John Cho knows a thing or two about breaking free from conventional Asian American roles.
Since his days of playing Harold in the “Harold and Kumar” film series of the early 2000s, the actor has had several “first Asian” titles attached to his name – the first Asian male lead in a Hollywood romance series with “Selfie” (2014) along with the first Asian male lead of a mainstream thriller with “Searching” (2018). It’s possible there’s even more hidden among his 100-plus acting credits.
In Amazon Prime Video’s newly released emotional film, “Don’t Make Me Go,” Cho takes on the role of Max, one-half of the father-daughter duo opposite Mia Issac’s Wally. He takes her on a road trip with the promise of teaching her how to drive once he discovers the headaches he’s been having are due to a terminal illness. It’s a role that the Korean American actor says wasn’t “written Asian,” which is clear when watching his open interactions with Wally on typically taboo topics like love and dating – very much against the strict, conservative archetype of an Asian dad.
Prior to the premiere, Cho chatted with NextShark over Zoom about his latest role, noting how “authentic” it felt for his character to be developed in such a manner.
“This felt very authentic because of the circumstance,” he says. “I think Max wants to be an authoritarian figure – that’s how he was raised – but there’s this event that happened that affected both of them, which is they lost this person in common, who was her mother and his wife. And they’ve had to cope with that absence in different ways, individually.”
That absence is what’s made them “grow much more intimate” with one another, something Cho finds to mirror the relationship of that of many real-life Asian fathers with their daughters.
“I see with a lot of Asian dads, over the years as they get older, especially with their daughters, there’s an intimacy that happens as they get older, that they didn’t have when the dad was trying very hard to, quote, ‘teach them, prepare them for independence.’”
Though even in scenes alone, removed from the father-daughter dynamic, Cho presents an image of an Asian man that’s hardly shown on screen. In short segments woven throughout the movie, Cho is seen lying in bed next to a woman he’s casually seeing, and the unconventional image of an Asian dad becomes the even more unconventional image of a charismatic, desirable Asian man — the sort of image that Cho says is familiar to him in real life despite being left out of Hollywood’s “narrow version of the world.”
“All of the stuff in there felt authentic,” he says. “It was things that either I’d seen or was very close to having seen. Nothing felt wrong to me. And in terms of what Hollywood has done, or how Hollywood has portrayed Asian men, my general feeling is that the narrow version of the world that Hollywood has traditionally presented over most of its history has been a fiction, and the more diverse world that we’re presenting, that’s the real authentic world. And that’s the thing that feels more natural, and actually easier to portray, in that I don’t have to change anything. And this feels like real life. And what I grew up seeing on television, and in movies – that was the fiction.”
As for what other “first Asian” titles Hollywood still needs to hand out to break away from this sort of “fiction,” Cho mostly just wants it all to be over already.
There needs to be a first Asian Western movie, he says, in which case Cho would happily assume the title of Hollywood’s first Asian cowboy. But otherwise, “I look forward to them all being done real soon, and that we can get to seconds and thirds and fourths,” he says.
“I want to get rid of them all. And hopefully, that happens in rapid succession. And the other thing that I hope for is that we see first that we hadn’t even conceived of yet, you know, because I’m from another generation and the first I’m going to think about are really anachronistic. And I look forward to people of me as a generation thinking about first and expanding the definition of what Asian American cinema is and what Asian American characters are, to the point of non-recognizability. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
“Don’t Make Me Go” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
Featured Image via Amazon Studios