To highlight the lack of Asian-American leading men in Hollywood, the hashtag #StarringJohnCho became a trending topic last year, with netizens casting the talented actor in mock-up posters of blockbuster films.
Less than a year later, John Cho actually got to play a leading role in the recently-released indie drama “Columbus”.
Make no mistake about it — with nearly 100 acting credits to his name, he is, in fact, one of the most visible Asian American actors in Hollywood today.
Yet there is something about the role in his latest film that sets it apart from his other notable ones, such as the heroic Hikaru Sulu in the new “Star Trek” trilogy or the stoner Harold Lee in the “Harold and Kumar” movies.
In his new movie, which opened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews, Cho is finally getting the “genuine movie star” attention he deserves.
In an interview with GQ, Cho himself indicated how “Columbus” marks a departure from the roles he used to portray.
“I feel like I waited my whole life for this movie. Maybe I had forgotten that impulse [that] drew me to movies in the first place. [Kogonada] is such an artist, and he made me feel like an artist.”
The movie tells the story of Jin (Cho), who makes an unplanned trip to Columbus, Indiana to attend to his estranged ill father and give a lecture there.
According to the L.A. Times, Kogonada, who is also Korean-American, said Cho initially wasn’t considered for the role, despite writing the character of Jin as Korean-American.
“The challenge in American cinema is you have these really wonderful Asian American actors but there’s not a lot of opportunities for these actors to show their range,” Kogonada was quoted as saying.
“Before I was introduced to John Cho, I didn’t know he had studied theater. I didn’t know his whole background.”
It was “Columbus” producer Chris Weitz, who had worked with Cho on the cult hit “American Pie”, who convinced Kogonada to send the actor a copy of the script. Cho admitted that he was uncertain Kogonada would grant him the role.
“I’m sure he had his trepidations about me,” Cho shared when he first met the video essayist.
Fortunately, the two had some similar interests as film enthusiasts and experiences as immigrants, and they immediately hit it off.
“What was exciting to me in talking to Kogonada was I was just very convinced that he was a very real and pure artist,” Cho said.
“He was so uninterested in the commercial game. Sometimes I feel indie directors are in the game so they can make a film to get hired to do a big film — that we’re all doing this person’s reel. This is not that guy.”
While casting Cho enabled the film to have one of the few experienced Asian-American actors working today, it still proved a challenge to find producers who would be willing to fund the project.
“We went through so many financiers who essentially said, ‘There’s no market value in an Asian male lead,’ and really dismissed it regardless of who it was,” Kogonada said.
“For me, and maybe for people who have been in the industry long enough, that was no surprise at all. We did have to go through that until we found this incredible partner in Danielle Renfrew Behrens and Superlative Films.”
The film, which also stars Haley Lu Richardson, opened Friday in New York City and Los Angeles, earning early praises from prominent movie critics. It currently has an approval rating of 97% based on 34 reviews, with an average rating of 8.5/10 on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The site’s critical consensus reads, “Wonderfully acted and artfully composed, Columbus balances the clean lines of architecture against the messiness of love, with tenderly moving results.”
Columbus also had a solid opening weekend gross of $28,800 from two theaters, one located in New York City and the other in Los Angeles, averaging $14,400 per theater.
Cho, who is currently filming a lead role for the second season of Fox’s “The Exorcist”, has a busy schedule and plenty of other projects lined up this year.
In the neo-noir indie “Gemini”, which is scheduled to be released in theaters next year, Cho gets to play a detective. He also has a recurring role on the upcoming third season of Hulu’s “Difficult People”.