Star Trek fans were left in the cold with 2013’s JJ Abrams-helmed Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that mostly missed the mark with its retelling of the legendary “Wrath of Khan” story arc. But even in the wreckage that the movie left on the hearts and minds of Trekkies, the one bright spot of the modern reimagining of the series was John Cho, who plays the wily Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. The character of Sulu has always been cool under pressure, incredibly intelligent, and unflinchingly forward thinking––all characteristics that fit Cho himself.
Star Trek notwithstanding, the role of Asian Americans within film has become more minimized, leaving a gaping hole that not even casting mostly white actors in a film based on an anime can fill (here’s looking at you, Ghost In The Shell). The audience at large is starting to call BS on the homogeneity in film, on social media and elsewhere. One viral movement in particular has been gaining steam: #StarringJohnCho. The hashtag features the actor’s face superimposed on a variety of different movie posters, showing Hollywood how much better things would be if a little bit of bravery (and color) was put into their casting choices.
With Cho is returning to the role of Sulu in the latest sequel, Star Trek Beyond, he once again fills a vital role on the Enterprise, and is the subject of a surprising change that takes Sulu to a new, more progressive frontier. He’s been given a chance to show his range, simultaneously tearing down what little excuses Hollywood has left to deny their films of proper representation. We spoke to Cho about the controversial reveal for Sulu, his thoughts on Justin Lin joining the franchise, and his surprising pick of which movie from #StarringJohnCho that he’d love to star in.
The reception to Star Trek Into Darkness was mixed at best. So what do you feel like [director] Justin Lin brought to the franchise with Beyond that the fans can look forward to?
I’d like to tell fans of Trek, that Justin is a fan of Trek. But this guy is bringing in a skill set that hasn’t been there before. It’s the Fast and Furious skill set. He’s a guy who is able to take movement and visualize it in a way that nobody is really doing. Obviously it’s there in the action, but on a micro level, every shot tells a story with its movement. He was very keenly aware of showing and highlighting story and acting through that.
Do you feel like there was a bigger need to please the fans who were disappointed last time, or just focus on a more cohesive story?
I don’t really feel like it’s my place to worry about the big picture stuff, I’m there to worry about my character. That’s not on me, that’s on [JJ Abrams] and Justin, and [Simon Pegg and Doug Jung]. But personally, I did not want to react to Into Darkness by creating a movie that wasn’t Star Trek. There was this idea out there that we had to make a Trek movie that wasn’t Trek, if that makes any sense.
Or the feeling that you had to outdo it.
Exactly. This [franchise] has been around for 50 years. If we make a good Trek movie, we’ll be good. We’ll be squared away. I feel like that was achieved [with Beyond]. You get Simon in, he’s super funny, he cares about characters, and he cares about Trek. Then you bring in Justin, who’s got a love of Trek, but he’s going to bring the action element.
On a different note, did you see the #StarringJohnCho hashtag from a few weeks ago on social media?
Which one of those movies would you have liked to star in, if you could change the casting?
Any of the above. [Laughs.] There was a romcom that I saw. I’ve always wanted to do a romcom, so I’ll pick that one. The Martian, wait, no. London Has Fallen. That would be cool. Some “shoot-em-up” stuff.
What if they had you replace a hip hop album?
I’ll go with a classic! The Chronic. Yeah.
Matches with Harold and Kumar!
Yes! That’s one of those albums where people know every single track, and every single word. That’s the one.
One progressive change that was made in Beyond was making your character, Sulu, gay. What were your thoughts when you first found out about that?
I had a few concerns. First of all, I thought the idea was brilliant. My concerns were that, one, George Takei wouldn’t like it. But it’s not for the reasons he ended up not liking it. I was afraid he’d say: “Hey, I’m a gay actor that played a straight character, and then I [came out of the closet] and you’re making the character gay [because I am].” And that he would feel like we were usurping his sexuality. I thought he might dislike that, but that turned out that it wasn’t the case. I was also worried that Asian men, and I don’t necessarily conflate the idea of homosexuality with femininity, who felt that we have been emasculated for years in movies would [object to it], and I wanted Justin and company to think about that. Lastly, I worried that since Sulu is genetically the same Sulu but in a different timeline, that we might be accidently suggesting that sexual orientation is a choice. That was not our intention, and obviously there are a lot of different elements, but my position was that if we handled it the right way it might be cool.
It was handled very eloquently in the movie.
I’m glad you said that. But because of the way it was handled [in the movie], I feel like people aren’t really focusing on that, and focusing on our intent instead—which was to put a loving relationship that was normal, and continue to create a vision of the future that [Gene Roddenberry] envisioned in which all varieties are welcome.