TRUE TO LIFE
John Cho on Race, Representation, and the Most ‘Meaningful’ Role of His Career
The actor talks to Nick Schager about his role in the phenomenal ‘Columbus,’ and what Hollywood so often gets wrong about race.
Columbus is one of the year’s very best films—and, in all likelihood, one you haven’t yet seen. Premiering in August to critical acclaim (and earning just over $1 million at the limited-release box-office), writer/director Kogonada’s indie debut is a work of meticulous formal beauty and subtle emotional power, so assured and graceful that it immediately marks its creator as a legitimate auteur in the making. It’s a small, heartfelt, aesthetically remarkable gem that announces itself with little fanfare but strikes a lasting chord, digging deeply into a thicket of personal issues that are at once timely and universal. Now available on VOD, Kogonada’s drama is primed for discovery, especially as it gets set to appear on various critics’ top 10 lists.
Among its many virtues, Columbus boasts the most accomplished big-screen performance yet by John Cho, known to most as Harold in the Harold and Kumar movies and Sulu in the J.J. Abrams-rebooted Star Trek franchise. In the role of a Korean-American book translator named Jin who is compelled to visit Columbus, Indiana, after his esteemed architect father falls ill—a trip that leads to an unlikely friendship, and long chats at some of the city’s striking buildings, with local architecture-loving Casey (Haley Lu Richardson)—Cho is a marvel of understatement. As a man grappling with tumultuous feelings about his dad, his Korean-American heritage, and the tension between individual desire and familial/cultural obligation, Cho delivers a turn that’s as unaffected as it is multilayered, and which accomplishes what few others do: It treats race as a natural—if far from defining—aspect of a complex identity.
“In America, we’re so obsessed with race, and as it relates to the way characters are written, generally characters of color fall into two categories,” Cho says shortly after Columbus’ digital bow. “One is a character who’s very expressly whatever—black, or Asian, or Latino—and they’re The Latino Character, or The Black Character. And the other way is to completely ignore race, and have a character who’s essentially white, but then cast with a person of color. Neither of those feels particularly true to life.
“This character [Jin], who’s Korean-American—obviously his culture affects who he is. However, it’s maybe not one of the top five adjectives that describe him. I think that’s how I feel. I know I’m Asian, and Korean, and I know that these things are an important part of me. And yet I don’t go around feeling it. It’s just a fact about me. If anything, I would say I’m a father first. I’m a husband second. I’m a man, third. Maybe I’m an actor, fourth. All these things kind of rank above race, and yet our national hang-ups about race always vault race to the top. That’s always felt false to me.”
Still, Cho—who recently joined the second season of Fox’s TV series The Exorcist—acknowledges that, when choosing roles, he does carefully consider issues of representation. “I’m very sensitive to that. I think I’ll give more consideration to a part that has a full character history than a character that doesn’t have a specific character history. That is to say, most of my career has been parts that are not written for Asian-Americans, and then I was cast. So I have made an effort to be open to parts that were written specifically Korean. That is a tough thing to find, so when this came along, it was that much more special.”
According to Cho, it was clear from the get-go that Columbus was a project he had to do. “I knew it as soon as I read it. And it was confirmed by some very brief research into the director. I was like, this guy is a person of intelligence and feeling, and someone I want to know, and someone I want to work with. Then, when I met him, I was doubly convinced I had to do the movie. And even more than that, I think the greatest compliment I can pay to a filmmaker is, not only do I want to work with them but, beyond that, I just want to see them do their film, with or without me. This was one of those scripts, I was like, if he wants me, great. And if not, hats off and best wishes, and I’m going to see it when it comes out.”
For an actor who’s made his fair share of blockbuster studio fare, Columbus (which co-stars Parker Posey and Rory Culkin) afforded Cho an opportunity to feel more invested in the finished product, if simply because of the “intimate experience” of operating with a smaller budget and crew: “On a movie like Columbus, it’s much more of a sense of ownership.” Moreover, while he notes that there’s plenty of joy to be derived from participating in a Star Trek—“There is a certain pleasure in just coming on-board a big movie and having fun”—he found Kogonada’s feature to be an antidote to what he views as a dispiriting, and escalating, Hollywood trend.
“I’m not really happy with the landscape of current cinema. What we’ve got are a whole bunch of superhero movies, and not a whole lot else happening,” he remarks. “What used to be the rest of cinema has moved to television. Which is great, for television. On the other hand, I do worry about this experience that I grew up with and treasure, which is going into a dark place with a bunch of strangers and watching a story that begins and ends in one sitting. That experience is slipping away from us, I’m afraid. The scope of film is pretty narrow at the moment. So [Columbus] was trying to do something that wasn’t particularly concerned with being commercial, and he [Kogonada], the film, the script—it was just a rare orchid, and we had to take care of it.”
As Cho and Richardson’s characters spend time together, they develop a romance-free bond over their shared circumstances, grappling with their duty to their parents and their own ambitions and, in doing so, figuring out who they are, and want to be. That process is complicated by issues of race, gender and geography, making Columbus resonate as a piercingly relevant portrait of finding common ground despite ostensible differences. With precise, striking visuals that enhance the proceedings’ “asymmetrical beauty” (to borrow a character’s description of one architectural masterwork), the film celebrates the magnificence of uniqueness, as well as the underlying emotional/psychological/social qualities that unify us all.
Asked about its relationship to our current, divisive Trumpian climate, Cho states that Columbus—which was shot in Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown—“dances around political issues. There are things the movie talks and thinks about, and is involved in, that are typically political, but the movie turns them into emotional themes. And I think that’s maybe a more meaningful way of discussing just about anything. I’ve been thinking recently that, online, people are so pugilistic and warlike when they’re their electronic avatars, and we tend to make peace face-to-face. Thematically, this movie is an example of that, although it certainly wasn’t intentional.”
As for the film’s distinctive setting, Cho views Columbus, Indiana, as the embodiment of the best of America—a situation attributable to former Cummins Inc. CEO Irwin Miller, who spearheaded the city’s modernist architectural movement. “He’s such an example, to me, of what’s possible in this country. He said our little town in the middle of Indiana should have world-class architecture. It should strive to be the best it can be. That strikes me as a very American form of egalitarianism that’s to be admired, replicated, and remembered. It’s the best of the American spirit. I know that sounds hokey, but maybe partly because I’m an immigrant, I really believe in the idea of America being kind of a city on the hill, for the world. Columbus, Indiana, is certainly, to me, an example of a city on the hill, as modestly sized a town as it is.”
Such optimism extends to his feelings about the recent #StarringJohnCho online campaign. The meme, in which Cho was Photoshopped into theatrical posters for Hollywood’s biggest hits, was a grassroots call for more Asian-Americans (and minorities) in big-studio offerings, and wound up attracting national attention. “I was heartened by the fact that there seemed to be a general consensus that this wasn’t a dumb idea,” he chuckles. “It’s not like it’s provided a huge boon to my career or anything. But the fact that it wasn’t ridiculous is a marked difference from say, 10 or 20 years ago. Sometimes I feel like Moses, watching his tribe walk into Canaan, and he is prevented from going in. It’s all going to happen after I’m too old to take any of these roles. But one day, there will be an Asian James Bond, or Batman, or whatever.”
Though Cho doesn’t believe minorities playing those well-worn characters is the height of progress, he agrees the hashtag crusade spoke to something larger about people’s eagerness for change. “It’s really about seeing Asian-Americans as full-fledged human beings, rather than some function in a narrative, or the sidekick, or the extraneous character in another person’s story. That we have agency, and souls, and desires.
“There is something important about cinema, and television, because I’ve always felt like it was the closest thing to a national culture that we have today. And it’s important for people of color to see themselves in popular culture, because it reinforces the notion that we have a place here.”
To that end, Columbus isn’t just an empathetic, insightful drama about the intricacies of the human condition; it’s a work of, and about, tolerance. Which, to Cho, is part of what makes it feel so momentous.
“I’m not in the business of saying it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he admits. “I will say that, for whatever reason, it’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done, for me.”