LOS ANGELES—For a little while there, John Cho was known as “MILF Guy #2”. That’s how he was credited for his work in American Pie, a low-budget film about high school students trying to lose their virginity that exploded in 1999. The film’s box office receipts alone garnered tenfold its cost and spawned two successful sequels, with Cho returning for both.
Though the series didn’t require too much in the way of intensive performance from the Korean-born actor—his main responsibility was seeking out Stifler’s Mom (Jennifer Coolidge) and calling her a MILF—Cho's part led to a starring role in another film about young people engaging in promiscuous activity, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). (Not to mention the film’s sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, because really, let’s not mention it.)
At a hotel room press conference in Beverly Hills for Star Trek Beyond, Cho, who reprises his role of Sulu, is nothing like the characters he portrayed in those coming-of-age comedies. Sure, he doesn’t look like he’s aged a single day, but the maturity displayed by the 44-year-old seems lifetimes away from the guy chasing burgers in New York.
It may be because the usually static Sulu is more fleshed out in the third instalment of the newest Star Trek films. In a bit of a controversial decision, the Starfleet helmsman is revealed to be both homosexual and a father.
“One of the questions that we were asked, maybe for giggles, was, ‘Which timeline would you choose?’ And I did say ours,” says Cho, referring to his preference for the newer films over the original TV episodes and movies created by Gene Roddenberry. “And the reason for that is that Roddenberry did set up a world that was incredibly progressive, but it was tempered by the social mores of the era, and I feel like we can go further in 2016 than he was able to do at the time. I feel that this version is able to give more to the women and people of colour in the cast than Roddenberry was able to do.”
The decision to make Sulu gay was met with criticism by the man who originally played Sulu, George Takei. A proud member of the LGBT community himself, Takei thought that the choice wasn’t true to the character Roddenberry created.
Cho was nervous at first, but the execution convinced him. “I thought it was a beautiful idea,” he says. “I had concerns about how it would be received by George, and I had some other concerns. It was really the handling of it that was important to me, and having seen the film, I think the nonchalant posture toward it is the best thing about it. It’s kind of news now, but if you re-watch the movie in 10 years, you won’t think anything of it, it’ll just go right by you. That’s the best thing about it. There’s no music cue, and there’s no close-up.”
Cho continues, using the Star Trek universe as a platform to view the real world: “You’re going into space and seeing so many different kinds of species, it becomes comically apparent in the world that we live in that we have so much more in common than we don’t. So the little things that seem to divide us here in our present time seem even more exaggeratedly small after seeing one episode of Star Trek.”