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John Cho Is Not a ‘What If’ Story

The 'Cowboy Bebop’ star is a bona-fide pioneer for Asian Americans in modern Hollywood

I was 15 years old when I saw, for the first time, an Asian-American man in a starring role on screen, sans accent or the backdrop of an Asian neighborhood or country. It was a DVD rental of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, starring Kal Penn and John Cho as two seemingly opposite stoners, searching for solace in the form of niche fast food. 

This wasn’t like my fandom of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who had started blowing up in Hollywood in the late 1990s and early aughts for their martial arts flicks, which often featured elements of Chinese language and culture. This wasn’t like any of the John Woo action movies my dad had shown me, nor was it another iteration of tired Asian stereotypes, canonized in classics like Sixteen Candles (remember Long Duk Dong?) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which had literal yellowface).  

Instead, it was just two regular American guys, wading into the waters of an unknown adventure. Their Asian identities, although illustrated in various ways (through their families, job pressures, rude remarks from strangers, etc.), never become caricatures. And Cho, in particular, stood out for proving something important to me: That a Korean-American kid could make it in Hollywood and land a leading role while staying true to themselves. 

Years later, as I fell deeper in love with acting and performance, my dad would occasionally remind me of something, perhaps trying to save me from the heartache of the industry: “I know you love the craft, but there’s a reason why Hollywood stars don’t look like you.”

All I could say in 2008 was: “Well, John Cho does.” 

But even that belies the trials and tribulations that Cho himself has faced in his career, whether it’s run-of-the-mill industry racism or losing out on passion projects. His filmography isn’t a particularly dense one, in part because of what Hollywood has (or more importantly, hasn’t) sent his way, and his own choosy discretion in participating. All of this is strange because Cho has proven, again and again, his talent and versatility in everything from American Pie to 2018’s excellent Searching, in which Cho carries the film as the hurt, obsessive father of a missing teenage girl. 

Three years later, Cho is back in his newest leading role, as mercurial bounty hunter Spike Spiegel in the live-action adaptation of the beloved anime series Cowboy Bebop. The series’ debut on Netflix has been met with very mixed reviews, much of it critical of the shift in mood and tone from the original animation. But people are glowing about Cho’s performance, which melds whip-smart violence with a sardonic weariness that informs Spike’s worldview. There’s a gravity to his gravitas that helps pull together the story and his partners-in-crime, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda). 

In one sense, I’m not surprised by the lukewarm reception — live-action adaptations of beloved anime properties have failed over and over again, including the 2017 flop Ghost in the Shell. But more importantly, it feels like another “what if” moment for Cho, who has been let down in his career by machinations that are out of his control. 

Consider the cancellation of Selfie, the well-received rom-com in which he starred alongside Karen Gillan. The underrated show allowed Cho to stretch his dramedy skills while also being the rare Asian man love interest, but was chopped short right as it was hitting its stride. Then there’s his exit from Alan Yang’s critically acclaimed 2020 indie drama Tigertail — an unfortunate consequence of editing out an entire timeline in the movie, despite Cho’s allegedly beautiful performance. 

Meanwhile, there are all the roles that Cho simply didn’t get, in an industry in which merely being Asian can relegate you to diversity hires. All the way back in 2002, before he ever hit it big, Cho was already turning down roles with stereotyped accents. Even after he blew up for Harold & Kumar, he kept running into casual racism spewed to his face. “They’ll say, ‘We can’t cast an Asian because this other person is Asian,’ or ‘We’ve got another Asian.’ The fact that people are very open about it is very surprising to me, because you assume it, based upon the product. It would be weird to be in human resources and say, ‘Oh, we can’t hire another Asian in accounting, because there’s a black dude in accounting, so, thank you very much,’” he said in a Vulture interview a few years ago. 

It’s not a coincidence that he became the subject of a viral hashtag movement in 2016, dubbed #StarringJohnCho, which envisioned him as the leading man in all kinds of major Hollywood films and franchises (this was done literally, using Photoshopped movie posters). It seems to have been a bit of a bewildering moment for Cho, who has had to strike the balance of caring a lot about Asian identity while also debating the burdens of “representation” and the view that he is a pioneer. 

He openly worries that focusing too much on what roles an “Asian man” should pursue, and mulling all the opportunities one doesn’t get, can suck the life and fun out of a career in acting. Yet, it’s also obvious that he can’t help but think about these things, whether related to the anti-Asian violence of 2020 or what he represents to the broader Asian-American community. 

“I really feel like it’s this collective dream that we all want to be a part of. Culture is this thing that exists apart from our real life but is something we all have tacitly agreed to in America. And what film and television do, particularly in this country, is lay out the characters involved in this invisible agreement, and dictate who and what can participate,” as he said in that aforementioned Vulture piece.

What’s become clear to me, as a fan of Cho, is that he is ready for the next generation of Hollywood — an industry that, when it comes to representation, will have evolved beyond the dichotomy of whether or not to write an Asian role for an Asian guy. It’s a kind of post-race utopia that seems yet impossible to attain, but it’s clear Cho craves it. “Like, if someone offered me a movie where I could punch someone on a moving train, maybe I would consent to being called a chink in that movie, because I would like to do that so much,” he told GQ in 2018.

With Cowboy Bebop, Cho has been given the opportunity to punch and shoot a lot of baddies in a bunch of vehicles, not just a moving train — and there’s not a “chink” audible anywhere. Perhaps that’s tangible progress, especially given the racial vagueness of the character Spike Spiegel. And it builds upon the victory of Searching, the 2018 film that won huge audiences in Cho’s native Korea on top of earning Western plaudits. “The fact that it was an American film starring an Asian person that was popular in an Asian country, that’s very important to me. And what’s interesting is that it wasn’t a cultural film. It was just a thriller. But it culturally spoke to them,” Cho told Glass magazine in 2019. 

It must have been strange and cathartic to be on a press tour in Korea, unable to speak the language after leaving the country as a young child to live in America. But that’s what makes Cho so relatable to me, and a whole bunch of other millennial Asian Americans who were trying to strike a tenuous balance between fitting in and articulating cultural pride. It’s why Harold & Kumar resonated beyond the bong rips and slapstick gags, and it’s also why I fell in love with 2017’s Columbus, a quiet, deeply affecting drama about a Korean-American man living in Ohio, forced to weigh grief, familial duty and ambition in a place that doesn’t feel like home.

Cowboy Bebop is a display of Cho’s endless versatility, regardless of the reviews, and I can’t help but hope that it gives new momentum to his work. Almost a decade ago, in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Cho got honest about the trajectory of his career, and what he hoped to accomplish. “I’ve become more interested in second and third acts, and a lot less interested in that splashy debut. For me, the most interesting thing is longevity and sustaining a career, because that’s what’s truly difficult,” he said.

Once again, Cho has proven that he’s not going anywhere — and I have a feeling that we haven’t even hit the second act in his Hollywood story.