Korean-American actor John Cho /Korea Times photo by Lee Hyo-won
By Lee Hyo-won
Korean-American actor John Cho, 35, is perhaps on his way to becoming a household name in the United States, especially for playing parts that don't have to be played by an Asian. Yet, there remains a challenging upward climb for Asian Americans in Hollywood, according to the star.
``First it's difficult being an artist, and it's difficult being an actor, period, and it's difficult being an Asian American actor. When I started acting… the community was largely Chinese-American or Japanese-American, so even then I felt like a minority in the minority,'' he told reporters during a private interview at a Busan hotel, Tuesday.
Cho was invited by organizers of the Asian Film Market, running in conjunction with the recently held 12th Pusan (Busan) International Film Festival, as one of the guests of the Star Summit Asia.
``It's crazy now there are so many Korean-American actors,'' he said, explaining how amazing it is that the children of first generation Korean immigrants are entering the arts so fast. Asked if he is close with any of his fellow Korean-American actors, he said ``I avoid them. No, I'm kidding,'' drawing much laughter from the room. He said he is acquainted with actors Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh and his ``hero,'' comedian Margaret Cho.
Born in Seoul in 1972, Cho immigrated to the Los Angeles at the age of six. He stepped into the world of acting by chance in college, when he happened to be the same clothing size as an actor who wasn't able to play his part in a small production. Cho was majoring in English literature at U.C. Berkeley at the time.
Growing up in L.A.'s Koreatown, Cho said he felt like a ``misfit'' and loved the theater because it was like a mecca for all people who didn't fit it. ``That's what I liked about (acting) then and that's what I like about it now,'' he said.
``I didn't think it was possible for Asians to be actors,'' he said. But things changed with his first professional role in a play called ``The Woman Warrior,'' written by Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston. ``When I met all these (Asian) professionals, it really opened a door for me.''
Yet, to this day there still exist deeply imbedded Asian stereotypes. ``I feel that there's a shift in the industry, that they're not seeing me as just my race; but they're seeing my personality and seeing me more as a person and an Asian in general,'' he said.
Cho was voted one of the 2006 ``Sexiest Men Alive'' by People magazine. ``I think that was a mistake… a typo… It's very nice, but it's difficult to take that sort of thing seriously. You know what, print `I am sexy,''' he told reporters, and the room burst into laughter.
In addition to popularizing the term ``MILF'' through his short but memorable appearances in the ``American Pie'' trilogy, Cho made a breakthrough in ``Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle'' by portraying a believable -- and funny -- Asian guy in what has become a cult classic with a mainstream appeal. Harold is a dorky Korean-American investment broker coming to terms with personal struggles, being taken advantage of at work and having to deal with his parents' expectations to marry a Korean.
Some thought the film feeds upon Asian stereotypes, and to this, Cho said he saw it as being exactly the opposite. ``It was only a small segment of Asians who saw a nerd when it was actually an `everyman,' which is how they (the makers of the movie) wrote it and I approached it… I saw it as what Tom Hanks does (in his films).
``The least stereotypical part about the movie is having an Asian as a protagonist and not as a side character… Almost by virtue of being the main character, it negates being a stereotype,'' he said.
Despite Cho's comic roles onscreen, he was surprisingly serious _ though laid back and down to earth _ in person, and chose his words very carefully. ``People expect me to be funnier… be Mr. Chuckles. People treat me… like an old drinking pal,'' he said. ``It's actually a nice feeling because when you make people laugh, it makes them feel close to you,'' he told The Korea Times in a subsequent interview later on.
``I don't want to pat (Hollywood) on the back too much, because, although there's been progress, we have to measure it against where we should be and I still feel as though we're far behind where we need to be, even though there's cause to be optimistic,'' he said.
Cho pointed out the problem of actors agreeing to play an insulting or racist role in Hollywood, thereby endorsing those values. He said actors can advance change very simply and powerfully by ``saying no.''
``What if they audition 100 people and 100 actors said no. Then two things would happen: One is that they would know that what they wrote was offensive. They would know that. And secondly, they couldn't do it. So we take their tools away because we are their tools. So when we do stereotypical roles we are helping them, and so I think to turn that around, we should say no, and that's the most powerful tool that we have,'' he said.
Since his rise in popularity -- being one of the most searched names in Youtube, and appearing on popular TV shows like ``The Singles Table'' and ``Kitchen Confidential'' -- Cho has become a face for the Asian American community. Asked if he ever feels burdened about it, he said that he is sometimes ``jealous'' of white actors because ``they don't have to think about representing their race.
``We (Asian American actors) shouldn't have to do this. So it feels unfair. And yet, it is an opportunity. It just so happens that I'm in a position to, by some bizarre act of God, I'm in a position to change things… So I might as well do what I can,'' he said.
Cho also made his visit to Asia's largest film festival for his latest film ``West 32nd,'' in which he plays opposite Korea's favorite leading man Jung Jun-ho.
``This production was special because it was made by Koreans or Korean-Americans, so there was a real sense of family… To have an entire cast in a movie be Asian is unheard of, and to have an all-Korean cast is even more rare,'' he told The Korea Times.
His film ``Better Luck Tomorrow'' had tackled the ``model minority'' issue of Asian Americans being stereotyped as hard-working, social ladder climbers, who, unlike their black or Hispanic counterparts, don't need benefits such as Affirmative Action. The movie had even initiated a small campaign among Asian American college students in the New England area called ``Watch BLT (Better Luck Tomorrow).''
Cho played a troubled teenager in the movie, and about his own teenage experience growing up in Los Angeles' Koreatown, he said he was ``a little rebellious… but I don't know if it was more than normal,'' he said.
``You're trying to grow up and you don't want to be like your parents, and that gets mixed up with being Korean…They brought their values from Korea, and I accepted them because I didn't know anything more,'' he said about being Korean-American.
``But as I grow older, I feel more Korean every year, it's very strange,'' he said.
Although the media portrays the actor as a successful Korean American who set foot in Hollywood, Cho himself said: ``Maybe it's my neurosis, but I still don't feel settled,'' he said, adding that he would love to play roles he played as a child with his younger brother, like a cowboy or Superman.