John Cho talks the importance of representation in Hollywood

Over a two-decade-long career, John Cho has broken many glass ceilings. He has been the first Asian-American actor to headline a mainstream Hollywood thriller (Searching) and the first Asian-American actor to play lead in a rom com TV series (Selfie). And of course, there are roles in Star Trek, American Pie and the Harold and Kumar franchises. The actor is soon adding some more diversity to that filmography with his upcoming dramedy Don’t Make Me Go–a sweet story of the bond between a father and his daughter. John and his on-screen daughter Mia Isaac spoke to Hindustan Times ahead of the film about their off-screen bond and how depiction of race has changed in Hollywood. Also read: John Cho’s Hikaru Sulu becomes the first openly gay Star Trek character

Don’t Make Me Go is the story of Max (John) who has a terminal disease and decides to take a cross country road trip with his reluctant teenage daughter (Mia) to reunite her with her estranged mother. Much of the film takes place in a car with only the two leads and hence, required great chemistry. Talking about how they developed that bond, Mia says, “The audition process and the rehearsals were all initially virtual. So, it was proof that there was really something special that we were able to connect over Zoom, Skype and things like that. When I got to New Zealand, I was in a foreign country and I had no idea what I was doing so I was glad that I at least knew John.”

John Cho and Mia Isaac play a father-daughter duo on a road trip in Don't Make Me Go.
John Cho and Mia Isaac play a father-daughter duo on a road trip in Don’t Make Me Go.

The Hannah Marks directorial deals with serious issues but has a hint of comedy as well, hopping genres every now and then. For John, maintaining that balance between drama and comedy was not a challenge. “It’s not like the other road trip I did– Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” he says with a laugh, adding, “But it’s really just about following the script. It was obvious when we needed to be funny and obvious when we didn’t need to be. Sometimes, we’d find humor in a moment that wasn’t particularly scripted. It’s not something you necessarily map out.”

Kal Penn and John Cho in a still from the cult classic comedy Harold &  Kumar Go to White Castle.
Kal Penn and John Cho in a still from the cult classic comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

While the film does not talk about race, by casting an Asian-American man and a half Asian-half African American girl as his daughter, it does make a subtle statement about representation. Mia finds this a welcome change. “What I also love about this movie is that it’s not something that has to be explained that I am his daughter. Growing up, it was hard with my mom and people not automatically knowing I was her daughter because I didn’t quite look like her. I think it’s really cool that it’s normalized in a way that I get to be John’s daughter and it doesn’t have to be explained,” she says.

John has, of course, seen the change in treatment of representation of minorities in Hollywood over two decades. For him, the film’s take on representation is a big step. He argues, “Especially in American cinema, when people of color are on screen, there is always a lot of justification as to why they’re on screen. That kind of explanation doesn’t always feel natural. This was a way we thought would be seen as an example of looking at how it’s a part of their lives but that’s not the way they live. People don’t move around thinking we are this race or this colour. That’s now how people regard themselves.” Don’t Make Me Go releases on Amazon Prime Video this Friday.

John draws a loose parallel between the road trip in this film and the legendary one undertaken by his and Kal Penn’s characters in the 2004 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The film and its two subsequent sequels made John–or at least his character–a household name. Talking about Harold’s place in his life and career, John says, “I’m still in the Harold shadow. It’s still dark and I’m happy to be in that shadow. I am fine with it. I am very proud of that film. People obviously have a lot of affection for those characters and we were doing something that was really different at the time. It was forward-thinking and raunchy. If that’s the first line of my obituary, I’m good with it.”

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