Ever since his hilarious turn in 1999’s American Pie, John Cho has been one of the hardest working guys in show business. He was Harold in the Harold & Kumar movies, or more recently, Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop, and of course, he played the legendary Mr. Sulu in the J.J. Abrams-produced Star Trek films. And after Sulu was revealed to be a father in 2016’s Star Tek Beyond, it seems like Cho started picking up a lot of roles in which he played dads.
In 2018’s Searching, he tried to piece together his (fictional) daughter’s disappearance, using her laptop, and now, in his latest film, Don’t Make Me Go – which will premiere July 15 on Amazon Prime Video – Cho plays Max, a man who learns that he’s terminally ill and proceeds to take his daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) on a road trip to meet the woman who abandoned them both. It’s one of Cho’s most powerful films ever and proves that in terms of playing complex father figures on screen, Cho is just getting started. In addition to Don’t Make Me Go, he also just published a YA novel in March, called Troublemaker, exploring 1992’s L.A. riots through the eyes of Jordan, a 12-year-old Korean American boy, as he navigates school, friendships, and a complicated relationship with his father.
The charismatic Cho just turned 50 in June and is a very private father of two kids; a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old. We recently got the chance to catch up with this thoughtful, low-key actor. Here, he talks about Don’t Make Me Go, his hopes for the long-hoped-for fourth Star Trek movie, why he wrote Troublemaker, his memories of his own father, and what movie he may end up directing.
You have done massive movies and small movies, and you've done that throughout your entire career. What compels you to keep coming back and supporting independent features?
It's the content of the stories, and sometimes it's nice to shrink the scale. I quite enjoy smaller pictures. It's given me some of my best parts, and it's certainly what I grew up on. This balance of big blockbusters and smaller pictures, it's just an extension of my taste.
How about this one specifically?
As with everything I choose to do, it's a script that I closed and said to myself, “This is a movie that I personally would want to see even if I were not in it or didn't know anyone in it.” It spoke to me because I'm a father and could relate to this relationship.
What aspects of Max resonated with you?
I'm a control freak, and I'm in a career that deprives me of control. It seems a little masochistic, but if we think we have control over circumstances in our lives, that's illusory. He is trying to plan out everything for his daughter, so it comes from a benevolent place, and yet it is misguided in that it's not going to work. The point is that he needs to look around and appreciate what he has. I suppose maybe I took the role to remind myself of that lesson.
My dad passed away when I was seven, so I wanted to outlive my dad and, in case I didn’t, I wanted to make a mark on my kids so that they’d remember me. I get that feeling with Max. How much could you relate?
My father lost his father when he was young, and his model of growing up was that other people were his father. His brothers and uncles were his father. Having seen that, I was intent on being around as much as possible. Wherever it was going to lead, I didn't want my work to interfere to the extent that they would look back and say, “Where was he?”
What impressed you about young Mia Isaac, who was making her acting debut in the movie?
I guess “What didn't impress me about her?” would be an easier question to answer. We fell into a real, familial relationship instantly. What I liked about the character she was presenting to me was, even though the text of the scene was us bickering over something, what was underlying it clearly was this relationship of love and support. They had both lost the same person… her mother, my wife. They had to cope with that loss together and rely on each other. She looks and acts like she could be my daughter. We just fell into it, and I was rather parental with her in the sense that I was aware that it was her first feature. I wanted it to go well for her.
We were talking about massive movies a few minutes ago. A lot of people are hoping that a fourth J.J.-verse Star Trek movie will happen. How eager are you to make another one, and what would you like to see for Sulu in the next film?
I'd love to do another. It would be fun to have him do another action sequence, like in the first one. But I always hesitate to say things like that because the writers get paid to dream up big things for a living and I don't want to limit them.
You published Troublemaker. How did you enjoy the process of writing a novel?
Very much so. I still feel like I'm learning lessons from that experience, but the primary one is the satisfaction of taking on a project from beginning to end. As actors, we're involved in the middle of the process. We missed the pre-production and the post; we're just in there for the photography. This was different and has emboldened me to think more broadly about storytelling.
Troublemaker is a father/son story. Don't Make Me Go is a father/daughter story. Is it just a coincidence, or are you at an age where family stories are of particular interest for you to tell?
I'm sure it's the latter. If you were to ask me for one word to describe who I am, ‘father,’ is how I would describe myself. That’s who I am. It's the biggest part of my identity. That's how I think about myself, and therefore it's coming out in the work.
Watching the arc of your career, it feels as if you’re heading toward a director’s chair. So, when are you going to direct?
Maybe that's coming. Harold & Kumar 26!
Don’t Make Me Go is out on Amazon Video on July 15. Fatherly is proud to present this exclusive clip from the film.