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John Cho discusses his upcoming ABC TV series Flash Forward, blasting off into space as Sulu, and whether there's life after Zed.
In Part 1, APA spoke to John Cho about his early career, leading up to the unexpected success of the Harold and Kumar films. His most recent role has been as the new Sulu for J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise. This fall, Cho is cast as an FBI agent in the upcoming ABC drama series, Flash Forward and that's where interviewer Oliver Wang picks up the conversation.
Asia Pacific Arts: ABC has been going heavy on the promo ads for the new show you're involved with. Can you tell me about Flash Forward?
John Cho: The premise is that everyone in the world blacks out simultaneously for 2 min 17 seconds, and during that time they experience a vision of their own future, and Joseph Fiennes and I are FBI agents who are trying to figure out this puzzle. So that's the gist of it.
Television was something that I wasn't looking at, but my agent called and said, "I'm sending you over this script. No big deal, but I think you should read it. I think it might be something you'd be interested in," and I was. Partially, it was reading the script and thinking about what [creator] David Goyer was going to do with the series. It may come from my religious upbringing [that I find that] there's certainly a religious/philosophical connection to all the questions that are raised -- what do you do with knowledge of your future, if indeed it is true, do you believe this, do you take this faith, do you believe your own senses, do you believe your experience or not? Is this a supernatural or man-made phenomenon? And the way he approached it was not from that angle. Although the ideas are big, the approach was much more detail-oriented and it was about how this affects family and relationships. My character in particular is about to get married, and how do you deal with that within a relationship?
APA: The series strikes me as being very post-Lost in terms of its "mysterious" elements.
JC: Yeah, I certainly think that part of the strategy for ABC is to fill that void, when and if Lost isn't there anymore. Although their move -- we're on Thursday at 8pm which will precede Grey's Anatomy -- might be an indication that they're not focusing more on that supernatural stuff as much as they are on the personal kinds of dilemmas that this might cause in domestic life.
APA: If I'm not mistaken, is this the third major show you've been part of? There was the sitcom Off Centre and the short-lived Kitchen Confidential.
JC: I did a couple things that didn't make air. I worked on a show that was so near and dear to my heart. I just remember caring about it so much, and it was called The Singles Table, and that didn't make air. We filmed five or six episodes, and it was kind of heart-breaking, and it left a very bad taste in my mouth afterwards and I've avoided television since.
APA: What was that about?
JC: The premise was that it was a group of people who met at the single's table at a wedding. Of late, I've just been attracted to roles that, for whatever reason, are speaking to my current life conditions. I was in a relationship, it was about people who were single and everyone was married around them, and that was their bond. My character was a lot of fun to play. It probably tested my abilities more than anything I've done.
APA: How so?
JC: It was a really interesting blend of the straight and comic character. He was divorced, and in that pilot, his ex-wife showed up at the wedding, and he made an ass out of himself. There were certain iconic things I got to do in that show too, like make a drunken toast at a wedding -- it was just fun. The writing was great, and, for whatever reason, it really struck a nerve with me.
APA: It actually sounds something like How I Met Your Mother, which I would not have thought would be a hit when I first saw it, but it's become a strong series.
JC: Yeah, you know, I have done sitcoms and some people are averse to them, and I think that they are a very legitimate form of entertainment. It's perfect for television and sometimes I feel like one hour shows are awkward -- that the ambitions of the modern one-hour are so high that they can't be met in that little box, where you have to play most of your scenes in close-ups because the screens are smaller. Then there are all the network notes and you have to cast inordinately attractive people, and so many times it seems false to me.
And I felt like the sitcom was a humble art form for the majority who need a couple of laughs before dinner. So I was proud to be making low-brow fare essentially [laughs]. I have enjoyed that aspect of sitcoms, it was just really all about giving people a couple chuckles, and when it works it really works. Because it's these returning characters on a weekly basis, people get familiar with them, and the serial aspect is something that's perfect for television. And the act structure which is forced by television commercials, the three-act structure, which can seem artificial in a one-hour show, seems to work well in the theatrical context of sitcoms. It doesn't seem weird.
APA: Interesting. This makes me think of when my wife and I were bingeing on Law & Order episodes and marveling at how well-contained, narratively, each show was. In essence, it's really two half-hour shows that have a really thin bridge between them, but as a viewer, you get this dose of narrative resolution that happens within that space.
JC: That's a brilliant structure. And all television is very tightly structured and when something veers off course like The Sopranos, it's really startling and you feel unsettled by it. Sopranos didn't really have a rigid running time, so you weren't sure when the episode was going to end. Nothing had to be resolved at the end of the episode; HBO was that loose. Things would get started and not get resolved by the end of the hour.
APA: Or ever.
JC: Or ever. Good guys get killed. People ascend to power and descend from power, and it was completely revolutionary, not particularly because of content, I feel, but because of the structure.
APA: You were saying before about the frustrations you had with the failure of The Singles Table to launch. Without having you overgeneralize, do you find television as a medium/industry is more frustrating to deal with than cinema?
JC: Oh, completely. For one, when you make a film, everyone's on the same side. There's been money invested, people want to get it out and have it be a success. You may have differences along the way, how it's marketed, what the edit is, what have you, but generally, everyone wants it to be a success. What happens with television that's very unique is that the same people who hire you, who order the shows -- the network, that is -- who tell you how great the show is, cancel your show. It's hard not to take it as a stab in the back. It's different than theater, it's different than film. The people behind the show, who put money behind it, can say, "we feel like this investment isn't going to pan out. We're going to give this shot to another show that we have also." So there's a lot of internal politicking, where you have to find an audience and also find advocates within the company. So it's complicated.
APA: It also sounds like the process is not remotely transparent either, so a lot of time you might have no idea what's going on.
JC: Yeah, it is opaque. And it's interesting, these are bizarre problems that I would never have foreseen when I entered the business but I find myself inundated with such things at this point. I mean the Harold and Kumar campaign -- I've long since, in a political or racial way, forgotten about the content, and what I recall from the Harold and Kumar movies is my struggle with the advertisers.
APA: What happened there?
JC: There was all this racial humor in the movie, and the advertising department wanted to say "Starring the Asian guy in American Pie, and the Indian guy from Van Wilder..." and they did go with that, and they submitted that to me for approval, and I said, "I don't like it." They asked me why, and I explain it to them, and that was tricky because it's difficult explaining to my own representatives, why that didn't jibe with me, because everyone kind of felt like it was keeping in tone with the movie. And I said, "I don't like it. We're poking fun at racism in the movie all the time, but it puts the audience on the wrong side of the racism joke." So they were playing with the wording a little bit in the edits, and they kept coming up with versions to make me happy, but they were essentially the same thing, and I finally said, "you are not going to make me happy. You're dancing around it, and you're clearly attached to this idea, and I want you to know that no version of this idea will make me happy. And if you're afraid that I won't show up to do promotion because of this bitterness, you can rest assured that that's not true. I consider promoting a movie part of my duties, and I will show up nevertheless. But you can either use this campaign and know that I'm unhappy, or you can change it and know that I'm happy. That's it. Stop trying." And eventually they went with it, and it's one of those things where I look back and I've very proud of the movie, but that's the thing I remember.
APA: Slight tangent but do you think that the first film was largely responsible for Neil Patrick Harris' remarkable career resurrection?
JC: Well, he admits as much. He's very open about it. He says that he wouldn't have gotten How I Met Your Mother without Harold and Kumar, and it kind of reconfigured his career, that role. And one thing led to another. He's obviously an incredibly talented character and a really interesting personality.
APA: When he first appeared in the script, what was your first thought?
JC: I thought it was hilarious. I was like, are we going to get this guy? [laughs] It was the right tone of a former celebrity. I just thought it was clever. It was unusual, and it didn't feel gimmicky.
APA: Catching up to Star Trek, you were talking about the folks at Trekmovie.com (which I thought was a fantastic interview), and one of the things you mentioned was that you felt like you were in a bit of a professional funk prior to landing the Sulu role. I'm wondering if you could talk a little about that.
JC: I was not caring much, and I couldn't recall a time prior to that, where I didn't care that much. I was getting scripts and not that interested. I was going to auditions on occasion and blowing them essentially, because I was coming in unprepared. I was just not very interested in material that was coming my way, and I was a little worried about myself, you know? And Star Trek came along. I just had to have it. More than anything else, it just reignited my interest in acting.
APA: How so?
JC: It was different content-wise. For me, I was going on this comic path, and it was easy to break out of that, there was stuff available. But I was just in a rut. Maybe it was very temporary, but I wasn't very excited.
My career has been mostly movies that I couldn't see when I was a child, and I think maybe that was part of why I liked Star Trek. It was about pleasing the kid, the young John Cho. And I'd always wanted to do something set in space and it was a childhood fantasy but it was also one of my political goals as an Asian American actor, to do something set in space, because I couldn't do a Western as an Asian American, and the Western was a real cinematic goal for me. So Star Trek was perfect -- the frontier. So there was that, and it probably had something to do with the historical nature of the franchise. Being connected to something bigger than the project was important to me. It just came along, and it struck all these nerves I didn't know were there, or that I wasn't particularly aware of, and I got really passionate about it. And then working methodology-wise it was different. It was less about learning lines, and more about how I carried myself. The physical training was completely new to me. I didn't know how to play Sulu, but once we got into the physical training, it didn't really matter. The way I stood became him, and then I just stopped thinking about it afterwards and just learned my lines. It was just something different, and I needed that.
APA: You talked about how the franchise is bigger than the movie, and this is something that Trek, more than almost any other cultural touchstone, really embodies. It also means that for anyone who steps into these iconic roles, this is something that theoretically, or quite likely, will be part of your career from this point until the end of days. I'm wondering if that's something you had thought much about. Are you going to be up for the convention runs?
JC: Yeah, there was some thought about that, but not much actually. I just didn't think too much about it, and I didn't think about the ramifications. But as we went around the world promoting it, I got more of an idea just how big the thing is. I had no idea, really. I was completely in the dark on how big it was.
APA: And now that you've seen the size of it, what are your impressions?
JC: It's a system of thinking about the world that's more important to people than I thought. I thought of it as -- and this is how I think of science fiction in general -- as a way of almost musing about our world, via setting up certain narrative conditions. And Star Trek is less musing and more philosophy. And maybe more than philosophy. Maybe a world view. So they're passionate. They're very passionate. The other thing I had forgotten was how many generations it covers. It's been around for a while, and now that we have ten-year-olds watching it, it has really widened its fan base to every make and model there is.
APA: You've mentioned before that part of your interest in playing Sulu was partially premised on your admiration of George Takei. I'm wondering if you could talk more about how you saw him as an actor or a public figure.
JC: I was introduced to Star Trek when I was a kid, not particularly paying attention to actors. It was more just that feeling of, there's an Asian guy on television. And then not being disappointed. Actually being happy about what he was doing. It was just one of the few bright spots in my childhood in terms of watching television. There are so many times you call in everybody from the other room, and you're watching, and you end up groaning, because [the actor] ends up doing a ridiculous accent or playing a stereotype, and so many of those moments ended up in disappointment. But not with Star Trek. So, to me, maybe there was some symbolism in there for me, just connecting my career with something that was really positive for my youth.
APA: After the casting had come through, did you guys talk about the character at all?
JC: I kind of felt instinctively that even though I wanted to be connected to that character, I didn't want to be connected to that performance, per se. That's kind of actor's respect. We don't ask each other what we're doing. I wouldn't have asked Chris Pine what he was doing for Kirk. You just kind of see what happens and react to it. I think to me, it was a bit of the same thing for someone who had played the character. But I wrote a letter to George and I wanted to connect to him as a person and see where that led. And we knew each other through East West Players. It was just great. Mostly, I was really nervous, and that served to ally my nerves a little bit. He was very cool and offered me some advice. And in a weird way, I had kind of forgotten about [Gene] Roddenberry. I thought about the show and the characters, but I had forgotten about the creator. And [Takei] reminded me of the vision behind the show and some of Roddenberry's goals, and that was useful. So we talked more about that stuff than character.
APA: I wanted to end by talking about your band. For many years, you led a rock band called Left of Zed, but recently you changed names to Viva La Union. What was behind the name change?
JC: Our drummer had a kid, and he just felt like he couldn't do both things. It wasn't that much thought. We just went back and started writing again, and it felt different. It just felt so different and we felt like we should change our name.
APA: This is a band you started originally in college?
JC: No, I started with a guy from college, the original drummer. He had moved to Los Angeles independently, and I had moved to Los Angeles, and years later we connected again, and we sort of started playing music together again. I'd played with him in college a little bit, and one thing led to another, and we went through a few members, and it's been slow going.
APA: Was singing and songwriting a big hobby of yours when you were younger?
JC: Not really. Singing was something we did in church, no musical instruments. But I didn't play an instrument. In college, somebody gave me an old Spanish guitar and taught me some chords. What I found funny about that, looking back, was that I guess I had this drive to write songs because as soon as I learned three chords, I was trying to put words and music to them. I didn't even bother to learn other people's songs, really. I just immediately wanted to write. I don't know what that's about, but I've always been interested by it. It's like a word problem. Because pop music is so simple, and that's when it gets sublime. There are so many restraints and you have to fit an idea into this particular form. It's a very difficult thing to do. I guess for some people it sounds very natural. Like John Lennon's songs sound like he's just making them up as he goes along, but I find it difficult and interesting.
APA: Your band's music has a definite "alt-rock" edge to it. Were you a fan of [the modern rock station] KROQ, growing up in the L.A. during the '80s?
JC: Yeah, KROQ was a station I listened to, but I always hated the pop music game that teenagers played. I never liked the cool bands. And to this day, I hate when on the red carpet, someone will say, "who are you listening to now? What's in your CD player?" It's more about fashion than art.
I didn't know much about music because I moved around so much and didn't have many friends. That process of going over to a buddy's house and they play you the latest whatever -- I didn't have that experience. So I felt terribly out of it when it came to music. In fact, I had heard so much about The Beatles growing up but had never heard them, that I went to the library and checked out Beatles' albums, and that's how I learned about The Beatles.
APA: I love that though. I love the image of someone at the library, checking out The White Album, and getting their mind blown.
JC: It was! It was pretty crazy.
APA: But to go back to what you were just talking about: people conflate musical taste as identity markers.
JC: It was a confusing time for me. In addition to being the new kid, the Asian kid usually in a neighborhood that didn't have Asians, you're struggling with how to define how you are and what personality outfit you're picking out. And music, to me, when I think about that time, was part of the problem, not the solution.
APA: These days, what does music give you access to that is different from your other creative pursuits?
JC: I don't know. That's a hard question to answer because all I know is that I end up thinking about it and trying to do something about it. But I imagine that, really for me probably, it makes me think about words in a different way -- acting is about almost being unaware of words, being aware more of intentions. And having a character find himself as he goes along because he's trying to express will. But songwriting is, to me, the exact opposite in that you are always trying to craft and find the best word for a sentence or for a note. For me, that's primarily how I see the difference -- opposing ways of handling words.
APA: Between your acting career and the fact that you're a new father, when do you make time to write?
JC: I remember hearing something -- John Lennon said that after his baby Sean was born, the guitar was on the wall for three years, and I was like - Three years?? Three years you didn't play? I couldn't believe it, because he just seemed like a person who woke up and sang while making his eggs and had his guitar. But now I see it. There literally is no time. Although it's been interesting because I think having a baby has been making me think more about melody than words and I'm interested about when I get back, what happens with that. 'Cause I'm always singing to him and it has me thinking about it more. I'm just thinking of what I'm singing as sounds because he doesn't really understand words, so it's been interesting for me.
APA: When you first started singing onstage, did you feel more comfortable with that because you had a background in acting?
JC: Yeah, there are obviously similarities, but rock music has its own thing. You're supposed to be yourself, and that's probably the most uncomfortable thing about it. People want to see something, and all you're being is yourself and you feel inadequate, and especially if you've come from having a character and having rehearsed everything that you do. So it's much more spontaneous, and it's harder that way. But to me, the experience of singing beats the experience of acting, but seeing your product back and being part of a story, in terms of acting, is kind of the completion of the project, the experience, there.
APA: Last question...for Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, Viva La Union recorded a song for the soundtrack with the line, "I want my own Chinese baby" -- what's that about?
JC: When I was thinking about it, I thought of a literal baby. There's a kind of lack that children fill, that's just the dark side of being a parent, I think. And there's an accessory quality to Chinese babies in America, and I just think it's funny. I just liked it. And you know, I would know people who would fawn over Asian babies more, and it got me to thinking, there's this belief that Asian babies are really cute, and it got me thinking that our whole race is infantilized to some degree, and it manifests itself in different ways. You infantilize a woman, and she becomes eroticized. You infantilize a man, and he becomes emasculated. You infantilize a baby [laughs] -- and it's possible, it appears that you can infantilize a baby even more. [laughs] The babies need to be cuter than white babies. And it's just a weird thing that I felt like said something about mainstream America's relationship to Asians in general. So that's where it came from.
Date Posted: 7/3/2009