John Cho of ‘Selfie’ is rebranding the Asian American male

October 21, 2014
John Cho as Henry Higgs in ABC's "Selfie" (ABC/Bob D'Amico)

John Cho as Henry Higgs in ABC’s “Selfie” (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

By Tae Hong

John Cho’s moment of triumph came during a Television Critics Association press tour in July.

A panel on ABC’s new series “Selfie” had run for 45 minutes. While the reporters clamored over co-star Karen Gillan’s Scottish accent and background, not a single mention of Cho’s casting — the unheard-of phenomenon of an Asian actor cast to play a romantic leading role on primetime television — was had.

“My color bumped no reporters,” Cho said. “That absence of talk was the greatest thing about it.”

Based on the musical “My Fair Lady,” the romantic comedy follows social media-obsessed sales rep Eliza Dooley, played by Gillan, and Cho’s Henry Higgs, a marketing expert who’s given the mission of rebranding her.

Cho got the script after it had been passed to a set of older English actors, none of whom had been the right fit for the disapproving, reluctant Henry Higgs. The writing was strong and the show creator, Emily Kapnek, charming. He went for it.

“I’m not sure that I had seen an Asian American man do this particular thing before, and whenever I think that thought, I like it,” he said. “I like that about a script.”

Scripts become considerations of things like stereotypes and implications for Cho, who says he thinks about it to the point of distraction. Playing a stereotypical Asian never settled with the 1.5-generation actor, not even in the early days of his career.

He knew his portrayals wouldn’t primarily be used for an Asian American audience. It made him feel dirty, as though he had to own up to it.

“I think about young me. If I were 12 years old and seeing me on television or on movies, would I like this or dislike it? Would I be happy about it, or would I be embarrassed?” Cho said. “As a viewer, I’ve had those thoughts, and I’ve had those experiences as a young man. There are certain actors and performances and roles that had a positive impact on me and others that made me cringe. I just never wanted to be in the ‘cringe’ category.”

"A Little Yelp From My Friends" - Henry and Eliza discover that their most valuable office relationship might be their own after Saperstein mandates his employees to work on their interpersonal connectivity, on "Selfie," TUESDAY, OCTOBER 14 (8:00-8:30 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/John Fleenor)

Cho as Henry and Karen Gillan as Eliza on ABC’s “Selfie.” (ABC/John Fleenor)

Preventing cringes may have prevented him from being tossed into a rabbit hole of oft-seen Asian sidekicks. Instead, Cho finds himself drawn to untried characters: The FBI agent. The stoner who’s just looking for a burger. The MILF guy. The undead. The successor to George Takei’s iconic Sulu. And now, a rom-com leading man.

The Cho family came to America when he was just 6. They eventually settled in Los Angeles, where his father took on a job as a Christian preacher for a church with a congregation that included Koreatown residents.

He remembers driving around the region in the church van to pick up members, learning to read Korean through the town’s signs, feeling a connection to the area as a teenager with roots in Seoul. He even worked for a short while at the Koreatown Youth & Community Center; he still visits a Koreatown tailor for his suits.

It’s all a part of why Cho finds it hard to ignore his identity as a Korean immigrant. The “rep your people” attitude stays with him every step of the way.

“There was this sense of, people will know what Koreans are or who Koreans are or what Korea is via you,” he said. “There was something extra pushing what I do deep down in there somewhere.”

While “Selfie” started airing Sep. 30, to mixed-to-positive reviews (the resounding complaint seems to revolve around the show’s name, which Cho himself agrees is “polarizing”), Cho’s table is still filled with projects. Sulu’s still on it, for one, prepared for a third “Star Trek” film. There’s his band, Viva La Union. And then there are his hopes to work with Korean filmmakers.

The quick rise of South Korean cinema on the international stage hasn’t escaped Cho, who says he would love to one day work with “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook. Asian filmmakers use cameras with a different eye, he says.

But for now, his focus is on the show, which received an order for more episodes by ABC last week. Cho’s excited as anyone for the show to see success.

“It feels great, but it’s also nerve-wracking. Sometimes I think about, if the show fails, I hope it doesn’t have an adverse effect on progress for Asian Americans,” Cho said. “But the bottom line is, I’m proud and it’s overdue and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

4 Comments

  1. Jason

    October 22, 2014 at 6:45 AM

    If you’re reading this, we’re all proud of you John! Keep representing for the Asian-Americans. You’ve already broken barriers and we all can’t wait to see you break more! :D

  2. edge

    October 26, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    He’s an inspiration to all Asian Men not just Korean. If only asian actors/actresses had half the self-respect he does.

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