Fifteen years ago, John Cho touched down in Park City, Utah, as part of the ensemble of Justin Lin‘s edgy crime drama, Better Luck Tomorrow, which had its controversial premiere at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. This past January, the Korean-American actor returned to Sundance with a far more contemplative — rather than contentious — film, the quiet character study Columbus. Filmed on location in Columbus, Indiana, a Midwestern mini-marvel of architectural design, the movie stars Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as a tourist and townie respectively, who bond over their conflicted feelings about their futures and their families.
While Cho’s father lies in a coma in a local hospital, Richardson worries about pursuing her career ambitions outside of Columbus and leaving her single mother behind. Directed by video essayist, Kogonada, Columbus, which opens in theaters on August 4, received strong reviews at Sundance from both critics and audiences.
“I had people coming up to me after screenings who were visibly moved,” Cho tells Yahoo Movies. “My impression is that they really enjoyed being dislodged from where they were in their lives, and being temporarily put into this little adventure in a very unique space.” We spoke with Cho about his time in Columbus, his future with the Star Trek franchise, and his star turn in the eye-catching #StarringJohnCho Internet meme.
Better Luck Tomorrow premiered at Sundance 15 years ago, and made a big splash at the time. Looking back on it now, what’s your favorite memory of being part of that film?
I think it’s just participating in a film that mattered at a time when film mattered. I feel like independent cinema right now doesn’t command the cultural authority that it once did. Not to say that it won’t come back, but I worry about independent film and its place in American culture. There’s so many tentpole blockbusters, and it seems like culture’s shifting toward television. Better Luck Tomorrow was a small movie and didn’t make a bajillion dollars, but it felt like it was a movie that had something to say at a time when we looked to independent cinema to give voice to some concern.
The film encountered some controversy after its premiere, and Roger Ebert memorably rose to its defense from the audience. What was it like to be at the center of that argument?
I missed that screening because I had the flu! But I remember hearing about it. It’s a badge of honor to be defended by Roger Ebert. And you know what? I’d consider it a badge of honor to be slammed by Roger Ebert. He’s my dude. If Roger Ebert has an opinion on you, you’re somebody, I say.
Having worked with Justin Lin on his first film, was it fun to reconnect with him on the set of Star Trek: Beyond 14 years later?
Yeah, it was really cool. It brings up so many emotions. You know one, I’m so surprised that I’m still here. I’m not surprised that Justin’s here, but I’m still surprised that I’m still around! And as an Asian-American, it’s cool to have a fellow Asian-American be at the helm of something that big and something that important to me. It’s like running into an old pal on the street years later and embracing. It was special. Although it does also mark the passage of time, which is always, which is complicated. It was like, “Oh, right. We’re not young anymore.”
He came onboard Beyond after some behind the scenes turbulence including director changes and new screenplays. Did he bring some stability to the film when it came time to shoot? And was it hard, as an actor, dealing with that kind of uncertainty?
Well, I felt good, because I knew him and I felt like he was going to deliver a good movie. Unless he had changed a lot and was not the guy I once knew, I felt like we were gonna be in good stead. So that lent some stability to it on my end. I was a little worried, not so much about the personnel change itself, but what the personnel changes indicate. Are we not agreeing on what kind of movie we’re making? Are we conflicted about something? Is there internal fighting? That, to me, is the thing rather than the personnel change itself. I didn’t get answers to those questions, because who do you ask? But that’s what I was worried about.
Heading into the fourth film, do you have a sense that the creative vision will be more consistent before they embark on shooting anything?
I wish I had a sense. I don’t. And maybe I should be aggressive and get a sense, but at this point it’s like if they’re gonna call, they’re gonna call and I’ll be here. I’d love to do another one. I’m not even signed on past the first three. So I don’t know where the state of the script is, and I don’t know if I’m involved. I certainly wish I knew more.
Would you hope that future films continue to explore Sulu’s sexuality? We saw his partner and their child in Beyond.
That would be cool to see if it makes sense within the narrative of the mission. But I don’t think anyone is coming to Star Trek to see a lot of the private lives of the characters. They’re coming to see what they do professionally. And I say that because I don’t necessarily want to make Sulu’s private life a thing, when they don’t make a thing of it for the other characters, if you get my drift. I don’t want to go there only because we found out he’s gay. And I like the treatment of it in Beyond; there wasn’t a music sting and we didn’t hear “Dun dun dun!” The film acted like you already knew. There wasn’t even a lingering shot [of them]; it was just matter of fact. I’d like to continue treating it that way and whatever happens organically happens.
Turning to Columbus, the power of the movie lies in the way it invites the audience to consider how architecture affects them personally. How did the buildings you saw in Columbus impact your performance?
If you’re watching the movie, you’re watching me being affected by the space. They were very strong spaces. I don’t know anything about architecture, but I’m affected by spaces — all of us are — and these buildings give you information and emotion. It was a real privilege to work in spaces that gave you so much. Maybe the Enterprise was another one of those spaces that just told me a lot, you know?
Did you have a favorite building out of all the ones you saw in Columbus?
Each one of them is so unique. My favorite is probably the North Christian Church. Growing up in a Christian house, it was a space that said something very meaningful to me about worship. The preacher is sunken below his or her congregation so, to me, the symbolism is that he’s a servant. And the congregation is seated around this person and looks at one another, rather than looking at the backs of people’s heads. You’re looking at each other. To me, it jibes what I was told growing up: that a church is not the building, but the people who inhabit it. It seems like in this case, the building is telling you that the church is not a building.
Are there any buildings you see in your everyday life that inspire you in the same way?
I love my house and bought it because it felt good to be in it .These living spaces can encourage creativity and peace, while others can block up your mind and create anxiety. And there are buildings in L.A. that I can drive around and admire. Some are obvious; my kids and I go up to the Griffith Observatory and just love being up there on top of the mountain. And then there are weird spaces. I really love Southern California mini-malls because I grew up with them, and they’re so modular. It’s crazy how many kinds of businesses can be in there; you’ll see a Spanish-speaking church that’s next to a dry cleaner. People just sort of force these buildings to do what they want.
It occurred to me that this is also one of the first times where we’re seeing you play your actual age. We see the weight of adult concerns in your face and eyes. Was it refreshing to be able to do that?
There’s some of that. Also, what you’re feeling is not always age so much as a very rich character with a lot of history. And with history, you’re always bringing regrets and pain, as well as wisdom. So I think some of that age you’re feeling naturally because I’ve been given the opportunity to play a very deep character. This role is a lot more complex than I’m accustomed to playing, so it was definitely a privilege.
I think it’s striking because, going back to the Harold and Kumar movies, we’ve often associated you with characters who are a decade younger than you actually are.
I’ve always played young. When I started doing theater, I was in my early 20s and playing mid-teens. It was preposterous! But I was incredibly immature, so it felt fine. [Laughs] I always looked young for my age, and I was told that it was a good thing because you elongate your career. But at some point I did want to play older, because young roles can be very black and white. Sometimes that’s fun to play, but so much of the rest of life seem to be in-between, and as I got older that was one part of playing younger that I grew tired of. The repetition and emotional simplicity. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on young people! But life is a lot simpler [for them].
There was a meme going around last year called #StarringJohnCho where your face was photoshopped into a number of different movie posters for big studio films like Me Before You and Spectre. It was intended to comment on the need for increased diversity in the casting process, particularly in regard to Asian-American actors. What was it like to be at the center of that meme?
It was very strange. And I remember wondering whether it was sarcastic, you know? But it didn’t feel that way, and I felt like chuckling at it was part of its brilliance. You see it and say, “That’s ridiculous,” but then you go, “Is it really ridiculous? And why do I think that?” Studios have been noticeably obtuse when it comes to casting issues; changing Asian characters to white characters has been particularly annoying. This was such an interesting way to treat [the issue], because it’s something that you could write a magazine essay about or you could hold a protest sign. But the creator, William Yu, got his point across so economically and so effectively. People have been shouting about it and not being heard, and he just wordlessly made himself heard.
John Cho in ‘Columbus’: Watch a trailer:
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