Leading Man in Waiting: Let’s Talk About John Cho
I read a lot of fan-castings. Of the myriad ways that fandom expresses its creativity and squee, I’ve always found the art of the fan-cast to be the most fascinating aspect of it all. It’s a giddy combination of armchair executive and industry interrogation, as most of the best fan-casts question and subvert the expectations of Hollywood’s archaic methods. Often, it seems as though the big suits at the major studios only know the names of ten actors, and half of them are all Chris. The same faces come up time and time again for the biggest roles, and they’re always the first figures mentioned when a major production is coming up. The industry has a very specific model in place for what it deems to be a popular, profitable face, and that outdated bias is smothering in its limitations. That’s what makes an effective fan-cast so striking: It forces you to acknowledge how subjective and utterly discriminatory the accepted methods are. It offers a direct challenge to what the biggest and most influential entertainment forces on earth have decreed to be the default hero.
A lot of the same names come up in these detailed and varied fan-casts. Everyone knows that Idris Elba should just be cast in every role and be done with it, but a name I see mentioned with comparable frequency is John Cho. I’ve seen him fan-cast in everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to Batman. As a romance reader, I’ve seen him as the model for so many novels’ dream movie cast in every mould of romantic hero, be it stoic alpha or geeky beta. He’s easily reached Internet Boyfriend status by this stage, cemented by the ultimate sign of appreciation: An ‘If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend’ post on the sadly defunct site The Toast.
Cho’s fan-casting king status isn’t just an organic evolution of the fandom world; it’s a political statement, and one led with a specific intent to exact change in the industry. Last year, William Yu started the hasthag #StarringJohnCho, which sought to show the world how the biggest films on the planet would look if they cast a Asian-American actor as their lead. It showed Cho in a whole spectrum of leading men roles: As the comedy star in This Is 40 and The Nice Guys; as the dashing hero if Jurassic World and the Mission Impossible movies; As the romantic ensemble player in Mother’s Day; Even as James Bond himself. The results were striking and the intent clear: Here is Hollywood’s most obvious choice for an Asian-American leading man, a talented actor with decades of work under his belt, and he’s going to waste.
#StarringJohnCho, of course, wasn’t just about John Cho. The hashtag came at a time when the conversation over Asian-American representation in cinema was more necessary than ever. Between Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Emma Stone in Aloha, the industry seemed to have doubled down on Asian erasure in cinema. This erasure is always defended with the same tired arguments, but the most prominent one is thus: There aren’t any major Asian-American stars capable of opening a blockbuster at the box office. Never mind that the industry has put zero effort into making Asian-American stars, they’ve clearly demonstrated that they have no desire to do so. Why else would they keep optioning adaptations of famous anime then casting white people? It’s not as if those white A-listers are paying out much these days, if the grosses for Ghost in the Shell are anything to go by. All the old excuses are dead now, but the lie remains in place. It’s sad and lazy and also super unfair to actors like Cho, who embody all the great qualities of stardom but are deemed too risky to cast because of their race.
Having started his career in bit-part roles in films on film and TV, including American Beauty and Bowfinger, Cho made his first big impression in American Pie as the unnamed MILF Guy #2 (eventually, his character would be named John in the sequels). He landed a role as a Vietnamese restaurant owner in Off Centre (Cho is Korean-American), a WB sitcom from the Weitz Brothers, ‘from the guys who brought you American Pie’, but that only lasted one season, which was mostly mired in controversy thanks to its raunchy content and subsequent protests from the ever-pointless Parents Television Council.
In 2002, Cho had substantial roles in two movies: The indie crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow and the teen comedy Big Fat Liar. Both films made a profit, and both revealed the contrasting attitudes towards Asian representation in American cinema. Better Luck Tomorrow, directed by Justin Lin, who would later go on to helm four films in the Fast & the Furious franchise, has a diverse Asian-American ensemble playing a group of over-achievers who dabble in petty crime for cheap thrills. Lin has stated that the film is an exploration of contemporary youth culture through an Asian-American lens, but also one that can be viewed as a universal experience. It was well received and is partly remembered today as the film that caused Roger Ebert to stand up against a white audience member at Sundance who asked Lin if he thought the film was an irresponsibly negative portrayal of his community. It’s a badass Ebert moment, but one that also highlights the impossible conundrum directors and actors of colour face: When there is so little representation of your life in pop culture, the little that gets attention must carry the unmanageable weight of generalised expectations.
For Cho, another 2002 film showed a more limiting and all too common scope for Asian-Americans on film as seen through the white gaze. Big Fat Liar is a cartoon of a movie, much in the same way most of the teen-aimed films of the mid-2000s era were. Cho’s role isn’t big but the role changed vastly under his guidance. In an AMA session on Reddit, he admitted that he had been asked to do an accent for the role, which he refused, saying, ‘I don’t want to do this role in a kid’s comedy, with an accent, because I don’t want young people laughing at an accent inadvertently.’ Director Shaun Levy agreed to make changes and so the role is without a racially charged ‘Asian accent’. Hearing that story is a sharp reminder of a crushing reality for so many actors of colour, and you can’t help but wonder how many times Cho and others like him have been asked to do that in auditions (it’s a problem Aziz Ansari tackled head-first in his Netflix series, Master of None). As noted by GQ, ‘in Cho’s entire career, he has not once played a character with a fake accent.’
2004 brought with it Cho’s first starring part, and it’s one that’s quietly revolutionary. The co-leading role of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was written specifically for Cho by Hayden Schlossberg, which Cho admitted to being confused about when first approached. A lot of the film is typical stoner comedy goofballs, but there’s a fascinating specificity to its humour and characters, rooted in the leading pair both being second generation sons of immigrants. Harold Lee is an investment banker dealing with the stresses of his job and being manipulated by his white co-workers, while Kumar is afraid of committing to his desire to be a doctor because he feels it will simply confirm stereotypes about Indian kids being forced into the occupation by their pushy parents. Given how many films in this genre are just about bland white kids sticking their dicks wherever they’ll fit, Harold and Kumar has the nerve to try for something deeper. It also paid off, as the film was a mild success but with the right demographics - college stoners - and the film evolved into a trilogy that’s grossed over $100m.
A success like that, even a modest one, would be expected to catapult its stars to the next level of fame and roles. That didn’t exactly happen with Cho. He starred in the TV series Kitchen Confidential, based on the Anthony Bourdain book, which was cancelled four episodes in. More bit-parts in film and TV followed, as well as the first Harold & Kumar sequel in 2008. It took five whole years for Cho to land the one-two punch of major exposure he deserved, and both in the sci-fi realm: The hotly hyped but quickly cancelled TV drama FlashForward and the big-screen adaptation of a little known show called Star Trek.
Hikaru Sulu, originally played by George Takei, was originally created by Gene Roddenberry as the stand-in for all of Asia in the Trek universe. For the reboot, Cho was approved by Takei himself, after director J.J. Abrams feared possible backlash to casting a Korean-American in a role originated by a Japanese-American. Cho is a damn good Sulu, but it’s easy to overlook that given how little he has to do in the first two movies. He’s driven but with that sly edge of a guy who’s probably smarter than everyone on board and knows it. Critic Elvis Mitchell had previously cited his ‘lazy magnetism’ in Better Luck Tomorrow, which captures the kind of effortless charm he exudes, even when there’s nothing to do but push a few buttons and give Chris Pine the stink-eye. He’s given far more of a role to work with in the third film, Star Trek Beyond, helmed by his old friend Justin Lin. There, we see Sulu with his husband and daughter, but we also get a richer depiction of the Enterprise’s crew, working together and each with a chance to use their own unique skills. You spend much of the films wondering why there isn’t more of Sulu, but you also know the reason why.
Cho continued to work steadily on film in between Sulu obligations, but it was TV that gave him something meatier. There was a supporting part on Go On, another one season wonder, then irregular appearances on the first season of Sleepy Hollow, but Selfie was the crowning moment, albeit one that will forever remain sinfully underrated. ABC’s modern retelling of Pygmalion suffered before its premiere due to an admittedly ropey title and a set-up that reeked of millennial stereotyping gone sentient. That’s seriously disappointing because the show itself is much savvier than was anticipated, but also an unabashed rom-com that allows Cho to don the mantle of romantic hero, and boy is he great at it. As Henry Higgs, the marketing image guru who takes the social media obsessed Eliza Dooley under his wing, Cho is charismatic to the hilt.
While many critics viewed the show as frivolous fluff, Cho knew the weight the role carried as a rare opportunity for an Asian-American man to be the romantic lead, something that hadn’t happened on American TV up to that point. Cho called it ‘revolutionary’, noting that ‘Asians narratively in shows are insignificant. They’re the cop, or the waitress, or whatever it is. You see them in the background. So to be in this position… is a bit of a landmark.’ It’s also a landmark to see a major network show portray an Asian-American man as sexual and sexy. Cho is unabashedly hot as Henry Higgs, and the series takes full advantage of that, with gif-friendly scenes of him lying on the bed with a champagne glass in hand as he coyly bites his lip. He pulls Karen Gillan close to him, the heat between them palpable, and it’s utterly seductive for Gillan and viewers alike. Sam Levin in the Guardian documented the limited on-screen opportunities for Asian actors, most of which are ‘highly emasculated, desexualised characters’ for men, while Asian women ‘regularly go up for parts as masseuses and sex workers or characters described as submissive, fragile or quiet.’ As actor Pun Bandhu laments to Levin, ‘We’re the information givers. We’re the geeks. We’re the prostitutes.’
The industry has created a harsher route to success for actors of colour, particularly Asian actors who make up a paltry 1% of lead roles in Hollywood, and it seems dead set on making the road even harder to navigate. The markers of success are higher for someone like Cho than any white actor of comparable success: Even two $100m+ trilogies with his name over the banner don’t count as much as being a mediocre white dude with ‘potential’. Cho also has to deal with being one of the few prominent Asian-American actors in the industry. #StarringJohnCho was part of that, and Cho himself has thought a lot about what that means. In an interview with Vulture, he noted, regarding the hashtag and its movement:
‘I really feel like it’s this collective dream that we all want to be a part of. Culture is this thing that exists apart from our real life but is something we all have tacitly agreed to in America. And what film and television do, particularly in this country, is lay out the characters involved in this invisible agreement, and dictate who and what can participate. So I feel like it’s tied up in this idea of personhood, that Asian-Americans are looking to be affirmed as real people.’
Koganada, the director of Cho’s latest film, the critically acclaimed drama Columbus, sums up Cho’s career succinctly in an interview with Vulture: He’s a hard worker and committed professional who people enjoy working with, one who loves his job and has the sufficient range to try it all, but not one to suffer fools gladly. His career has been limited by the industry’s racism, but that hasn’t limited his talent. Cho is always a joy to watch, even in the most thankless roles, and you constantly hunger for more from him because you know he’s capable of much more than he’s offered.
John Cho has a good career, but dammit, it could be great if Hollywood let it. Maybe they should check out a few fan-casts for inspiration.
So someone's already pitched John Cho for Spike in the Cowboy Bebop movie, right? pic.twitter.com/Y5mhWrHRMA— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 5, 2017
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