John Cho sometimes has a hard time taking life in Hollywood seriously. The actor was born in South Korea but grew up in the United States, and he says his experiences are vastly different from the deprivation his father saw as a child in what is now North Korea.
"My dad tried to eat [tree] bark, he was so hungry," Cho says. "Whenever I'm on my way to a premiere or something, I always have a good laugh in the car ... because it's all so absurd — I'm one generation removed from starvation."
Cho's new film, Columbus, explores the cultural chasms that exist between different generations of immigrant families. His character, Jin, travels from Seoul, South Korea, to Columbus, Ind., after his estranged father falls into a coma there. Jin feels obligated to come to his father's bedside, despite the fact that they haven't spoken in years.
Cho says he's close to his family, but he understands how complicated issues of family and obligation can be. He says the film "felt like it was an unwelcome reflection of my own life. Immigrant children have to deal with this clash of cultures, what's expected from their parents [and] from this culture that they didn't grow up in."
On moving from South Korea to the U.S. as a child
I remember it. I was young enough ... where I could learn the language pretty quickly. And as a kid you're very adaptable, but I remember being traumatized going to that first day of school and not knowing the language. I mean, it's just crazy to think about now because I have children of my own and thinking about dropping my kid off at a school where he didn't know how to communicate with anyone, he couldn't tell if he was hurt, he wouldn't be able to express that. On the other hand, I learned how to swim, that's for sure.
On how absorbing American culture led to clashes with his parents
I remember reading, as a kid, a Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and I remember reading Peter, the main character, was told, "Go to your room!" by his parents. And he said, "Be glad to!" and stormed off to his room. And I thought, Wow. That was cool!
And I was told that by Korean immigrant parents — "Go to your room!" — one night, and I pulled that out of my hat and said, "Be glad to!" and promptly received a thrashin', a full-on beat down. ... I've been thinking about that in some form, this cultural disconnect between parent and child, all my life.
On how his family's frequent moves helped prepare him for acting
I've often reflected that ... the trauma that I'm trying to master by being an actor is this central trauma of being a new kid, being unable to speak. ... The scariest thing is to go into a new situation for myself, and yet I have a job where I do that every few months, meet a hundred new people and then have to perform in a very highly pressurized environment. And why would I do that to myself? You'd think I would avoid it. But I think I'm trying to probably master it by leading this nomadic, itinerant lifestyle. Essentially, I'm moving and going to new schools every few months.
On what his parents thought of him pursuing a career in the arts
I think my parents were surprisingly cool with me entering the arts. Although, I think they thought it was going to be a phase and they didn't expect me to actually stick with it, and rightfully so. They were concerned whether I could afford groceries, being an actor.
But I've said this before: I feel like immigrants sometimes — they're such risk-takers. Because I can't imagine moving to another country. They're pioneers; they're cowboys. And yet they often encourage really conservative choices from their children, which makes sense.
And then on the other hand, I sometimes wish immigrant parents would talk about happiness more with their children, and the pursuit thereof, because they're guilty of pursuing happiness as well. I think that's the problem: They feel guilty about pursuing their happiness, so they frame it in terms of duty and obligation. And they said, "We came here for your education," which I'm sure is true, but I think it's also true they wanted to be happy elsewhere.
On avoiding projects in which Asian characters are the butt of the jokes
Early on I just started saying, "I don't want to go in for those." And I had no right to [say that] — I had no experience, had no standing in the business, as it were, but it struck me as not worth it to do that. So I just tried to say no to those auditions. ...
But I remember very early on — I can't remember what job it was — being asked to do something that I was slightly uncomfortable with politically in that sense. ... I think it was laughing at an accent or something like that. ... But what people don't really see is when you perform that, particularly back in the day, there are no other people of color on set. It was all white men laughing at this joke about Asians. And I remember thinking, This feels terrible. This feels wrong and I don't ever want to feel this again. And so I've tried my best to avoid those situations.
On the first time he read the script for Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
It was really funny, really clever, really raunchy, but really funny and smart, and it said things about race that were funny to me and that were insightful. It was very insightful and it pushed back against certain stereotypes, and I liked that. ...
A little tidbit: There was stuff in the movie that didn't quite make the cut. [The directors] had written in more verbiage about being Korean and being Indian. They wrote that stuff with a heavy hand, because they were afraid that an executive at some point would try ... to change the characters' race to white. And so they felt, as a defensive measure, that it would be wise to put as much cultural data in the script as possible, so people wouldn't get that idea.
Lauren Krenzel and Therese Madden produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, actor John Cho, may be best known for playing Harold in the "Harold & Kumar" stoner comedy films or for his role in the recent reboot of the "Star Trek" films playing Sulu, the role originated by George Takei. Now, Cho stars in the film "Columbus," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. He plays Jin, who's estranged from his father, a scholar in architecture. Just before the father is supposed to give a talk in Columbus, Ind., he has a stroke and falls into a coma. Jin is called to Columbus from Seoul, South Korea, to be at his father's side. And once there, he feels obligated to stay. Jin befriends Casey, a young woman interested in architecture. Casey wants to leave Columbus to study architecture but feels that her mother, a recovering addict, needs her to stay.
John Cho spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a scene from "Columbus." Jin and Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson, are discussing Jin's dad, who remains in a coma in the hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLUMBUS")
HALEY LU RICHARDSON: (As Casey) Do you think he's got a chance to recover, even if it's just enough to go back to Seoul?
JOHN CHO: (As Jin) I hope not.
RICHARDSON: (As Casey) What?
CHO: (As Jin) Truth is, if I were in Korea, I'd be expected to be there when he died and to express sorrow in the most dramatic fashion. There's this belief that if you're not there when a family member dies, you're not adequately grieving. Their spirit will roam aimlessly and become (speaking Korean) - a ghost. Of course, my dad didn't believe in that [expletive]. It still would be expected of me.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: John Cho, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHO: Thank you for having me.
BALDONADO: So that scene in particular, you can feel the character struggling with what the right thing to do is - what it's like to be a dutiful son. And what's great about this movie for you, for people who've followed your career is that you get to do something that I don't feel like we've seen you do before - sort of get deep like this. Was that difficult? Was it sort of hard to sort of deal with these issues of family and obligation?
CHO: I think particularly immigrant children have to deal with this clash of cultures - what's expected from their parents from this culture that they didn't grow up in. I remember reading as a kid the Judy Blume book, "Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing." And I remember reading Peter, the main character, was told to go to your room by his parents. And he said, be glad to, and stormed off to his room. And I thought, wow, that was cool. And I was told that by my Korean immigrant parents, go to your room, one night. And I pulled that out of my hat. I said, be glad to, and promptly received a thrashing (laughter).
BALDONADO: I didn't go over...
CHO: A full-on beat down.
BALDONADO: ...the same way. It was a different Peter.
CHO: It was a, oh, you were in trouble then? Oh, you're in trouble now, kid. So yeah, (laughter) I've been thinking about that in some form - this cultural disconnect between parent and child all my life.
BALDONADO: One thing that's interesting in the film is, you know, Jin's father, who's sick, was an architectural historian, an architecture expert. And at one point, Jin says that he hates architecture - I think sort of as a reaction to what his parent loves.
CHO: I hate Benny Goodman, they used to say. I prefer the Stones.
BALDONADO: So - yeah, I was wondering if you'd talk about that. And I was wondering if that factored into acting at all. I'll put it out there. You know, Asian-American sometimes get pushback if they want a career in the arts.
CHO: Oh, yes. You know, I think my parents were surprisingly cool with me entering the arts, although I think they thought it was going to be a phase. And they didn't expect me to actually stick with it. And rightfully so, they were concerned with whether I could, you know, afford groceries being an actor. But, you know, I've said this before, like, I feel like immigrants sometimes, you know, they're such risk takers because I can't imagine moving to another country. And they're pioneers. They're cowboys. And yet, they often encourage really conservative choices from their children.
BALDONADO: So I want to ask you a little bit about your background. You were born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. when you were around 6. Is that right?
CHO: That's correct.
BALDONADO: Do you remember that move? Was it difficult to make that big move?
CHO: I do. I remember it. You know, I was young enough to where I could learn the language pretty quickly. And as a kid, you're very adaptable. But I remember being traumatized going to that first day of school and not knowing the language. I mean, it's just crazy to think about now because I have children of my own and thinking about dropping my kid off at a school where he didn't know how to communicate with anyone. He couldn't tell, you know, if he was hurt. He wouldn't be able to express that. But on the other hand, you know, I learned how to swim, that's for sure.
BALDONADO: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue acting as a career?
CHO: I fell into acting in college. And then I did a professional show while I was in college called "The Woman Warrior." It was based upon the book of the same title. And it was there that I met actual live human being Asian-American actors. And I thought, oh, this is a job. You can do this. And that's when I started to, you know, sort of toss it around in my head. And I will tell you the moment where I thought, this is amazing. This acting gig is amazing.
We went to Boston to tour the show. And I must have been earning 200 bucks a week or something like that. And I got a studio apartment of my very own. And I had never slept in a room alone my entire life. In Korea, we slept - the whole family slept in one room on the floor. And then when it came to America, I always shared a room with my brother. And then I went to college and I had roommates. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was in a room, alone, laying down. And I thought, this acting gig, this is glamorous. Maybe I'll stick with it.
BALDONADO: A few months ago, Kal Penn, your co-star in the "Harold & Kumar" films, posted - on Twitter posted a bunch of pages from some of the worst auditions that he's been asked to go on, you know, the worst sort of stereotyped parts that he had to read for when he was starting out. Do you have any memories of, like, the worst kind of stereotypical parts that you were going to try out for - audition for?
CHO: You know, I - early on, I just started saying, I don't want to go in for those. And I had no right to. I was - I had no experience. I had no standing in the business, as it were. But it struck me as not worth it to do that. But I remember being - very early on - I can't remember what job it was - being asked to do something that I was slightly uncomfortable with, politically, in that sense. And my memory of it - I can still feel in my bones, which is that I was asked to do something - I think it was laughing at an accent or something like that, making fun of an accent.
But what people don't really see is, you know, when you perform that, particularly back in the day, there are no other people of color around set. It was all white men laughing at this joke about Asians. And I remember thinking, this feels terrible. This feels wrong, and I don't ever want to feel this again. And so I've tried my best to avoid those situations.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with John Cho, who stars in the new movie "Columbus." After we take a short break, they'll talk about his role as Harold in the "Harold & Kumar" films. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROYAL MUSIC PARIS' "CLOUND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with John Cho, who stars in the new film "Columbus" and plays Sulu in the "Star Trek" reboot.
BALDONADO: One of your big roles was in the 2004 movie "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." How did you come to get that role?
CHO: That role was based upon a guy named Harold Lee, who is a friend of the writers. And they wrote the movie with me in mind because Harold got mistaken for me all the time. And so the - I met Jon at a screening, and he gave me the script. And I thought it was a hoax. No one's writing - no white guy is writing a movie for a Korean-American guy. That's not possible, is it? This is a joke. It turned out to be real. And even when we got up to set, I didn't 100 percent believe that the movie was actually being made. It was so strange.
BALDONADO: Now, I will say, so this is a raunchy stoner kind of comedy aimed towards young people. But I think what's really interesting about it is that it complicated the image of Asian-Americans in film. Can you talk about why you wanted to do this role? Was that part of it, sort of this complicating the image of Asian-Americans, they can behave as badly as white kids, I guess?
CHO: The basic answer is it was available to me. It's not like - I felt like I was turning down stuff. But yeah, it was really funny. It was really clever, really raunchy but really funny and smart. And it said things about race that were funny to me and were - that were insightful. It was very insightful. And it pushed back against certain stereotypes. And I like that. And it was specific.
You know, little tidbit. Like, the directors - there was stuff in the movie that didn't quite make the cut. They had written in more verbiage about being Korean and being Indian. They wrote that stuff with a heavy hand because they were afraid that an executive at some point would try and - if they didn't do that, somebody would get the bright idea to change the character's race to white. And so they felt as a defensive measure, that it would be wise to put as much cultural data in the script as possible so people wouldn't get that idea.
BALDONADO: Now, you play Sulu, the character first played by George Takei, in the "Star Trek" reboot. The most recent one was "Star Trek Beyond." And in that most recent film, viewers learn that Sulu is gay and married, and has a daughter. And I read that you were originally worried about the Sulu character being gay, not for you, but you were just worried about what the original Sulu thought. What were your concerns?
CHO: Well, primarily, I was concerned that George wouldn't like it. And I thought that he would feel as though we were doing a disservice to him as an actor because he's - he portrayed a straight character, and then later in life, came out as gay.
And then - and I felt that he would feel that we were conflating character and actor, and that he might say, hey, I come out of the closet, and all of a sudden, Sulu's gay. Is it because you can't see anything but gay now, you know, if I come out of the closet? I felt that he might be sensitive about that. And that turned out to be incorrect. He was - he objected because it wasn't Roddenberry's - Gene Roddenberry, the creator's vision.
BALDONADO: The original creator.
CHO: He's the original creator. You know, looking back and having gone through it, I realize how positive it was and that people took it as intended, which was a way to sort of expand Roddenberry's diverse universe, you know, to take it a step further than he could at the time.
BALDONADO: I also read that you were one of the people who insisted that Sulu's partner be Asian. Why did you want that to be the case?
CHO: Well, you know, it was a little bit of a valentine to my gay Asian friends. You know, this may be presumptuous, but I feel like the family hang-ups preventing gay Asian men from loving one another because the shame leads them away from people who look like themselves - and so I wanted to posit a future in which, you know, that it mirrored more heterosexual relationships, where there's no shame factor - and so wanted to look hetero-normal.
And secondarily, I just feel like, sometimes I feel like, in American cinema, there's a lack of Asian people loving one another. And I, myself, am more often paired with people who are - women who are not Asian, than Asian. And sometimes I wonder, is that healthy? In any case, I felt that it was important for it to look - this gay relationship to look as, quote, "normal as possible." There was talk of, initially, was this person human? Is this an alien? And I said, no, it's - I really want this person not only to be human but to be Asian, as well.
BALDONADO: Well, John Cho, thank you so much for joining us on FRESH AIR.
CHO: Oh, what a pleasure to talk to you. It's - I - as I said, it's going to be a trip to see my own interview on my own podcast feed.
GROSS: John Cho spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Cho stars in the new film "Columbus." He's in the new season, season three, of the Hulu series "Difficult People." And in the fall, he joins the cast of the TV series "The Exorcist."
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Max Brooks, the author of "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "Minecraft: The Island," and the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, check out our podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD'S "A GO GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.