Fi­nally in the lead

In ‘Colum­bus,’ John Cho gets to tap into his po­ten­tial as not only the in­die drama’s star but a ro­man­tic fig­ure as well


John Cho has close to 100 act­ing cred­its on the In­ter­net Movie Data­base, but only a hand­ful of those are lead roles. De­spite his as­so­ci­a­tion with two suc­cess­ful fran­chises (as Harold in the “Harold & Ku­mar” stoner come­dies and Sulu in the on­go­ing “Star Trek” saga) and de­spite his ef­fort­less charm, good looks and in­nate lik­a­bil­ity, Cho is rarely con­sid­ered a gen­uine movie star.

That’s one rea­son his turn at the cen­ter of the in­die drama “Colum­bus,” which pre­miered at Sun­dance to strong re­views this year and is play­ing in lim­ited re­lease, feels so over­due. Whether Hol­ly­wood wants to rec­og­nize it or not, Cho is in­deed a gen­uine movie star.

“It felt like a lit­tle bit of a dream,” Cho said in Los An­ge­les. “Projects this small and this un­usual are hard to make real, but it hap­pened. All of a sud­den, we got the call and I was in Colum­bus.”

Shot in 18 days with a bud­get just un­der $1 mil­lion, “Colum­bus” is a med­i­ta­tive drama about Jin (Cho), a man who re­turns to the U.S. from Korea to tend to his hos­pi­tal­ized father, an ar­chi­tec­ture ex­pert who was vis­it­ing the Mid­cen­tury Mod­ernist hub of Colum­bus, Ind., for a lec­ture when he sud­denly col­lapsed. In this most un­ex­pected of places, Jin forms a unique con­nec­tion with a col­lege-age lo­cal, Casey (Ha­ley Lu Richard­son), who forces him to con­front thorny feel­ings about fam­ily, re­la­tion­ships and ar­chi­tec­ture.

“It was such an un­usual story,” the 45-year-old Cho said of his ini­tial re­ac­tion to the script. “The tone was so del­i­cate, ev­ery­thing about it is un­con­ven­tional. When I closed it, I thought, ‘Who the hell could ex­e­cute these pages in the way that it de­mands?’ The names that came to my mind were fa­mous au­teurs — Richard Lin­klater or some­thing.”

But rather than an es­tab­lished master, “Colum­bus” is the work of first-time fea­ture film­maker Kog­o­nada. The sin­gle-monikered vis­ual artist is best known for his video es­says dis­sect­ing the work of au­teurs like Lin­klater (as well as Ing­mar Bergman, Stan­ley Kubrick and Al­fred Hitch­cock, among many others).

Although Kog­o­nada — who, like Cho, is

Korean Amer­i­can — wrote the char­ac­ter of Jin as Korean Amer­i­can, he ad­mit­ted his lead­ing man wasn’t ini­tially on his radar for the role.

“The chal­lenge in Amer­i­can cin­ema is you have these re­ally won­der­ful Asian Amer­i­can ac­tors, but there’s not a lot of op­por­tu­nity for these ac­tors to show their range,” Kog­o­nada said. “Be­fore I was in­tro­duced to John Cho, I didn’t know he had stud­ied theater. I didn’t know his whole back­ground.”

It was only at the urg­ing of film­maker and “Colum­bus” pro­ducer Chris Weitz, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor who first worked with Cho early in both of their ca­reers on 1999’s “Amer­i­can Pie,” that Kog­o­nada agreed to send the script to Cho.

“Jin is in some ways a rather self-ab­sorbed and cyn­i­cal char­ac­ter, and John has a way about him as an ac­tor that al­lows you to em­brace even those as­pects,” Weitz said via email. “He’s a canny ac­tor, he knows how to make mo­ments, he knows how to do a lot by do­ing very lit­tle.”

Cho wasn’t sure he could per­suade Kog­o­nada to give him the chance. “I’m sure he had his trep­i­da­tions about me,” Cho re­called of their first meet­ing, and ref­er­enced the “Amer­i­can Pie” role that cir­cuitously led to the job: “I’m ‘MILF Guy No. 2.” But the pair im­me­di­ately hit it off, bond­ing over shared ex­pe­ri­ences as im­mi­grants and se­ri­ous film buffs.

“What was ex­cit­ing to me in talk­ing to Kog­o­nada was I was just very con­vinced that he was a very real and pure artist,” Cho said. “He was so un­in­ter­ested in the com­mer­cial game. Some­times I feel in­die di­rec­tors are in the game so they can make a film to get hired to do a big film — that we’re all do­ing this per­son’s reel. This is not that guy.”

Land­ing Cho also meant Kog­o­nada had one of the few Asian Amer­i­can ac­tors work­ing to­day with a re­sume full of hit movies. How­ever, find­ing some­one to back the project was an up­hill bat­tle.

“We went through so many fi­nanciers who es­sen­tially said, ‘There’s no mar­ket value in an Asian male lead,’ and re­ally dis­missed it re­gard­less of who it was,” Kog­o­nada said. “For me, and maybe for peo­ple who have been in the in­dus­try long enough, that was no sur­prise at all. We did have to go through that un­til we found this in­cred­i­ble part­ner in Danielle Ren­frew Behrens and Su­perla­tive Films.”

For the many riv­et­ing dis­cus­sions Jin and Casey en­gage in on-screen, punc­tu­ated by equally riv­et­ing si­lences and beau­ti­ful im­agery cap­tured by Kog­o­nada’s keen eye, their re­la­tion­ship re­mains some­thing just shy of a true love af­fair. And yet “Colum­bus” is so at­tuned to its char­ac­ters’ emo­tional lives, it gives Cho the op­por­tu­nity to tap into his po­ten­tial as not just a lead­ing man but a ro­man­tic fig­ure as well.

That’s some­thing fans of the ac­tor’s crim­i­nally short­lived ABC com­edy series “Selfie,” which paired him op­po­site “Doc­tor Who” alumna Karen Gil­lan, know he’s es­pe­cially adept at play­ing.

“That’s a huge part of be­ing a hu­man be­ing, look­ing for love and find­ing a part­ner in this world. When you con­stantly play char­ac­ters who don’t have that life, it feels in­com­plete and not to­tally hu­man,” Cho said.

“That re­ally is the Asian Amer­i­can co­nun­drum, be­ing thought of as not hu­man. Some­times you’re su­per­hu­man like a com­puter, ‘Oh, you’re so smart,’ or sub­hu­man in the sense, ‘I’d never touch you with a 10-foot pole.’ Nei­ther of those is right. It’s not real. The thing is not so much to play ro­mance or to get the girl but to play hu­man. To go as deep as you can go with your heart and feel as much as you feel in real life. To achieve equal sta­tus in the hu­man­ity depart­ment.”

And while the in­ter­ac­tions in “Colum­bus” are more in­tel­lec­tual than erotic, the film also af­forded Cho an ex­pe­ri­ence that he didn’t ex­pect: his first nude scene.

“I wasn’t aware we were do­ing that, I would’ve prepped longer,” he said. “Kog­o­nada came to me and said he and Elisha [Chris­tian], our DP, were mak­ing a shot list and they felt like the shower [in Jin’s ho­tel room] was so un­usual. They wanted to put the cam­era back to cap­ture the whole thing, but ob­vi­ously that would mean a butt shot.

“To be hon­est, at that point I trusted [Kog­o­nada] so much I said, ‘If you feel like it’s gonna be great then let’s do it.’ The other thing was I said, ‘I’m not sure there has been an Asian Amer­i­can male [butt] in Amer­i­can cin­ema.’ I couldn’t think of one. This is mod­est his­tory that we’re mak­ing.”

Cho said his wife was sur­prised but ul­ti­mately gave her bless­ing. “I think my lawyer is the one who called me to say, ‘You didn’t sign a nu­dity clause, man.’ I said, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’ ”

Re­gard­less of whether “Colum­bus” changes Cho’s ca­reer, he’s al­ready lined up a series of projects. He plays a de­tec­tive in the neo-noir in­die “Gemini,” which pre­miered at this year’s South by South­west Film Fes­ti­val in Austin, Texas, and hits the­aters next year, and has a re­cur­ring role as Billy Eich­ner’s love in­ter­est on the up­com­ing third sea­son of the Hulu com­edy series “Dif­fi­cult Peo­ple.”

He’s film­ing a lead role for the sec­ond sea­son of Fox’s “The Ex­or­cist,” a 10-episode arc he said al­lows him to break more ground.

“Even though there’s a lot of hor­ror from Asia in the Amer­i­can cin­e­matic tra­di­tion, I hadn’t seen Asians at the cen­ter of it. [‘The Ex­or­cist’] traf­ficked in this im­agery of Amer­ica that I thought would be fun to shake up a lit­tle bit with my face.”

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

“IT FELT like a lit­tle bit of a dream,” John Cho says. “Projects this small and this un­usual are hard to make real, but it hap­pened.”

Elisha Chris­tian Su­perla­tive Films / Depth of Field

JIN (John Cho) forms a unique con­nec­tion with a col­lege-age lo­cal, Casey (Ha­ley Lu Richard­son), in the new in­die drama “Colum­bus.”

Warner Bros.

CHO was Harold to Kal Penn’s Ku­mar in the series, in­clud­ing “A Very Harold & Ku­mar 3D Christ­mas.”

Kim­ber­ley French Para­mount Pic­tures

TWO TO BEAM UP: Cho, with Zoe Sal­dana, por­trays Sulu in the re­boot of the “Star Trek” fran­chise.

Eric McCand­less ABC

THE AC­TOR showed off his sit­com chops in ABC’s “Selfie,” which paired him op­po­site Karen Gil­lan.

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