John Cho is the first to laugh when describing how he began his career. “I wore the right size clothes.”
While attending college at Berkeley, Cho was part of a local writing group when one of his colleagues asked him how tall he was and how much he weighed. When he replied to the rather usual query, he was informed that some guy had dropped out of a play and he appeared to be the same size fit for the costumes. Would he do it? “I said yes and that is how I got started as an actor,” he smiles. “I had two lines but had a great time.”
That wasn’t quite the same standard applied when JJ Abrams was casting the latest big screen incarnation of STAR TREK. For the part of Hikaru Sulu, Cho was called into audition and then had to ‘sweat it out’ for months waiting for the decision. As fate would have it, the call came when the actor was on his honeymoon in Italy. “That was a very nice treat,” he adds.
Based on characters that were first introduced in Gene Roddenberry’s landmark 1966 television series, this version of STAR TREK is going boldly where none of the other ten films or five television versions have. In Abrams interpretation, audiences will be taken to the beginning and introduced to Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Lt. Uhura, Chekhov and Sulu; from their days at the Star Fleet Academy to their galactic adventures aboard the USS Enterprise.
For Cho, who has previously appeared in such comedies as AMERICAN PIE and HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO THE WHITE CASTLE, the chance to be in the film allowed him not only the opportunity to honor the groundbreaking role that George Takei introduced as one of the very first pro active Asian Americans ever appearing on screen; but also to satisfy his lifelong fantasy to appear in a western.
Now in case you are wondering how the science fiction fantasy would qualify as a western, Cho explains. “As an Asian American, there are two roadblocks that I face. One is I don’t look like most of the actors who are working so I can’t play their sons or brothers. The second is there are certain mythologies that I cannot do. One of them is the western but for me, STAR TREK is my western. With its themes, it follows the classic storyline of the genre so this is my chance to play cowboys and Indians.”
Because television was not the most racially sensitive back in its infancy, Cho recalls viewing as a child stereotypes that he could never fully identify with. What he found so appealing in the character of Sulu was the image of a man who looked like he did that was not throwing karate chops, laden with a thick accent or showcasing bad teeth. “This was why I was so interested in being in this re-imagination,” he proudly states. “I was keen on engaging this legacy.’
Having previously met Takei through some theater work, Cho was able to reconnect after he was cast and sat down with them man who created the character. “George was so gracious with his time. We went all over the place in our conversations but probably the greatest thing I came away with was watching his attitude towards life. He is so generous as a person. But we both knew that my job was not to recreate him. I didn’t want to mess with the mythology and upset people but in order to function, I had to let go.”
One of the things Takei couldn’t share with his young cohort is the technical training that was required for the part; mainly due to the fact that Abrams enabled Sulu to be a much more proactive character in the film. Several months prior to filming, Cho, along with his co-stars Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, were put through a rigorous boot camp learning such skills as sword fighting, boxing and martial arts. “I was the jack of all trades,” he admits. “I had to learn all different types of physical expression and doing stuff that I thought I could never do. I really found this to be the most important part of my preparation.”
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Cho immigrated with his family to the United States when he was six. Initially based in Houston, Texas, the family moved from Seattle to San Francisco before finally steeled in Los Angeles in 1978. After graduating with a BA in English, Cho proceeded to teach English at Pacific High School in West Hollywood while still pursing an acting career. Various theater roles led him to films, where he first gained attention with a small role in the 1999 comedy AMERICAN PIE, popularizing the slang term “MILF.” The young actor continued with small roles in AMERICAN BEAUTY, EVOLUTION, DOWN TO EARTH and BETER LUCK TOMORROW, a drama that focused on a group of Asian Americans living in Southern California who engage in violent, criminal behavior before eventually being cast in as one of the co leads in HAROLD AND KUMAR. In 2006, People Magazine selected him as one of the sexiest men alive.
One is sure that once again, Cho wore the right clothes.