Cowboy Bebop boss calls live-action Netflix series an 'expansion to the canon'
John Cho was living a "really quiet life," a "blissfully quiet" life at that, in New Zealand with his family when he realized he was trending on social media. Well, he wasn't. His hair was.
Cho and some of his costars on the live-action Cowboy Bebop series filmed a small something for the fans watching Netflix's virtual Geeked Week event in June. But the big talking point was the leading man's luscious locks that he grew out to channel the character of Spike Spiegel, the slick space cowboy originated in the anime series of the late '90s.
"People were texting me, 'FYI, your hair is trending on Twitter.' I did think it was a joke," Cho tells EW over Zoom from the land of Kiwis, where he filmed the show. "After multiple texts, I looked and literally it was trending on Twitter. I couldn't believe it. I have no idea how to feel about it."
The intense reaction was a pretty big sign that a large passionate fanbase still lives for the original Cowboy Bebop, released in Japan in 1998 and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, who serves as a consultant on the live-action adaptation. Cho wasn't aware of the anime until he landed the starring role, while showrunner André Nemec came to it a bit earlier.
Ten years ago, Nemec was driving back to Yonkers from a New York airport when his brother turned on the radio to some "eclectic, funky jazzy music" he'd never heard of. That music was by the great Yoko Kanno, who composed all the music for Cowboy Bebop and will be returning for the live-action rendition, which Nemec has been on a journey to make since that discovery a decade ago.
"I promise we will never take the original anime away from the purists. It will always exist out there," Nemec says. "But I'm very excited about the stories that we're telling. I believe we've done a really nice job of not violating the canon in any direction but merely offering some extra glimpses into the world that was already created."
Nemec does consider this Cowboy Bebop, premiering on Netflix this Nov. 19, to be "an expansion to the canon," in that the show will "add things" to the mythos.
"We got under the skin of who the live-action characters were going to be," he adds. "I think that the poetic nature of the anime absolutely allowed for us to mine the archetypal nature of the characters and dig out deeper histories that we wanted to explore — and answer some of the questions that the anime leaves you with. I think to just redo the anime will leave an audience hungry for something that they already saw. The anime did an amazing job. We don't need to serve the exact same meal. I think it would have been disappointing if we did."
Cowboy Bebop introduces a neo-noir, pulpy reality in which a disaster forces humanity to evacuate earth and colonize other planets and moons. Years after this event, rising crime rates have led authorities to legalize a contract system, in which registered bounty hunters can trade in criminals for cash. Cho's Spike, a smooth-talking suit lover, captain's the Bebop spacecraft with Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir), a former officer. As fate would have it, they cross paths with another bounty hunter, the not-to-be-messed-with Faye Valentine (Danielle Pineda).
It became clear to Nemec that Spike was a laconic character, "but that laconic nature underscored a darker past and a bit of pain," he says. "If you really break it down in the anime, he's a cowboy with a broken heart who really likes to gunsling and pretend nothing's wrong, but there is something wrong. As much as it was like, 'Let's go chase funny for Spike Spiegel one-liners,' there needs to be a real person underneath it."
Cho let the anime guide him in many ways. He mentions this is the first time he felt like he developed a character walk, which came from watching how Spike moves in the original series. But translating a character from something like anime is always a difficult task.
Pixar films, he says, "really animate the hell out of faces and gestures." With anime, he was impressed by how artists rendered "natural phenomena," like wind and rain. "But in terms of animation style, I found that there was a limit to where I could go with how the character was supposed to behave on a moment-to-moment basis."
"I had to blend in my own thoughts and ultimately leaned mostly on our scripts," he continues. "At some point you have to play the scenes that are written. You're in a scene, you're in episode 5, and you just have to play the circumstance and the character as you've built it."
The hair is one of those elements pulled directly from the anime. And a wig was out of the question. "I just really disliked the idea of a wig. Have you ever worn one? I'm just so aware of wigs," Cho says. "I said, 'I really want it to be my own hair.' It was a kind of a struggle to grow it out. It went through some really awkward phases."
"I definitely watched him have to tie it back and try to figure out how to manage it before we got him back in the chair," Nemec adds with a laugh.
Whatever thoughts fans may have about the live-action Cowboy Bebop, and there seems to be a lot of thoughts out there already, the hair seems to be a plus.