to do that, I felt like I got better at it, ironically. I wasn’t totally focused on other people when I allowed myself to be a participant in my own performance. I feel for the first time some measure of confidence in my performances that I didn’t when I was younger.
It’s interesting because Margot Robbie said something similar about having more confidence now to speak up on set than when she was younger. That with age she is in more control of her performance too.
That’s good to know that Margot Robbie thinks that she is old!
Didn’t you know? She’s 60. Her beauty regime is lit.
She’s the grand dame of Australia, yeah!
Your director on the film Aneesh Changanty is South Asian. Is there a difference in working with an ethnic minority filmmaker compared to a white one or is just work as usual?
It’s really just like a sense of solidarity when you’re starting. So when you say yes and you’re talking, and then afterward it’s gratifying to take this content to the world, show an Asian-American family, and do it with a director of Indian descent is really cool. My character who was an homage to Aneesh’s own father who is an engineer in Silicon Valley. He grew up watching these movies and didn’t see himself. When he got a shot he wanted to write an Asian-American character, so the whole thing feels like we got away with one. It feels like a little club, we did it, we somehow squeezed through the cracks.
So there is an increase in solidarity but you know, when it comes to the days work it’s the same and that’s actually what is lovely about it whatever you bring in. You have to get in there and do the work and you’re forced to cooperate. I do love how on a set so many different kinds of people work together.
Right. So I can’t leave you without asking about Star Trek. Is Simon Pegg right? Is Star Trek 4 in prep?
Yes, I believe so. I don’t have any details beyond that I’ve heard it’s happening but if you caught me, I might know something more next week so you might have interviewed me too early.
Just give me your number I’ll drop you a text.
Haha, absolutely. If you promise not to share it with anyone.
I promise. It’s sadly going to be the first one with Anton Yelchin. Has there been any discussion about how his absence will be addressed?
All I can say is I assume it will be addressed somehow because he was such a big part of our lives and we all loved him so much. I’m not sure how that will be done but I’m sure it will be discussion one, for me, when we get together.
Searching is in cinemas this Friday.