John Cho talks about taking the role of Sulu from George Takei in Star Trek

The boy from Harold and Kumar boldly goes where no man has gone before

John Cho is the first to laugh when describing how he began his career. “I wore the right size clothes.”

While attending college at Berkeley, Cho was part of a local writing group when one of his colleagues asked him how tall he was and how much he weighed. When he replied to the rather usual query, he was informed that some guy had dropped out of a play and he appeared to be the same size fit for the costumes. Would he do it? “I said yes and that is how I got started as an actor,” he smiles. “I had two lines but had a great time.”

That wasn’t quite the same standard applied when JJ Abrams was casting the latest big screen incarnation of Star Trek. For the part of Hikaru Sulu, Cho was called into audition and then had to ‘sweat it out’ for months waiting for the decision. As fate would have it, the call came when the actor was on his honeymoon in Italy. “That was a very nice treat,” he adds.

Based on characters that were first introduced in Gene Roddenberry’s landmark 1966 television series, this version of Star Trek is going boldly where none of the other ten films or five television versions have. In Abrams interpretation, audiences will be taken to the beginning and introduced to Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Lt. Uhura, Chekhov and Sulu; from their days at the Star Fleet Academy to their galactic adventures aboard the USS Enterprise.

For Cho, who has previously appeared in such comedies as American Pie and Harold and Kumar go to the White Castle, the chance to be in the film allowed him not only the opportunity to honor the groundbreaking role that George Takei introduced as one of the very first pro active Asian Americans ever appearing on screen; but also to satisfy his lifelong fantasy to appear in a western.

Now in case you are wondering how the science fiction fantasy would qualify as a western, Cho explains. “As an Asian American, there are two roadblocks that I face. One is I don’t look like most of the actors who are working so I can’t play their sons or brothers. The second is there are certain mythologies that I cannot do. One of them is the western but for me, STAR TREK is my western. With its themes, it follows the classic storyline of the genre so this is my chance to play cowboys and Indians.”

Q:Tell us about your relationship to the original “Star Trek”?

CHO: I was not a big fan as a kid. And that probably was due to my age. I was six when I immigrated to the States in 1978. And it was the height of ‘Star Wars’ mania. I know I probably shouldn’t compare the two but by then, ‘Star Trek’ was sort of dated. It had funny velour costumes. ‘Star Trek’ was much more literary than ‘Star Wars’ and so it took me a while to get into it. But by the time I got into high school, I was watching ‘The Next Generation’.

Q:So what was it about “Star Trek” that really intrigued you as an actor?

CHO: Well, for me it was mainly the opportunity to be connected to something that I felt was so positive, as I said, from my youth. And to reprise a role that meant personally a lot to me and I think meant a lot to Asian Americans. There are a couple of things that are a downer, being an Asian-American actor. One of them is not being able to, say, play the son of an actor, that’s a big actor that I really admire and as a result, being shut out of a lot of families in scripts. Once they cast a particular role as white, you can’t play their brother or their son. Secondly, there are certain mythologies that you can’t do. One is the Western. And for me, ‘Star Trek’ was my Western. It is, in its themes, it’s such a classic Western, exploring new worlds and stuff. For me, it was a chance to play cowboys and Indians in space. That was another draw for me.

Q: The thing about “Star Trek”, especially at the time, it was a cross section, a microcosm of the world. There were African American characters, Asians, Russians – it was something we didn’t really see on TV.

CHO: That’s right. And I did clock that as a child. And it was very meaningful to me. I made twin observations. One was, wow, they don’t think much of people that look like me here, as I surfed channels. And then it was clocking George Takei. He was the helmsman of a spaceship, just being cool and not doing any of the things that other people were doing. He was not throwing karate chops or having an accent or buckteeth. So it was very meaningful for me to see George on television. And that’s a great deal of why I was so interested in being in this remaining. I was keen on engaging in that legacy.


Q: How did you guys work together? How did you guys since you’d never work all worked together, what did JJ try and do to get that seemless?

CHOI think JJ just let us be funny. He encouraged that, which I think is useful. I find that sometimes on dramas, there’s more goofing around between takes then there is on comedies. And I’ve found that to be true in my case sometimes. There’s a science to hitting all those beats in comedy. Rather like math. You know, you you’re like [snaps his fingers], do this, this, and it will set up this. And in between takes, I find myself always in a discussion with the director. “How do we improve that scene?” “Can we milk one more joke out of it?” It becomes, like, this obsession with perfection between the scenes – for me, that’s how I find myself on a comedy set. And, you know, on this set we were just… We were dealing with, you know, the end of the world in the scene and so we needed to find a release valve.

Q: How much of the Enterprise was practical, was actually there on set?

CHO: More than you’d think. I haven’t seen the finished product, so I don’t know what they’ve added. Obviously there has to be a green screen that we’re looking at. But a lot of those controls, although they didn’t make anything go or thrust or work, they turned. So it was easy to make believe. There were so many knobs and stuff. And then there were hallways that led out directly out of the bridge. So it was easy. They made it very easy for us.

Star Trek is in Irish cinemas from Friday, May 8th.