The last time John Cho went to the South Korean capital, Seoul, from which his family emigrated when he was six, he was described with a word he had never heard before.
“I didn’t know whether to be flattered or not,” Cho says. “But I had to admit that maybe I have this quality. The word is um-ah-chin.”
“Um-chin-ah,” I correct him. It’s an abbreviated phrase that roughly translates to “your mother’s friend’s son”. That is, the kid you’re exhaustively compared with growing up: the one who gets perfect scores on the SAT school tests, plays soccer and the violin, volunteers at the hospital and is elected prom king. He’s the ideal Korean kid, and “he is a ghost”, Cho says. “He doesn’t exist.” And yet, looking at Cho on a bench in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park with his sunglasses in his hair, I can’t help thinking it’s exactly the right word.
He looks good at 44, tall and lean in slate-grey jeans, a marled grey T-shirt and a black denim jacket when I meet him for a walk around the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Dumbo. Cho has an easy gait and, when he’s considering something you say, he folds his arms across his chest and bobs his head, taking it all in. He’s likeable on-screen, but that likeability is way more obvious in person, in part because it’s tempered with jokey assessments of himself.
“I don’t know what this means or why it’s so, but people like me,” he says. “It’s been a surprise, because people who know me are split, man. It’s a hot topic; 50-50 at best.”
In the movies, at least, he is both relatable and aspirational: he’s the guy Asian-American men want to be and the one white girls say they’d date. He broke through as the guy who cried “milf” in American Pie (1999), then played the bad boy in Justin Lin’s breakout film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) and followed that with his turn as lovable stoner Harold in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). He announced himself as the pre-eminent Asian-American male star of his generation when he took on the role of Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek reboot. In a homage to the original Sulu, George Takei, the character was revealed as gay in the just-released Star Trek Beyond.
Cho asks if I want to get a bite, and we set out for a slice of pizza but are waylaid by Uruguayan tourists.
“I love you!” one woman says as she asks Cho for a photo (he obliges). His fame is international and the response to him has been especially warm online. The recently departed website The Toast enthusiastically made him the subject of an item called “If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend”, a list of lines such as “If John Cho were your boyfriend, he would never ask you if you’ve had a chance to read that one profile in The New Yorker, the one everybody else is talking about, because he knows that you are perpetually three to six weeks behind in your periodical reading.”
“I wish I could be that guy,” Cho says when I read him excerpts.
More recently, he became the centre of the hashtag #StarringJohnCho, which imagined him as the lead in a variety of blockbusters: the dinosaur trainer from Jurassic World, the quadriplegic love interest from Me Before You, James Bond. (For what it’s worth, he would in a heartbeat say yes to playing Bond: “I wouldn’t have to think about that at all.”) At first, Cho was uneasy about the meme, thinking it turned him into a poster child: “Am I childhood leukaemia? Am I paediatric Aids?” And anyway, despite using his name, #StarringJohnCho isn’t about him, it’s about questioning why Asian-Americans aren’t cast as leads by Hollywood.
“We’re obsessed with race, this country,” Cho says. “And unfortunately now I am, too, because I’ve had to be in response. The hashtag is this collective dream that we all want to be a part of,” Cho says, “that Asian-Americans are looking to be affirmed as real people.”
“My Uber driver gave me some weed last night,” Cho is telling me over pizza, meatballs and red wine. We have finally settled on a place in which to eat, Ignazio’s, which Cho likes for its “good foot traffic”. The weed thing happens to him a lot since Harold & Kumar, and he’s discovered he can conjure it at will.
“I was in San Francisco with a buddy of mine, and he was like, ‘Ugh, I didn’t make weed arrangements.’ We were walking in Union Square, and I said, ‘Let’s see if I can get us some.’ And I just said, ‘Yo, where my weed at?’ and a joint appeared,” Cho says, spreading his arms wide. “I was like Weed Merlin. Or Weed David Copperfield. I did it twice.”
When Cho first told his father he wanted to be an actor, his dad asked him whether he’d rather be a television newscaster. Then he added, “If you do, then maybe one day you can tell the history of Korean-Americans,” Cho recalls.
“And I was like, Oh s**t. More burden.”
Many of Cho’s early roles came in productions created by Asian-Americans, perhaps because they were among the few parts that weren’t demeaning: Maxine Hong Kingston’s play The Woman Warrior, and films such as Shopping for Fangs (1997), Yellow (1998) and Better Luck Tomorrow.
“I tried to avoid stereotypical roles as best I could,” Cho says. “That was the unfair burden of being 23 and looking at [script pages] that came through the fax machine, wondering, ‘How would a young Asian-American person feel about this?’”
It was that bit part in American Pie that disabused him of his own importance. He had just returned to the US from China, where he’d played the role of 18-year-old Wu Fengmo in Pavilion of Women (2001), with Willem Dafoe, a film Cho says made him feel “full of myself”. At home, American Pie was everywhere and “I came back to America and people were like, ‘milf!’ I was like, ‘Why are they shouting at me?’ But in a way I was lucky because I wasn’t fooled into thinking that being famous was a show of respect.”
Still, he made it. That in itself seems like a great magic trick. Yet one has a disquieting, persistent suspicion that if he had been white, his career would have been different. I ask him if he ever thinks about that.
“It is the taboo topic that you can’t bring up,” Cho says. “What you still can’t really say to a white person is, ‘If I were white, do you know where I’d be?’ But it is something that I’ve thought about. I must have been 10, or younger, and having this conscious thought – and now I think about this and it breaks my heart – I thought, ‘Geez, life would be so much easier if I were white.’
“If my son said that to me, I would never stop weeping. But we’re having this thought right now. It’s this what-if that you can’t prove. It’s unquantifiable. But I know it, and other Asians know it.”
At least there is comfort in community. Tonight, Cho has a reservation at the Marquee nightclub, where he’s going to meet up with William Yu, the guy behind the #StarringJohnCho campaign.
“I reached out to him on Twitter. I said, ‘I think I should meet you’,” says Cho. “I’ve been thinking about him. He’s affected my life. I felt I should shake his hand and thank him.”
What an um-chin-ah.
New York Magazine