An Actor’s Quest for Diversity in Film

Actor John Cho poses for a portrait during ABC's 2014 TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Christopher Polk—ABC/Getty Images Actor John Cho poses for a portrait during ABC's 2014 TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Star Trek actor says the key to his success has been audiences seeing him as an all-American, but John Cho says his Korean roots got him there

Humble Beginnings Born in South Korea in 1972, Cho lived simply with his family before emigrating to the U.S. in 1978. “It was a time in Korea when there were very few modern conveniences,” he says. “We didn’t have a bathroom inside or a refrigerator. When you wanted chicken, you pointed at an animal that was clucking.” Still, he says, “it was a happy childhood.”

Falling into Film “I stumbled into acting as a student at U.C. Berkeley but had no idea where it would go,” says Cho, who notes he was very aware that there were few people in Hollywood who looked like him. His father, a minister, suggested an alternative career: newscaster. “He was saying, ‘You get to be on-camera, and there are actual Asians who read the news.’ But my goal was to support myself with acting by 40, or else I’d quit. I was very realistic about it.”

Finding a Slice of the Pie “The reason I think American Pie made my career is, as small a role as it was, people saw me and thought, ‘Oh, that kid is definitely American,’ ” says Cho. “It was significant in that they didn’t have to accentuate it with an accent or anything. Often Asian actors have to fight for the American part of their identity.”

The Face of a Movement In 2016 digital strategist William Yu started the “Starring John Cho” social campaign, placing Cho’s face on popular movie posters as a call for more Asian-American leading men. “I was defensive at first,” Cho says. “Then after spending two seconds with it, I thought it was brilliant. It was a very simple way to point out what’s wrong with how we perceive who our heroes are.”

American Made Now married with two kids, Cho believes his immigration story is what makes
him a true U.S. citizen: “Coming from nothing and trying to make something in a new place and thriving? That’s just American.”

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