John Cho is back in action as Sulu in Star Trek Beyond, and the stakes are personal this time for the heroic Enterprise helmsman. (Possible spoiler ahead, folks!). The lives of Sulu's partner and their daughter -- along with those of many, many other people -- hang in the balance as Sulu and the Enterprise crew race to prevent the alien Krall (Idris Elba) from carrying out his dark plan. StarTrek.com recently spoke to Cho about Beyond, which will open July 22, and he discussed, among other topics, the making of the film, the fact that Sulu is presented as gay, George Takei's reaction to that development, and he also commented on the heartbreaking, premature death of his friend and colleague, Anton Yelchin. Here's what Cho had to say:
How ready were you to jump back in the saddle for this third adventure?
I've been ready, man. Mostly it’s just the relationships that we have with one another, with this cast, and with J.J. (Abrams). That was the only shadow, how do we go forward without J.J.? But in terms of working with these people I was ready to go.
What intrigued you most about the story that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung came up with?
First of all, it felt like The Original Series a bit. Obviously, the first film was a genesis story, but the second one felt like the second part of the genesis story to me. And it was interesting to move past that, to be actually going into... fatigue. So Kirk starts this one in a moment of existential crisis, wondering what it’s all about being three years-ish in. I just learned that it’s 966 days, and that was a reference to September 1966, when the original series started... Anyways, I just liked the idea of starting off-kilter. And the movie starts with a moment of humor and then moves into a long monologue from Kirk about wondering what the meaning of being in Starfleet is. I just thought that was a brilliant way to start, and a brilliant kind of premise.
How satisfied are you with what Sulu is up to this go-round?
I liked a couple of things about it. One was that we have this insight into his personal life, and that it gave weight to the professional mission that he was on. So it felt like the stakes were raised for him, and I appreciated that. Any time you can go past the button pushing, and the steering of the ship, into more of the emotional side, I like that. I’ve been saying that typically everyone sort of relates to Kirk. He’s the center of the wheel and we’re all spokes off that wheel, off the center. And it was nice to be coupled with Zoe (Saldana), and I thought that might bring out interesting things in the film. And having seen it, I think it does.
A moment people will be talking about is the embrace between Sulu and his partner, Ben (played by co-screenwriter Doug Jung). What was your first reaction when Simon and Doug proposed that, and how do you feel it plays out on screen?
I’ll go in reverse, I was happy with the way it turned out. We discussed this and I was happy to see how well it was executed, but that it was a real non-moment. The film’s attitude towards his partner is one of non-chalance, which is brilliant. And really, it’s a revelation today and it’s news today, but on repeat viewing in 10 years, when hopefully somebody being gay is no news at all, my hope is it won’t bump at all, because it was filmed presuming that we think it’s normal. And I love that about it. So your first question, how did I find out about it? I found out about it from (director) Justin (Lin) early on in pre-production, that he had thrown it in. My initial reaction was one of concern, I had a few concerns. One was how would George react, because I felt obviously that it was a bit of an homage to George Takei, the actor, an activist who has been courageously been living out of the closet, that it would conflate the role and the man, and that he might feel like we had invaded his private life in some ways.
And also that the character that he put out there was straight, and even though we’re in an alternate universe, they are the same person. And then I had this other concern, which is that people would think that we were implying that sexuality was a choice, sexual orientation was a choice, because I am assuming that I am the same genetic Sulu that George played. And so are we implying that in a different alternate timeline, that you can choose to be straight or gay? So those are things I was thinking about.
Takei initially expressed his dissatisfaction with the revelation that your Sulu is gay, but he's since softened that stance a bit to say he appreciates the tribute, likes that there's a gay character, and understands that this is an alternate universe, but just doesn't think it jibes with Gene Roddenberry's vision of the character. What's your take on it all?
It’s a tough disagreement to have, and I would just like to underline that George is pointing out... that we clearly have way more in common in our opinion about this event than we disagree. I just think it’s tough territory when we’re talking about what Roddenberry would have wanted, because he’s not here to speak for himself. In our own way, I feel like we are paying tribute to what we thought Roddenberry would have wanted, or would have made him happy. His intention was to create a universe that adhered to the motto of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. And this was, we thought, in line with what he wanted, and would have wanted. We mused that maybe this is where he would have gone had he created the series today.
We're not doing our job if we don't ask about Anton Yelchin. How big a loss was his passing to you as a friend and co-star?
I can’t even really calculate the answers to those two questions. He was just part of our family, and we loved him so much. He was the best, he was the smartest, he was the most artistic, he was beautiful, and his heart was just tremendous. You know, I don’t know how the movie will do. I don’t know how people will like our movie. But I will always look back and think that was the last time I had with my pal.
Moving on to something more positive, what impressed you most about Justin as a director?
Justin has huge balls. He came into an established cast, and into a series that was helmed by J.J. Abrams, who is a man of formidable talent, and just came in and had the courage to do his own thing, emboldened by J.J.’s confidence in him and his admonition to do you, Justin. And he came in and brought his own visual flare. He was very attentive to character dynamics. And he comes in as a fan of Star Trek. He has a very different way about him, but I just remember being up there that first week rehearsing, and everyone was going, “Gee, I really like Justin.” It was cool to see us work in a different way with a different person with very similar results. It was encouraging.
It's eight-plus years now that you've been a part of the Trek franchise. How fast has it gone by so far, and what has it meant to you to be a part of the Trek universe?
It’s an honor to be associated with Star Trek. I just think it’s a very positive cultural contribution, a pop culture contribution. Particularly in light of everything that’s going on in the world, all of the divisiveness, this is something that emphasizes compassion and peace. So I have always appreciated that about Star Trek. It’s something that I keyed into, the diversity. As a child, it was very meaningful to me, so it’s a real honor to be associated with something I consider to be a very positive, American cultural contribution. Eight years..., it just seems like a flash. Just in the process of doing this press, I’ve come across some pictures of us from the first film, and contrary to what I thought, I’ve aged terribly. We just can’t believe it’s been almost a decade, it’s strange.
If there's a fourth Star Trek film, can we count you in?
Yeah. I mean, for superstition’s sake I don’t want to talk about a fourth film. I’ve got to get through this one and make sure people like this one first, but in theory, getting together with this bunch would be a blast.
We never trust IMDB, but it lists Gemini, Literally Right Before Aaron and The Hindenberg Explodes as upcoming projects. Real quick, what excites you about each of those projects?
They are all correct. The Hindenberg Explodes, hilarious, hilarious concept, plus Rob Cordrdy, my pal. Literally Right Before Aaron, I’ve always liked Justin Long’s work, and it was a chance to spend some time with him, and it was fun. Gemini, that was one of the most satisfying parts I’ve played in a long time, and I thank Aaron Katz, the director for coming to me with that one. It felt like it was a true collaboration in character. Every once in a while you come across a filmmaker, and you go, "Oh, here is someone that I would want to work with over and over." It’s very satisfying.
We're hearing rumblings about another Harold & Kumar film. Is one in the works?
No, no... Well, I don’t know. I was just talking to directors about what that would be, and I think we’ve got a really good idea. We’ve got to make a way to make that happen. Can I count on you for $7 million?
You've made one or two Star Trek convention apearances. What have you enjoybed about meeting the fans?
I always love meeting Star Trek fans. I’ll tell you why. They are totally heterogeneous, and it’s so fun to see the variations in age, culture and generation. It’s just a delight. Star Trek has been around for 50 years, so you have people who went into aerospace or astronomy as a result of Star Trek, you know? It’s just fun to be exposed to all of the different paths people have taken, but they share this one thing in common. It’s unbelievable.