What audiences will remember most is the comic energy and the likeable rubber face of Kal Penn (Malibu's Most Wanted). They may come to appreciate the tiny, fleeting twitches that make John Cho's face a living map of the eternal tension between fear and yearning, probity and desire. Many will want to know more about the good-looking Asian guy who seems to be in all the really funny movies lately.
John Cho was born in Seoul Corea (Korea) on June 16, 1972. He was six when his family moved to the U.S. His teen years suffered disruption when his family moved from San Francisco to Seattle to Los Angeles.
"Going through junior high and high school was rough," he recalled while a regular on WB's Off Centre. "It's such a strange time to begin with, and it seemed like I was always trying to find the confidence to meet new people and fit in. On some basic level I am still that guy. I don't think we ever get to shake that part of ourselves and leave it behind."
John's life was also complicated by his family's conservative Corean values. "It's hard to say now what was Corean and what was my family," he recalled. "There's certain things we did that were very Corean and were passed down for generations but none of my Corean friends did it with their families."
Cho was working on his English literature B.A. at UC Berkeley when a friend asked him to fill in for an actor who had dropped out. He caught the acting bug and became involved in amateur productions. His first professional acting gig was playing in the Berkeley Repertory Theater's stage adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. The same play took him to Boston's Huntington Theatre and L.A.'s James Doolittle Theatre. The stage remains Cho's favorite form of acting.
"It goes in chronological order when you do the show," he explained. "One scene leads to another scene and it makes emotional sense. With television and movies it's disjointed. You wait around for hours and all of a sudden you do the last scene, then the next day you do the first scene. I like stage the most but film and television pay."
The first of those paying gigs came about three years after graduation when John Cho was working simultaneously in the straight-to-video indies Shopping for Fangs (1997) and Yellow (1998). Soon thereafter he landed bit parts in the box-office flop Wag the Dog (1997), the TV biopic The Tiger Woods Story (1998) and an episode of Charmed. His first real exposure came from American Pie (1999) when his was the bit character tapped to utter the infamous "MILF" line upon spotting a particularly hot mom. Not only did it assure Cho a footnote in the teen raunch genre, it made him recognizable to tens of millions of kids worldwide.
"I was [filming Pavilion of Women in China] when American Pie blew up," he recalled. "When I got home, there were like 100 messages from guys doing a 100 different variations of that line. It was ridiculous. People still recognize me from that role all the time."
He also found himself getting attention from teen girls. "All of a sudden you're being watched a little bit," he recalled in 1999. "I was at the mall a few weeks ago, and a girl followed me from store to store. That was pretty weird."
That role was quickly followed by small but visible parts in American Beauty (1999), The Flintstones (2000), Down to Earth (2001), American Pie 2 (2001), Big Fat Liar (2002), Solaris (2002) and American Wedding (2003). It also landed him a regular role as the clueless Chau in the WB series Off Centre (2001). Perhaps his meatiest role was playing a jaded Orange County teen in Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), an Asian American indie later picked up for distribution by MTV Films.
With a total of about three dozen film and TV jobs to date, John Cho has worked more than most Asian American actors. Still, he sees being an Asian American actor as a chancy life. "It's difficult having to hustle for jobs," he said. "Not knowing when the next job is coming in. It's hard. There are not enough roles out there. I try not to get wrapped up in it or I'll get depressed."
Cho has an outlet for his creative energies -- if not a source of income -- in writing songs and singing with the four-man band Left of Zed which he once described as "U2 meets Weezer meets the Police meets Dave Mathews."
"With music I get to feel real ownership with what I do," he once said. "I write it, I perform it and even if it is crap, it is mine. With acting, you are a small part of the creative process, and sometimes it is hard to feel like you are making an impact."
The success of Harold and Kumar Goes to White Castle is likely producing a change of heart in John Cho.