Wish Dragon star John Cho says his work is informed by a 'desire to please myself as a kid'
He’s been to White Castle, the Final Frontier, and Over the Moon, but now the actor is just trying to enter the spirit world in Netflix’s Wish Dragon.
Puff, puff… ask?
John Cho is no stranger to smoke, but his next film is a little more family-friendly than his Harold & Kumar escapades. In Wish Dragon (June 11), a charming, ethereal adventure about the exponential lengths we're willing to go for friendship, Cho voices a wish-granting hot pink fire-breather named Long who gives teen Din (Jimmy Wong) three chances to change his life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wish Dragon opens with two kids who clearly need each other. Do you still keep in touch with your own childhood best friend?
JOHN CHO: I did recently get in touch with [him]. Tony Kim. He was the cool guy, great at football and video games. He was [also] Korean, but I was the more recent immigrant. I just saw him as someone who was American. He was my model and my hero. I was 7-years-old at the time. We moved away later and lost touch.
What spurred you both talking again?
Our parents reconnected, and they put the two of us in touch.
Speaking of parents, you and I are both Asian American and have dealt with racism our entire lives, but it obviously hits differently when you have kids. Have you discussed the rise in crimes against the AAPI community with your son and daughter?
Actually, at the beginning of the pandemic we had a big discussion about it because down our street [in Los Angeles] somebody had spray painted the word "China" underneath the word "Stop" on a stop sign. I think it was a wake-up call for our family because we live in what was widely regarded as a blue neighborhood. We had to bring up those topics as a family. We had to talk about why someone would do that. It was tough. [My wife Kerri and I] are trying to be honest, but also not put so much energy into it that it makes them anxious.
This actually leads into one of the things my wife and I have been struggling with. Our daughter is only 5, but I'm already worrying about how to prepare her for even, say, that inevitable question that all Asians get: "No, but where are you really from?" Have your kids experienced this yet?
We had an incident with my daughter, something like that that you're talking about. We talked to the staff at school, and you know, I don't know that it was solved to our satisfaction. The way it was resolved was that the child was instructed, I imagine, to write a note of apology that said, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings." In my opinion this is really the crux of the problem of discussing racism: It's about your feelings rather than the person's incorrect view of humanity. And so that's why the American media talks about the race problem with this euphemism "race relations." What do you think of race relations? Because it's not a relation problem, it's a justice problem. So, we try to manage our own reactions so that's it not so huge and give them a sort of global perspective on why it's important to know that for us, that whatever country they're in, if it's America, or currently we're in New Zealand, it's not the whole world. Frame their identity globally, rather than locally.
Is it because of your kids that you keep picking Asian animated projects, like Over the Moon and Mirai?
[Laughs] It's partially what I'm asked to do, but also I would like to put Asian animated characters into the world, especially into American culture, which is my culture. All my work has been informed by what I saw as a kid and my desire to please myself as a kid. Sometimes when I was younger, I would get a lot of roles or I would get auditions that were, "Well, is this a stereotype or not?" and my litmus test was always, "What would I as a kid think? Would I appreciate this or would I resent it?" And, so I suppose in some ways the animation stuff would be for my kids, but also for myself as a kid.
Would you be down for another Harold & Kumar?
Yeah, I mean we've talked about it before. I think the last time me and the creators spoke was over a year ago. We just had a difficult time envisioning what tone it would have because pre-election there seemed to be some kind of inflection point in our understanding of what our country was. It was like we were right in the middle of deciding what America was gonna be in a fundamental way. And, I don't know if the election has solved it. I know this sounds really weird because it's just a stoner movie, but on the other hand, the movie is kind of concerned with what and who America is.
I love the franchise for how much it broke stereotypes for Asian men. I thought that was so important.
Yeah, I think the genre really allowed us to do and say things that weren't being said.
In Wish Dragon, Long gets to grant three wishes, but if you could have three wishes, what would they be?
I just want everybody in my family to be happy. I want the kids to grow up without any major hang-ups. I would love it if no one ever said a bad thing to them. It's funny cause I'm just sending my kids off to a new school, and, uh, so much anxiety. All I want is for everyone to be nice to my kids.
Before he was a dragon, Long was once a selfish emperor. Would you rather be a ruler who was feared or loved?
Oh, man, it's all about love! I would like the love of my people. [Laughs]
A version of this story appears in the July issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands June 18 and available to order. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.