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In April 2016, the hashtag #StarringJohnCho spawned a viral online campaign. Reacting to the trend of whitewashing Asian roles by casting Caucasian actors, fans Photoshopped Cho onto posters for hits like The Martian to pitch him as the leading man Hollywood should cast in its blockbusters instead.
But Cho isn’t so sure why he’s the face of their movement. Really. He has no idea.
You could tell him that people chose him to represent Asian-Americans on screen because he’s a talented Korean-American actor who’s been in blockbuster franchises (Star Trek) and acclaimed indies (Columbus) alike. You could also point out that fans dream of casting him in their favorite films because he’s capable of juggling both dramas (Better Luck Tomorrow) and comedies (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). You could even say that he’s paved the way for future Asian leads with every project in his career, a 20-year journey that began with him chanting “MILF” at a glamour shot of Jennifer Coolidge in American Pie.
But still, as much as he tries to think of one, Cho just doesn’t have an easy explanation for why he’s an entire community’s idea of the Asian-American movie star.
“I don’t know,” he admits, repeating it over and over. “I don’t know.” He pauses. “I don’t know.” Another pause. “I really don’t know!” And then he chuckles: “I guess my name is easy to say?”
Sure, John. But his self-deprecating impulses aside, the 45-year-old knows one thing for certain: He’ll do whatever he can to help the push for Asian-American representation. It’s one reason he joined the second season of The Exorcist (below). “I had not seen Asian faces in American horror, and it kind of tickled me to want to change that visual vocabulary a bit,” he says. “I thought it would be, I don’t know, intrusive to have my face in it.”
The writers thought so too. Having connected the drama to the original 1973 film by (spoiler alert!) revealing Geena Davis’ character to be the adult version of Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil, they were free to challenge Fathers Marcus (Ben Daniels) and Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) with a freshly freaky phenomenon untethered to the films.
And so they came up with… John Cho. Creator and executive producer Jeremy Slater says the writers’ room thought of adding Cho to the cast before they even had a name for his character, Andy Kim, a widowed ex-child psychologist who runs a (probably haunted) foster home off the coast of Seattle. “We were writing the name ‘John Cho’ on the whiteboard and going, ‘Okay, in scene 6, John is going to do this,'” Slater recalls, laughing. “At some point, we realized if John actually said no, we would be in a lot of trouble.”
Luckily for them, Cho had been looking for a part unlike his previous work — he’d never played a father figure before, though he’s raising two children with his wife — and had been gravitating toward roles that included his race without depending on it.
It’s a balancing act he’s been struggling with since he began his career in the late ’90s after graduating from Berkeley. Back then, he declined parts built on Asian stereotypes, instead going for characters like the one he played in American Pie. In fact, that minor role may be the reason why people think of him as a potential movie star. “If you force me to think about myself and step outside of myself, I think I’m still carrying the goodwill from my tiny little part in American Pie,” he says. “They said, ‘Oh, that guy with the Asian face is 100 percent American. That guy’s not foreign, that guy’s not an other, that guy’s one of us. That guy’s just like me!'”
As his career blossomed, though, erasing his identity didn’t feel right either. “For a while, I was taking over parts that were written for a white person, and there was a time when I wore that as a badge of honor,” Cho explains. “And then I became disenchanted with that victory. I felt like, ‘Oh, well, that just revealed another issue, which is that no one’s writing parts that are Asian at all!'”
He laughs, pointing out that the opposite has turned out to be just as difficult to grapple with. “I would get scripts from Asian writers, and a lot of it was fantastic, but I started seeing, too, that some of it was very reactionary,” he says. “We were putting ourselves in a kind of corner, we were reacting to stereotypes all the time, and therefore being controlled by the stereotypes, too.”
But now, he says, he has that balancing act mostly figured out. “What I’ve been thinking about lately is how to tell stories that are specifically Asian-American but aren’t necessarily about being Asian-American as much,” he explains. “I’m looking at the totality of things.” That led him to the indie Columbus (above), in which he plays a Korean-born man raised in America who feels trapped when he heads to the titular Indiana town, where his estranged father has fallen into a coma. There, he meets a similarly trapped young woman (Haley Lu Richardson), and the pair strike up a relationship as she takes him to see the buildings that make up the architectural mecca they’ve found themselves in.
Released in August, the film drew rave reviews that praised Cho’s warm, introspective performance — a response that, he concedes, opened his eyes to how he could maybe, just maybe, become the leading man his fans think he could be.
“I’ve been rethinking everything after Columbus and I’m not trying to come up with any quick answers,” Cho says. “I don’t know what’s next. I’ve come to realize that I’ve done a lot of self-editing of my ambitions, and I’m trying to think bigger.” Turns out there’s a hashtag for that.
Cho can next be seen on The Exorcist, which returns Friday, Sept. 29, at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.