Because names like Shatner and Nimoy have so much mojo, J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot was going to either stand or fall on its casting. Actor John Cho was acutely aware of this when he signed on for the first film, released in 2009. In a call to the Straight, the Korean-American actor noted that his character, Sulu—in contrast to original series leads like Kirk and Spock—went from supporting player to something else entirely as the years went on.
“I think that has to do with George Takei,” he said, in a call from San Francisco. “One, his performance, and secondly who he’s become in popular culture. I think over the years my opinion of him has become this: he’s one of the bravest people I know. And in particular, as someone who’s done comedy, I really respect that he’s willing to be laughed at.”
Takei’s visibility has also increased dramatically since he went public with his sexuality in 2005, and he’s put his unique position in culture to effective use in a number of memorable ways. Calling homophobic Arkansas school board member Clint McCance “a total douchebag” in a YouTube message currently standing at 1.6 million views comes to mind.
“There’s a certain currency that fame affords you,” Cho continued. “Some people hoard that currency, and he’s always been willing to spend it in the service of causes he believes in. For that I really respect him.”
All that aside, Cho’s own take on the helmsman of the USS Enterprise was every bit as winning as Chris Pine's and Zachary Quinto's reinventions of Kirk and Spock. In fact, their first kick at the franchise was such a smash—convincing not only fans but also bringing in a much larger audience of casual viewers—that Cho admitted the pressure going into sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (now playing) was, if anything, greater.
“On the other hand,” he added, “I’m not J.J. Abrams, who’s ultimately responsible. I’m just his Asian puppet. Which, by the way, is also the title of my autobiography.”
But seriously folks, Cho continued, “You’re aware of the pressure, you’re aware of some of the pitfalls, but you have this guy who—forgive me—he’s the captain of our ship, and he’s more than capable. I’ve learned not to sweat that part.”
And finally, now that the actor has had a few years to meet the fans, are there Sulu loyalists out there? “Seems to me,” Cho answered, “but you know what? My sample size is skewed. I wouldn’t know how large this army is, but I will tell you, I adore them.”