When John Cho was cast as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek series, he was stepping into the role that was made famous by George Takei. It would be a career gamble for anyone given the reverence from the show’s cult-like following, but Cho was more than up for the challenge.
With the release of Star Trek Beyond, the third in the rebooted series and first by director Justin Lin, Cho had more opportunities to explore of the personality of Sulu. In addition, script writer/actor Simon Pegg’s decision to make Sulu gay gave him a chance to portray one of the Star Trek universe’s first LGBTQ main character.
[ Editor’s Note: For more on Takei’s reaction to Sulu’s homosexuality and how that lives up to Gene Roddenberry’s visions, ready Abbey White’s piece here. ]
Prior to the film’s premiere, Paste spoke with the actor about taking both the character and the series to new frontiers.
Paste: First of my all, my deepest condolences to you for the passing of Anton Yelchin. Can you share one of your favorite memories of working with him?
John Cho: I don’t know if I can. I’ll just say that he was a brother and we loved him to pieces. He was one of the most brilliant and loving people that I’ve known in my life. He was an intellectual and he was a beautiful artist. I miss him very much…miss him very, very much. This has been very difficult but I would hope he would like the movie and like himself in it. I was conflicted when I was watching as I was sad knowing it was the last time we spent together. I’m also grateful that we have some of his work on film to watch
Paste: One of the most talked about topics of late is the decision to make Sulu gay. Can you talk about the mindset behind that decision?
Cho: I didn’t make the decision. It was pitched out by Simon Pegg and I first heard about it through [director] Justin [Lin]. I had some concerns but I felt if executed correctly that the intent would shine through. We were trying to create a narrative device, Yorktown—that station that’s in danger of being destroyed by Krall. Yorktown would have personalized stakes in the movie…a couple people on that base that we didn’t want to die and that was Sulu’s family. So that did achieve that. And we’re finally creating a gay character in the Star Trek universe and in a way that we felt [was] true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision in that it’s a completely normalized relationship.
Paste: You were in Justin’s first film, 1997’s Shopping for Fangs. What did you like most about getting to reconnect with Justin?
Cho: It was great to reconnect with Justin. We started out our careers together so it feels really full circle. And we were certainly tickled by that fact that we were young bucks in an independent movie together that was made on a shoestring budget and here we are in a Star TrekZ movie—not just a big summer movie but something that had emotional resonance in both our lives. It was very impactful and meaningful to both of us that we got to work on this. And it did not escape our notice that we had come this long way together.
Paste: So Simon Pegg said that in his script he broke the crew into pairs that normally wouldn’t spend time together to see how they fair and to get to know the characters better. You got paired with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. Can you talk about what that meant for your portrayal as Sulu?
Cho: I think you see the different wrinkles of the different relationships of the characters when you split them up. For instance, there was a scene that didn’t make the cut where Sulu explains to Uhura that he wanted to move to Yorktown for his career to take his commission but his husband Ben was reluctant to take their daughter all the way out there. So Sulu felt this heavy heart of guilt because he feels he placed his family in danger and then Uhura comforts him. And it was this really touching moment. It’s one of the many in the film where one character comforts another and takes care of another. And it seems to add to the sense that we’re a family. I think this is stronger in this film than the other films because of the splitting up aspect or device. Being off the Bridge you get different glimpses into the characters.
Paste: You’ve mentioned that the script reminded you of the original show. Can you expand on that?
Cho: Yes it did. Maybe it’s because the first two movies we did with JJ are really a genesis story and this one is three years into the mission—like the series, well into their mission. They’re also fatigued and I think the splitting up reminds me of the original series for the pace of it and tone of it. And, now I understand, the look of it is reminiscent of the original series.
Paste: Are there any things you do to get yourself in the mindset of Sulu on and offset?
Cho: You know, I’m not that good of an actor. I don’t really have that many tricks. But certainly getting into costume helps. There’s something about putting on the uniform and looking in the mirror and suddenly seeing Lieutenant Sulu, it makes you stand straighter and walk differently. And the walk out to the Bridge of the Enterprise is a very special feeling that gets you in a different mood.
Paste: Is that different to your other roles that you’ve had?
Cho: Oh sure. There’s a special aura to anything Trek. Walking onto the bridge of the Enterprise is crazy because it’s like traveling into the future and the past at the same time. Because it’s something I recognize from my childhood and also this wonderful reinvention from the future. So it feels like I’m connecting to something bigger than myself.
Paste: How do you feel about being involved with this movie during the 50th anniversary year of the series?
Cho: It’s not something I thought of on a day-to-day basis but there was something extra special about this. And on this 50th anniversary I wanted to make sure we were making a Star Trek movie, as simple as that sounds, and trying not to be a Star Trek movie, if you get my drift. I wanted the film to honor what came before and got to see it achieve that.