Fuse is celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Asian and Pacific History before our eyes. Today we are honoring John Cho, who continues to push for more diversity in Hollywood.
The South Korean-born, Los Angeles-raised actor was first introduced to us in 1999, thanks to small roles in American Beauty and American Pie. But Cho really proved just how strong his comedy chops were in his breakout role as Harold Lee in 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Instead of playing the predictable Asian nerd, the actor instead broke the stereotypes and created a fresh character that usually wasn't portrayed by South Korean-Americans: a hazy and hilarious stoner.
From there, Cho continued to test both his and Hollywood's limits with roles in television series like The WB's sitcom Off Centre, Fox's Kitchen Confidential, ABC's sci-fi drama FlashForward and NBC's Go On sitcom. But the moment that truly shifted his career was scoring a role in the Star Trek movie franchise. Cho has portrayed Hikaru Sulu (the character first made famous by George Takei in the original Star Trek TV series) in 2009's Star Trek, 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness and last summer's Star Trek Beyond.
Sulu is a gay character, yet the franchise never made it a big deal. Instead of using that as the focal point of the role, it is folded into the character to normalize his sexuality rather than trivializing it. “I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out it, which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations,” Cho told the Herald Sun back in July.
He further expressed his thoughts on Asian-American inclusivity in Hollywood with Vulture last July,
"I've seen many instances where we’re seen as a little less than human, or maybe a little more than human—like ultrahuman, rather than subhuman. What is wrong with film representation? Some of it is mechanical, surprisingly. I've thought about why Asian stars — from Asia, I mean—look so much better in their Asian films than they do in their American films, and now I can answer that to some extent. There's an eye, and it's not a malicious eye, which is a way that the people working the camera and behind the scenes view us. And then they process it and they put it on film. And it's not quite human. Whereas Asian films, they are considered fully human. Fully heroic, fully comic, fully lovely, fully sad, whatever it is. And it's this combination of lighting, makeup, and costume."
Cho continued to reflect candidly,
"I always feel like it’s amazing how frank people are. Even this past pilot season, I was sent a script and I was talking with my agents, and they said, 'We pitched you for such and such a role, but they can’t go Asian obviously because of blah blah blah,' because it involved an era where cinematically we didn’t see Asians. And I was like, Oh, okay. But that’s a fiction created by cinema. There are people of different colors, but it was copying a film history that excluded people of color, not reality. They’ll say, 'We can’t cast an Asian because this other person is Asian,' or 'We’ve got another Asian.' The fact that people are very open about it is very surprising to me, because you assume it, based upon the product. It would be weird to be in human resources and say, 'Oh, we can’t hire another Asian in accounting, because there’s a black dude in accounting, so, thank you very much.'"
John Cho is only 44 years old, so he still has a long journey ahead of him when it comes to expanding his career. Back in March, he landed a recurring role on Season 3 of Hulu’s comedy series Difficult People as Todd, the boyfriend of Billy (played by Billy Eichner). While he's already established himself as a respected actor, his future has the possibility to include even more roles that help shut down Hollywood's exclusivity stereotypes and create more diverse positions for his fellow colleagues who are on the rise.
For that reason, it's clear that Cho solidified a slot in the future of Asian/Pacific history. (And it doesn't hurt that he's never afraid to speak his mind on the issues in both the movie industry and politics either!)