It was like a tiny drizzle before the downpour.
First, John Cho got a text from a friend asking whether he’d checked Twitter yet that day. Then he got another, and another. Suddenly, it was a full-on typhoon of texts and tweets that turned his phone into a malfunctioning buzzer. By then, he’d already seen what everyone was messaging him about.
A digital strategist named William Yu had begun flooding Twitter with movie posters featuring Cho seamlessly photoshopped into juicy leading roles. #StarringJohnCho depicted a parallel universe where the actor who plays Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek series also anchored romantic comedies, Marvel movies, and maybe even the James Bond franchise–despite the apparent Hollywood handicap of being Asian. The hashtag was trending, and it was about to ride a cresting wave of unrest on behalf of Asian-Americans into further awareness.
“I thought it was a great way to discuss these issues and it kind of caught people off guard,” Cho told me recently. “I’m just really grateful that the topic’s being discussed in earnest at all.”
He may have been unwittingly pulled into the discussion about Asian representation, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have anything to say about it already.
When Cho, who is 44, was growing up in the ’80s, Asians were often portrayed in movies as relative newcomers to America, rather than an integral part of the culture. Think: the Japanese car manufacturers in Gung Ho or the foreign exchange student, Long Duk Dong, in Sixteen Candles. Overall, representation has improved since then, obviously, but there are still plenty of movies and shows that portray college campuses and hospitals as magically devoid of Asian-Americans. Even though Cho eventually got to play Sulu, a character in an iconic American story, it’s something he still notices.
From the beginning, the actor tried to only take roles that bucked Asian stereotypes. It wasn’t that he outlined a specific career path, rather he just found himself saying no to certain parts, even at his own financial peril. He was sensitive to what the 12-year-old him would’ve appreciated seeing on-screen, and strived to avoid roles that would make that kid uncomfortable. He was mostly successful.
“Early on, I played a Chinese delivery person, and even that, which was very innocuous, felt like I was somehow betraying myself,” Cho says. “I felt very self-conscious on set doing that role, with a crew that was almost entirely white.”
John Cho first fell into acting when he was in college, an English major at UC Berkeley. One of the guys in his creative writing group was directing a student play and thought John might fit in the costume for a role somebody had dropped out of. He accepted the invitation and immediately vibed with the other “weirdos” he met at rehearsal. He’d found his people.
Soon, he started performing with the East West Players, a renowned Los Angeles theater company for Asian-American actors. It was little more than a hobby, until he landed a role in a touring production of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Because all the parts were Asian, he ended up working with a lot of professional Asian-American actors whom up until that point he had considered an exceedingly rare breed.
“I just never thought acting professionally was possible,” he says. “I think that had to do with me being Asian. I just didn’t think that you could make a living acting. But here were all these actors who looked like me, buying meals with money earned from acting. It blew my mind.”
In the first few years of his professional career, Cho was never invited out to auditions during pilot season, the primary time for casting regulars on TV series. In fact, he didn’t even know what pilot season was. Instead, phone calls from his agent increased during what he called Chinatown season—when shows like Law & Order would need a Vietnamese gang member for a Chinatown-set episode seemingly every winter. Since he claims he didn’t come off believably as a gangster, though, he never landed any of those roles. It was little more than a cameo, though, that ended up being the turning point in his career.
American Pie made John Cho the MILF guy, but it also got him his first major role. The writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg had wanted to base a movie off of their friend, Harold, and when they saw Cho in American Pie, they immediately wanted him for the part. Though the actor still had to audition for the title role in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, the part was more or less written for him to play. Even still, it was a struggle to ensure that Cho and Kal Penn (“Kumar”) would not get whitewashed.
In order to preserve the somewhat radically casual way the leads’ race is addressed, the writers had to pretend to double-down on ethnicity. The same way that goremeister directors will put in extra carnage to make sure the version they actually want looks tame by comparison, the first draft of the script had more material about growing up Korean and Indian–as a safeguard against executives who might change the race of the characters. The film was a hit, spawning two sequels and making John Cho an even more recognizable actor.
“There are a lot of Asian guys in America that have been mistaken for me since that movie,” Cho says. “I just hear that from people a lot. It is my sincere hope that a bunch of those men have gotten laid.”
#StarringJohnCho presumes the actor isn’t more often a lead because Hollywood won’t let him be one. This is not entirely accurate. He’s turned down bigger roles in scripts that he just didn’t take to for whatever reason. (“I don’t think it’s a great experience to have a big role in something you don’t feel good about,” he says.) What is troubling to him, though, is that in 2016 there are still some kinds of roles that he appears to be precluded from auditioning for.
“There’s a thing called Breakdowns that specifically say what the filmmakers are looking for, and they used to, when I would see them, they’d say, ‘Open to all ethnicities’ at the bottom,” Cho says. “That sounds great, but it also means when you don’t see that, it’s closed to other ethnicities. It means they’re implying with the other roles that these are for white people and now they’re open to casting non-white people.”
He adds, “I still get stuff like, ‘Oh well, we can’t cast John because we’ve cast another Asian.’ They’re counting those. To me, it’s wild that it’s acceptable to say that.”
It still happens sometimes that non-white actors will go in to audition for one role and knock it out of the park in such a way that the creators re-envision a larger role around them. According to Cho, though, one criminally undersung source of assistance for these kinds of catapult launches over the racial barrier is casting directors.
“I think casting directors really drive a lot of the diversity in Hollywood,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of casting director allies who will talk to a director or a writer or a producer and say, ‘I think you should consider casting a black woman in this role.’ I’m very grateful for the innovation in thinking that casting directors bring to the process. As a rule, I’d say they’re very progressive and open-minded people.”
Cho isn’t waiting around for casting directors to put him through the pipeline to the next level, though. Instead, he’s focused on developing a project for himself. As he’s watched the television space evolve into more sophisticated forms of storytelling over the last decade, he’s been looking for the right role within it. Recently, a writer came to him with a promising idea that Cho glommed onto, and the two have been pitching it out to potential buyers. He can’t say anything concrete about the project just yet, but we may indeed be seeing it soon.
Television has been an especially progressive place lately with a recent influx of Asian-American sitcoms like Fresh Off The Boast and Dr. Ken, and the most diverse batch of Emmy nominations ever. But in Hollywood it still seems to be a case of two steps forward and one step back. While casting directors may help build more diversity into the mainstream, they can’t do anything about the apparent hall pass in American culture to make fun of Asian-Americans in public. Even at an Academy Award Ceremony that had a special focus on #OscarsSoWhite discrimination this year, Asians were still considered fair game. Chris Rock famously made a joke that hinged upon Asian stereotypes, in front of one of the world’s largest audiences.
“Getting a gut punch from your hero sucks the worst,” Cho says. “I haven’t worked out the psychology of why people feel free to do that without consequence. Partly I put that at the feet of Asian-Americans. Maybe we need to get more pissed.”