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John Cho, star of Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ is simplifying his creativity—and you should, too

Cho explains how an injury on set gave him a new outlook, and how he’s getting his creativity back to basics.

John Cho, star of Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ is simplifying his creativity—and you should, too
[Photos: Geoffrey Short/Netflix; Kirsty Griffin/Netflix]

Listen to the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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It took John Cho tearing his ACL to let go of the anxiety that he felt stepping into one of his most high-profile projects to date.

Cho plays the lead role of Spike Spiegel in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the beloved anime Cowboy Bebop. The complex bounty hunter chasing criminals across space amassed a die-hard following since the show’s initial run in the late 1990s, which has put Netflix’s version under particular scrutiny from fans and critics.

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For Cho, playing Spike was a manifestation of the headspace he’s been in lately, of being very intentional with what he wants to explore as an actor.

“It was so wonderfully weird, and it was such a collision of different genres that, in its totality, it seemed like the most dream job I could ask for,” Cho says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “I had always wanted to play in noir and westerns and sci-fi. And the dialogue was unusual and sparkling. The world was completely interesting and funny, and it just was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”

That excitement screeched to a halt when Cho tore his ACL while filming a scene. The production shut down for months while Cho was recovering, and that time gave him a new perspective on Cowboy Bebop—and on future projects—that he didn’t have before.

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“[Initially,] I was very much focused on my part—when I was done, when I was starting, conditions for my performance,” he says. “And [when] I came back, and I was thinking much more about how are we going to get through this? Is the show going to be good? Does this episode make sense? Do these characters follow from one episode to the next?”

“I think I did come back better than I started,” Cho continues. “The show of faith from Netflix and our producers to suspend [production] and come back with me released me from the anxieties that typically plague me. I was like, ‘Okay, everyone’s behind me. I’m going to come in confident.’ It allowed me to think more freely about the character and to feel more freely about the character.”

In that freedom, Cho is learning how to simplify his creative process.

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“When I was younger, I took pride in doing difficult things and performing difficult scenes, and now I take no pride in that,” he says. “What I try to do is make everything as simple as possible. I try, in a scene, to set up things so that I have to do as little work as humanly possible to feel things, to be authentic.”

Check out highlights of Cho’s Creative Conversation in which he talks about how fellow actor Willem Dafoe changed his point of view (quite literally), rekindling his lost music days as the frontman of the indie rock band Viva La Union, and finding the childlike joy in creativity.

How Willem Defoe changed his perspective

“We were doing a scene [in Pavilion of Women], and I have a tendency, to look askance when I’m thinking and composing my words, which is something I do in real life. And I was doing that in the scene that we were doing. He said, ‘John, may I give you a note?’ And that’s not typical. You’re not supposed to, technically as an actor, give another actor notes. But I welcomed it. He said, ‘I notice you look around when you’re thinking. Try the scene looking directly at me and see what happens.’ It was the smallest thing that I’m ashamed to say it took me years and years and years to really look people in the eye and completely focus.

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“What was incredible about that, after years of really trying to hold that gaze and look into a person, was how much easier things became because I was receiving so much that I realized I was ignoring before. If there is a single creative journey that I’ve been on, it is encapsulated in that.”

Reconnecting with music

“I’m starting to think about everything creative in a different way where I’m not thinking about building anything. I’m just following what speaks to me. And the reason I mentioned my son’s music interest is probably, it sounds stupid to say, it’s just reignited my interest in creating music. Just finding the simple pleasure [of,] those two chords sound really interesting and fun together—let’s play. Just finding that sense of play. I was disconnected from that for a long time in all kinds of things, and I’m reentering that phase of my life, becoming a baby again.”

Back to basics

“If you can get to a place where [your creativity] is completely free of weight, that’s the place where you want to be. Whether it’s the coupling of five or six words in a sequence that brings a smile to your face, that’s where you want to get to. If you’re playing a scene, and you are connected to that other person and you feel intimate with them, that’s just pleasurable. For me, it’s just working very hard to get to simplicity and to where children can access it in an instant. And as an adult, as the years go on, it’s harder and harder every year to return to that place. That’s our job, to work toward simplicity and purity and fun and connection.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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