TORONTO — John Cho has shunned Asian stereotypes throughout his career — playing characters that could be any race in four American Pie movies and three Harold & Kumar flicks.
“Because I didn’t dream of being an actor growing up, I didn’t have that ‘I’ll take any job’ attitude,” he explained. “I sort of thought, ‘this isn’t worth it, I’m not going to ching-chong it up for a couple of bucks.’ When I was starting out there was chop chop kind of stuff that just didn’t seem worth it.”
Cho, who reprises his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek Into Darkness, said there is another consideration in deciding which roles to take: Would his 12-year-old self like it?
Cho, 40, was born in Seoul, South Korea but moved to California with his family when he was a young boy. After graduating from Berkeley he taught high school English while acting in a Los Angeles theatre company.
Bit parts in films like Wag the Dog and American Beauty came along, leading to a small but memorable role in 1999’s American Pie (in which he popularized the acronym MILF).
“It was so against type,” Cho recalled. “Asian kids, in particular, really appreciated that role just because I was a vulgar punk.”
His breakthrough performance was in the 2004 made-in-Toronto comedy Harold & Kumar go to White Castle, in which he played one of the titular potheads on a journey to find burgers.
“It was so unusual to have a Korean and an Indian guy headlining a comedy,” said Cho. “Somebody had to do it, and why not me?”
Cho, who appeared in last year’s Total Recall reboot in Toronto, said he’s pleased with the positive reactions he’s received to his Star Trek role — including from the original Sulu, George Takei.
“I didn’t want to screw things up,” said Cho. “Star Trek fans are very passionate and very protective.”
Cho said he is a fan of Star Trek‘s diversity and inclusiveness.
“It’s a very optimistic vision of our species, at its core,” he explained. “It’s scientists going into space trying to learn more about the world that we live in and working together, not represented by a particular nation.”
Star Trek Into Darkness opens May 17.