‘My experience has been as the only Asian guy on screen’
Star Trek star John Cho talks to Laura Harding about his ground-breaking role in thriller Searching
If John Cho’s face looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen him in countless things before, but maybe you never clocked his name.
He plays Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, Harold in the Harold & Kumar movies and has popped up in dozens of TV shows including How I Met Your Mother, Ugly Betty and 30 Rock.
But now the actor, who was born in South Korea but moved to Los Angeles as a child, is making history as the first Asian-american actor to headline a mainstream thriller.
He stars in Searching, as a father who becomes desperate when his teenage daughter disappears and a police investigation leads nowhere.
In his attempt to find her, he turns to her laptop in the hope of tracing her digital footprints.
And for Cho, 46, a father himself to two young children, the subject matter felt particularly terrifying.
“I think all parents will agree with me, that you just walk around going, ‘What if something happened to my kid?’
“I always say that the day my wife got pregnant, I didn’t know it but a little ‘worry muscle’ was born that day.
“Sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s little, but it’s always there and I haven’t even got to the teenage years where they’re driving yet.”
Cho said he was particularly drawn to Searching because it’s a film about a family, and nothing was made of the fact they are Asian-american.
“Typically, the culture of an ethnic background is part of the plot, and we didn’t make it part of the plot at all,” he says.
“In a way this movie is from the future – a future where we are past all these firsts and it’s normalised and no one makes note of the fact this family happens to be all Asian. It’s ahead of its time in that way.
“I get asked from time to time, ‘Do you think the tide is turning?’ [for more diversity and inclusion] and my answer is: When I’m not asked that question, we will know the tide has turned.
0 John Cho plays the father of a missing girl in Searching
“It’s also been my personal experience that sometimes having people that look like underdogs really helps your movie, people tend to root for your movie.
“I certainly experienced that with the Harold & Kumar films. The fact we weren’t white guys distinguished us in the market place.”
He pauses for a moment, before continuing: “My experience for most of my career was to be the only Asian on the screen.
“I didn’t really think much of it until I saw this whole family, our screen family, on-screen and I watched an audience watching it and it was unexpectedly meaningful to me.”
This has proved particularly poignant because the film is being released in cinemas just as another film with an Asianamerican cast dominates the box office in the US, the romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan and Michelle Yeoh.
“One of the tropes in American cinema and television has been that Asians typically run away from their culture to find love elsewhere,” he says.
“Driving around town, I see the Crazy Rich Asians billboard and it has two Asian
Americans gazing lovingly at one another and the image of that has been so powerful for me.
“At the same time it causes a twinge of sadness, because it makes me realise how uncommon it is.”
It isn’t the first time Cho has broken new ground, though.
In 2016, it was revealed that his Star Trek character Sulu was gay, which caused controversy among the franchise’s many fans and also with George Takei, who originated the role.
“I had no idea how it would play out,” he says, “and I was really concerned about how it would be perceived by the hardcore fans and George himself if we strayed from the original canon, and if it would be perceived as straying from the original canon.
“It turned out, to my great relief, when people took it as intended, which was to extend the idea of inclusivity and plurality again that started with the original series, and take it a step further.”
As for whether he will be reunited with Kirk, Spock and Scotty any time soon, Cho is unsure, even though a new instalment has been confirmed by film bosses.
“I’m afraid I don’t have news for you,” he says woefully. “I don’t know what is going on and I’m kind of glad not to, I don’t want to be on that emotional roller coaster.
“But I’m sure they’ll call when they’re ready. I’ll be ready, I’ll certainly be willing.”
“I watched an audience watching our screen family and it was unexpectedly meaningful to me”
● Searching is out now