On Monday, April 24, actor and writer John Cho spoke in Johnson Chapel to a packed audience, many of whom had arrived as early as 30 minutes prior to secure a spot. The event drew students from throughout the Five Colleges. He discussed his path to acting, the evolving role of Asian Americans in cinema, and the place of Asian stereotypes during his hour with Pawan Dhingra, who is assistant provost, assistant dean of the faculty, and a professor of American studies.
The event, titled “Breaking Barriers in Hollywood: A Conversation with John Cho,” was moderated by Dhingra. President Michael Elliott introduced Cho, crediting Tony Chan ’72 and the Asian American Studies Initiative Fund for sponsoring the event.
Cho is best known for his role as Harold Lee in the “Harold & Kumar” film franchise, but he also starred in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise and the films “American Pie,” “Columbus,” and “Searching.” He has also written a New York Times-bestselling children’s book, “Troublemaker,” published in 2022.
Asked about how other Asian American representation influenced his decision to start acting, Cho noted that he had never considered acting before watching Asian American actors in a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” while attending the University of California, Berkeley. He had only been hired to tear down the set immediately after the performance, but he found himself inspired to begin his own journey in acting.
“I literally didn’t think that Asian Americans could be on TV and in film,” he said. But, like the four-minute mile or other perceived impossibles, he understood that he could do the same once he saw their work. He quickly moved from stage to screen. Soon after, he landed his first major role in a blockbuster film: “American Pie” (1999).
While working on the first “Harold & Kumar” film, Cho said, he realized that the project was different from other depictions of Asian Americans on screen. Before “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” premiered in 2004, Asian American stories had catered to white audiences. They featured a white protagonist and Asian American characters following the model minority trope, a trend so pervasive that Cho admitted he “thought [‘Harold & Kumar’] was a hoax.” Instead of contributing to the model minority stereotype, “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” shows two Asian men (Cho and Kal Penn’s Kumar, respectively) go on a turbulent, comedic quest to get burgers from the fast-food chain White Castle after smoking marijuana.
Cho noted that he puts a piece of himself in every role, asking himself what he would do in a given scenario faced by his character. What would he do if he was in a spaceship, for example, or if he wanted burgers after getting stoned? “I don’t have to imagine too hard on some of those,” he joked.
Dhingra and Cho then discussed the common narrative of escaping Asian culture as an evolution of the model minority myth. Cho argued that love is seen as separate from Asian culture in cinema, so it is portrayed as a good thing when characters leave their backgrounds. He also argued that the term “Asian American” is a useful political identity for organizing, but it holds little cultural significance, especially in film.
Cho’s talk also traced the changing inclusivity of the movie industry since the 1990s, when he started acting. Cho recalled the days of “breakdown sheets,” which outlined character traits that would be important to look for in an actor who would fill the role — the breakdown sheets would often specify whether the character could be played by an actor of color. More often than not, explained Cho, leading roles were explicitly restricted to white actors.
When asked to reflect on the driving forces behind the increased diversity of actors in the film industry, Cho responded, “The history of film has always been the history of technology.” New technology has allowed Hollywood to penetrate the global market, which has driven today’s cultural ideas in a way that allows Asians and Asian Americans to reach the highest echelons of achievement in the industry.
Cho also reflected on his own contribution to this shift in the film industry: “As far as my participation in [the shift], upon reflection, my contribution is … I helped create a space for Asian American men in particular that wasn’t there before.” He further elaborated, “When I was growing up, all Asian men were ‘other.’ I helped create an idea that Asian men could be ‘us.’ That’s as much credit as I’ll take.”
Cho was forced to reckon with the relationship between his race and his fame in 2020, during the pandemic’s early days when Asians were increasingly being victimized by violent attacks across the country. “We can feel completely invisible, and fame makes you visible in a way that contradicts what your race does to you on a daily basis,” remarked Cho. “Then there’s some national event that makes us too visible. Then we’re punished or scapegoated,” he added, referring to the racist misconception that Asians were responsible for the Covid pandemic.
Dhingra pointed out that Asians are often applauded for working hard and finding success but then criticized when their success reaches a certain point. Cho responded that the model minority myth places Asians “next-in-line to be white.” He described this as a “dangerous liminal space” that leaves Asian Americans vulnerable to sudden changes in how they are treated by the white ruling class.
The discussion highlighted the importance of film as a medium that can help change stereotypes and popular perceptions of Asian Americans. Cho remarked that he “[doesn’t] like to approach storytelling as a political tool, but having said that, it is, of course, plainly political,” adding, “The real power of storytelling is encouraging empathy.”
Since Cho majored in English during college, Dhingra asked him about the value that being a student of the humanities has brought to his life as an actor, writer, and musician. Cho credited his humanities education for his ability to empathize with others and navigate the world, but he encouraged students to “study what you want to study and figure it out later.” He emphasized that college is a time for exploration and that many people pursue careers unrelated to their major.
Dhingra’s final question was centered around Cho’s remark that he considers quitting acting every five years. “I just don’t know how I’d earn money otherwise,” Cho admitted, but he acknowledged that there was always some role that renewed his interest in the art. For example, his role as Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek” made him return to the nostalgia of childhood imagination, and his role as Jin Lee in “Columbus” inspired him to further explore dramatic, rather than comedic, acting.
To end the talk, Cho took questions from the audience. His responses touched on his role in the screenlife film “Searching,” which involved acting alone, directly into a camera lens. “I was awesome in that,” he said, which earned him cheers and shouts. Later, though, he discussed revision in acting and said he regrets almost all of his choices immediately after performing. It would be interesting, he thought, to reshoot an entire movie for a second time immediately after the first, although not practical. He concluded the conversation by highlighting the space that immigrant children occupy in America. He said that during childhood, he didn’t feel Korean or American enough, but he wanted to emphasize to the audience that this feeling is normal and okay. The event ended with uproarious applause and a buzzing audience.