John Cho on Race, Representation, and the Most Meaningful Role of His Career

Columbus is one of the years very best filmsand, in all likelihood, one you havent yet seen. Premiering in August to critical acclaim (and earning just over $1 million at the limited-release box-office), writer/director Kogonadas 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. Its 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, Kogonadas 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 illa trip that leads to an unlikely friendship, and long chats at some of the citys 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 thats as unaffected as it is multilayered, and which accomplishes what few others do: It treats race as a naturalif far from definingaspect of a complex identity.

In America, were 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 whos very expressly whateverblack, or Asian, or Latinoand theyre The Latino Character, or The Black Character. And the other way is to completely ignore race, and have a character whos essentially white, but then cast with a person of color. Neither of those feels particularly true to life.

This character [Jin], whos Korean-Americanobviously his culture affects who he is. However, its maybe not one of the top five adjectives that describe him. I think thats how I feel. I know Im Asian, and Korean, and I know that these things are an important part of me. And yet I dont go around feeling it. Its just a fact about me. If anything, I would say Im a father first. Im a husband second. Im a man, third. Maybe Im 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. Thats always felt false to me.

Still, Chowho recently joined the second season of Foxs TV series The Exorcistacknowledges that, when choosing roles, he does carefully consider issues of representation. Im very sensitive to that. I think Ill give more consideration to a part that has a full character history than a character that doesnt 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 Im going to see it when it comes out.

Its 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 persons story.
John Cho

For an actor whos 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, its much more of a sense of ownership. Moreover, while he notes that theres plenty of joy to be derived from participating in a Star TrekThere is a certain pleasure in just coming on-board a big movie and having funhe found Kogonadas feature to be an antidote to what he views as a dispiriting, and escalating, Hollywood trend.

Im not really happy with the landscape of current cinema. What weve 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, Im afraid. The scope of film is pretty narrow at the moment. So [Columbus] was trying to do something that wasnt particularly concerned with being commercial, and he [Kogonada], the film, the scriptit was just a rare orchid, and we had to take care of it.

As Cho and Richardsons 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 characters 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 Columbuswhich was shot in Vice President Mike Pences hometowndances 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 thats maybe a more meaningful way of discussing just about anything. Ive been thinking recently that, online, people are so pugilistic and warlike when theyre their electronic avatars, and we tend to make peace face-to-face. Thematically, this movie is an example of that, although it certainly wasnt intentional.

I know Im Asian, and Korean, and I know that these things are an important part of me. And yet I dont go around feeling it. Its just a fact about me.
John Cho

As for the films distinctive setting, Cho views Columbus, Indiana, as the embodiment of the best of Americaa situation attributable to former Cummins Inc. CEO Irwin Miller, who spearheaded the citys modernist architectural movement. Hes such an example, to me, of whats 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 thats to be admired, replicated, and remembered. Its the best of the American spirit. I know that sounds hokey, but maybe partly because Im 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 Hollywoods 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 wasnt a dumb idea, he chuckles. Its not like its provided a huge boon to my career or anything. But the fact that it wasnt 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. Its all going to happen after Im too old to take any of these roles. But one day, there will be an Asian James Bond, or Batman, or whatever.

Though Cho doesnt believe minorities playing those well-worn characters is the height of progress, he agrees the hashtag crusade spoke to something larger about peoples eagerness for change. Its 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 persons story. That we have agency, and souls, and desires.

There is something important about cinema, and television, because Ive always felt like it was the closest thing to a national culture that we have today. And its 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 isnt just an empathetic, insightful drama about the intricacies of the human condition; its a work of, and about, tolerance. Which, to Cho, is part of what makes it feel so momentous.

Im not in the business of saying its the best thing Ive ever done, he admits. I will say that, for whatever reason, its the most meaningful thing Ive ever done, for me.

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