John Cho will immediately crack wise if you call him on it, but he's become a bona fide movie star. The Korean-born talent has been acting professionally for over a decade, but it was 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle that made a Cho a leading man, playing Harold opposite Kal Penn's Kumar. With the long-anticipated sequel Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, the franchise seriously ups the ante of socio-political humor that struck a nerve in the first film. Meanwhile, Cho, has inherited the role of Hikaru Sulu from George Takei in J.J. Abrams big-budget theatrical reboot of Star Trek. I spoke to Cho when he came to San Francisco for two recent occasions: WonderCon 2008 and the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival. He promoted Harold & Kumar at both events, as well as his new indie film West 32nd. He also couldn't avoid questions about Star Trek.
Groucho: I just want to ask about the new opportunities this film presented for you. For your character there's some new territory here, I'm sure.
John Cho: Yeah. Yeah, you mean in terms of what it was like to make this second one?
JC: This one was just—you know, the primary thing about the first one was that we weren't—Kal and I didn't know each other, and we worked on that. Getting to know each other as quickly as possible. So this one, we just had the advantage of being friends, real friends. So it was just really easy. And I felt like we could focus on—instead of working on that—we could just focus on making the funniest movie possible—
G: I saw earlier this week your film West 32nd.
JC: Oh you did? Okay, cool.
G: What drew you to that project? Your career's kind of taking off, and to do an indie film—
JC: Well, I--West 32nd is a crime thriller that takes place in Manhattan's Koreatown. And being Korean, I've gotten numerous Koreatown scripts, as I like to call them, with plots set in Koreatown that Asian-Americans have written or Korean-Americans have written. And this one—I'd wanted to do something set there, but there was nothing that was right. And I liked this one because of a couple things: it was set in New York. I thought it was—just like, for me, Harold and Kumar's racial and social jokes don't play without the jokes. It's like the jokes are primary, and then that kind of commentary's secondary. The take on Koreatown in West 32nd was that stuff was secondary to the mystery plot, which appealed to me. And there was a second thing that I thought was very interesting about the character, and I wanted to explore this, was an Asian guy who fetishizes Asian culture. And I thought that was just an interesting character trait, so that's one thing I was trying to think about. I've met Asian guys who seemed—and I can't really pinpoint it. You know, I can't quite put my finger on it, but it feels like there are some Asian guys who are kind of Asianophiles, you know. It's weird—It's a tender spot in American culture today. It's really weird. We're so obsessed with race. And we can't really talk about it in an open way. It's a weird thing. And so I think it's good [Harold and Kumar]—it's a good place to start: why not laugh about it—?
G: That other movie that's coming up is an action movie, and I'm curious what kind of training you did. I know you have a fight scene.
JC: I'm not going to confirm, deny. I really—I'm so scared! It's a giant machine...But yes, I met Leonard Nimoy. He's unbelievable. He's got the weight and is a very worldly man—I always think that Leonard Nimoy is the real Asian on the show.
JC: But yeah, it was big shoes [to fill]. And I had lunch with George [Takei] before we started filming. And I wrote him a letter. And we met. And he gave me what amounted to a blessing. In his typically classy way, he said—I told him I was nervous, and he said, "Hey, relax, pretty soon people are going to refer to me as the guy that played the old version of John Cho"—I can't tell you how cool it feels to put on the outfit, look at yourself in the mirror. You go, "Holy shit." And then take yourself and your outfit over to the bridge of the Enterprise. You're looking around, and you know, you're on the bridge of the Enterprise. It's kinda crazy. It's really insane—I was a casual fan. I wasn't—I was—kind of it was—it felt—it was already old by the time I came to the United States. Star Wars was the thing that came out when I was here, and it was nutty, and I was a big fan of that. But as I got older and just started watching—catching it on the tube, I was a fan. It was just different from anything anyone was doing in terms of—it seemed to be such a true sci-fi show in that it used sci-fi to deal with present-day issues. It was so literary, you know—?
G: So John, you spent a few years as a workaday actor before you became a movie star, really—
G: With the Harold and Kumar franchise. Do you foresee a future entry and do you think there's a limit on how far you could take these characters or would want to?
JC: There must be. And I don't know what the next step for Harold and Kumar will be—would be, theoretically. I mean, this seems to be—we seem to be at the limit. I mean, maybe we'd have to switch drugs. Go harder. I don't know. Especially with the social and political humor. How much more could we do? So yeah, I don't know. I'd be interested as anyone else to see what the writers come up with next—Thank God I'm not writing it—I think we have to go to heaven. Harold and Kumar go to Heaven. I don't know. I'd certainly be up for it. I just don't know what we could do—Listen, if there's demand—we'll just see how this one does. The first one wasn't a big hit. It's good that we're here, but we're lucky that we're here. And it's because of the buying activity of the fans that we're here. If this second one does well, then there's going to be talk of a third one. And then we'll all look at the ideas.
G: Have you had any real-life brushes with the current administration?
JC: No. We—we're not calling each other so much—To be honest, by the time I got to the end of the script, I was scared. I thought that they're going to open an FBI file for sure on us. And as a matter of fact—I can't remember when this was; it must've been sometime after filming—I got a new cordless phone in the house, and as it turned out, the range was not enough. I didn't know to buy—what the gigahertz meant. And as a result I was hearing a clicking. And I think it was the phone trying to switch channels automatically, to find a signal, but I kept hearing this clicking, and I thought, "They've found me. They tapped my phone." Which is mad—
G: This film is a "party movie," and there's been some talk about how the early screenings have been events that have that party atmosphere. Can you talk a little bit about how audiences are reacting to the film?
JC: I've seen it with one audience. It was at South by Southwest: an Austin audience. And it was absolutely insane. You couldn't hear anything. We lost—they lost—a good twenty-five percent of the dialogue. There was just so much raucousness. I was shocked. I'm shocked, how big it was playing there. Hopefully that's an indication and not an anomaly—I hope San Francisco likes this movie. Just on a personal level, San Franciscans' opinions or the Bay Area's opinion of my work matters a lot to me. And they've been very supportive in the past, and I've had several movies play at this festival. So I just hope San Francisco likes it, you know. I'm not sure if they'll be as raucous, but that'd be a pleasant surprise.
G: Sometimes in showbiz, you find yourself in unexpected situations. Have you ever been in a hairy situation or in over your head in a manner even comparable to Harold—you've never been in an orange jumpsuit, I'm sure.
JC: I don't know. I don't know about in show business, but I was just relating to someone in the other room earlier: I went to college at Berkeley, and I was driving up from L.A. one summer. I was going back to school, and my car broke down on the 5. And ended up—I mean, I didn't have a AAA card for some reason. And was jogging on the 5, trying to get to the next town before sunset. And I got picked up by some CalTrans workers, had my car towed to Los Banos—(Laughs.) It's not the greatest. They call it Los Banos for a reason. And then I had to take a Greyhound to town, had to transfer in San Jose, but transfer never came because that bus broke down. The Greyhound station closed. I had to leave the station, catch a cab to a Motel 6, and when I got in the cab, a homeless woman jumped in with me. It was just the worst traveling day of my entire life—
G: Regarding Star Trek, in what small ways might your performance pay homage to George's work, and how do you see the character: what kind of background work did you do to approach the role?
JC: I probably can't talk about—I can't really answer that question fully, but I'll just say in general what I did and what everyone else is doing is trying to pay homage to the first, the series, but also do something new, put our own twist on it, do something younger, a little bit more athletic. And I think you'll see that in all aspects. It seems like you could do a Takei imitation. You have a deep voice.
G: [Doing Takei:] "Well, I might be able to—"
JC: (Laughs.) You can get pretty in there! I can't—
G: What are your ambitions moving forward as an actor? Do you ever think you might move forward into writing or directing? Do you want to do more stage work?
JC: Sure. All of the above. I mean, writing and directing is some—I'll wait for—it's not until I have a really great—a story that I must tell. Because, you know, directing and writing a movie is a crazy, long experience. You know, as an actor, I get to be a bit of a—I don't know, I get to jump from one project to another, enjoy my time on set and move on to the next one. And, you know, with pre-production, production, and post, and then promoting it, it's just the commitment to a film from that side is enormous. So I just don't want to look for a vanity project is what I'm trying to say. I'd just like to look for a story that I kind of have to tell before I go to the grave. And that's what'll probably lead me to fall on my face directing—
G: You recently were in town for WonderCon, and got to meet fans maybe a little bit. Could you characterize what your interaction with fans has been like, relative to Harold and maybe also fans looking forward to Star Trek?
JC: You know, I'm not sure that I had met enough to be able to characterize the Star Trek fans. They do have more wardrobe (pause for effect) than Harold and Kumar fans. They're more committed to the look, replicating the look. (Chuckles.) Although I've seen—some other people forwarded me things on the internet where people dressed like Harold and Kumar too. Yeah, I don't know. Seeing as how the movie hasn't come out yet, I sense a bit of trepidation. Just the slightest twinge there. Basically saying, "Don't do us wrong." You know, so hopefully that'll change when the movie comes out.
G: Do people expect you to be like your characters: do fans offer to smoke you out?
JC: I don't even think it's "expect"—I think they just assume it. And I'm not. And the funny thing with American Pie is I think people thought I was king of a vast porn empire. (Chuckles.) I'm not sure if they really believe that. Yeah, you know, you just have to roll with that—
G: You finished shooting, I think, a film in Korea that's upcoming? Is that right, or no?
JC: You know, I think that's an IMDB error.
G: Oh, okay.
JC: And I was not on Family Feud, either. That's just something that's on there. (Laughs.) "How was the Feud?" "No."
G: Has there been any talk in the Harold and Kumar camp about how the New Line merger might affect the future of the franchise or the current promotion?
JC: I think we feel okay about it, but yeah, you never feel great about your company being touched, 'cause New Line's been good to us. And hopefully—I think Warner Brothers is—my information is that Warner Brothers has seen the movie and is reacting very positively to everything else. So I think we're in a good place, but yeah, we were worried. Yeah. It's not good—
G: It looks as if you have a scene with a deer. Did you actually film with a deer, or is that CGI?
JC: Both. Yeah, both. And in the first one, that was—I just want to clarify—some of that was with a real cheetah. Which is scary.
G: Well, they say never work with kids and animals. But you came out okay, right?
JC: Barely. I think there was—they keep the—I was really scared that day, I don't mind telling you. Because—because it's a cheetah, number one. But, you know, animal wrangers are always like "Ohhh, don't worry, don't worry."
G: They're always wrong.
JC: They kind of keep—to make the cheetah growl, they have to keep him a little hungry. Or a little irritated. Or something. You know. They don't growl 'cause—you can't really train 'em that way. So that made me nervous. And also the trainer was holding the cheetah by a chain. Not a post. A chain, with the hands. And it was like a few feet from us, it growled at us, and it could have—I was thinking the cheetah could easily break free from this, or drag the trainer a few feet to where we were. It was scary.
G: Speaking of Harold and Kumar Go to Heaven.
G: I swear I'm not looking for a spoiler here, but you've said prior to this that you did some fight training for Star Trek, which is an action movie.
G: And I notice you have a bandage there [around your right palm and wrist]—I don't know if that--is that an on-set injury?
JC: Craft services. Um, just the—I was going for the almond dispenser. And there was an awkward—uh—. [Later in the day, Cho confirmed to a San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival audience that the injury was indeed from working on Star Trek.]
G: But can you talk a little bit about doing an action movie? Was that exhilarating, daunting, what was the training like?
JC: Well, I will say this, that the training was great. I really appreciated kind of a preparation time as far as fight training and stuff, because it was sort of like simulating the Starfleet Academy. And it just felt like we'd gone through something together. And it was exhausting, you know. So that just kind of put me in a kind of a military mindset.
G: So other cast members also participated in the fight training?
JC: Geez, you are cornering me. I will not—maybe, maybe not.
JC: (leans into the recorder) And the ending of the movie is, um-- (Laughs.)
G: You've done some pilots in the past, and I wonder if you feel kind of burned on the TV experience, or if the right show came along you might settle into a run.
JC: Yeah, I mean—pilots are tough. You're gambling, and you know, sometimes it doesn't go, but if the right show came along, I guess you have to. It's sort of like—it's a bit like love. You have to go where your heart takes you. Again, if the script is good, you have to go for it—
G: Have you lined up what your next project might be on film, or TV?
JC: No, I've got to take a little break. And get some sleep.
G: I know you talked to George Takei in prepping for Star Trek. And now, he always gets asked about you, and you always get asked about him. And one of the things he said is (paraphrasing) "Well, he's going to be really tested in his acting because he's older now starting than I was when I started."
G: Do you have any personal concerns—since the franchise might go for another decade—you know, keeping in shape for the role?
JC: Uh, yes, I've made a deal with the devil.
JC: And hopefully that'll—no, yeah, yeah, I do have some concerns, and we'll see. But maybe my Asian genes will come into play—
JC: And, uh, I'll be alright.
G: Alright. Thank you very much.
JC: Alright, thanks!