Why John Cho Picked The Grudge as His First Horror Movie

Star Trek's John Cho delves into supernatural horror for the first time with this reboot of the Japanese/American franchise.

John Cho in The Grudge
Screen Gems

The Grudge is one of the strangest franchises in horror film history: the series encompasses nine Japanese films (starting with the original direct-to-video Ju-On back in 2000) and now four American ones. The newest, simply titled The Grudge, is the 13th overall and deals like the others with the central premise of the entire series: if someone dies in a rage, that rage lingers as a kind of supernatural virus that can infect and destroy anyone who comes in contact with it.

A sort of reboot/sequel, The Grudge is directed and written by Nicolas Pesce, who has created a buzz on the horror scene with his first two features, The Eyes of My Mother (2016) and Piercing (2018). Pesce’s take on The Grudge is the first of the movies to be set in America — upstate New York, to be exact, and while it takes place in 2004 (the same year as the first American film), it goes back and forth in time as it focuses on three family units that all come into contact with the title terror.

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One of those families consists of real estate agents Nina and Peter Spencer, played by Betty Gilpin and John Cho, who are infected with the curse after they prepare a house for sale but are unaware that a tragedy in the house left supernatural repercussions. Cho is best known to our readers as Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu in the last three Star Trek movies, but also made history as the first Asian-American actor to lead a mainstream Hollywood thriller when he starred in 2018’s Searching.

His other credits in film and TV include the Harold and Kumar films, FlashForward, Sleepy Hollow, Columbus, The Exorcist, The Oath and others, and he has become a leading voice for better Asian representation across both mediums. He’s set to star as Spike Spiegel in Netflix’s long-awaited live-action adaptation of the celebrated Cowboy Bebop anime series, although a knee injury on set recently shut down production until later this spring.

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The Grudge, meanwhile, is his first full-on horror movie, and Den of Geek spoke with Cho about exploring this genre for the first time, as well as the future of both Cowboy Bebop and Star Trek.

Den of Geek: Are you personally attracted to horror films as a fan?

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John Cho: I’m a recent convert. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was a horror movie called Death Ship Part 2, and I saw it when I was six years old by accident. We had just moved to America, and my parents took us to a second run movie theater where the seats were $1.00, to get some cheap air conditioning. In Korea at the time, all movies were okay for general audience, so (my parents) didn’t really realize that this was a rated R thing or what that meant. So we went in and I saw a woman being impaled within the first two minutes and was really freaked out. But we did not leave the theater because we had paid four bucks, so my parents kept us in there. My brother was four. We just watched this movie with hands over our eyes at the bad parts.

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So I was recently thinking that’s probably why I was never really into horror. I didn’t want to watch Halloween or Friday the 13th as a teenager when everybody else was into that stuff, and I just sort of stayed away from it.

A late bloomer.

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Yeah, I think it was probably Get Out that really got me kind of directly back into horror, even though there were certainly horror movies that I’ve liked over the years. But I was a casual fan. I was pretty casual, pretty removed. But I started thinking about it more actively after Get Out, even though I’m not sure whether you can even call that a horror film, but I started thinking about the genre in a lot of different ways at that time.

The Grudge series has this kind of convoluted history. Did you explore any of the other movies, either from Japan or the U.S.?

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You know, there’s so much that you could get bogged down in, and I hadn’t watched any of it. I said yes to the film based upon Nick’s work, both his previous work as a director and then based on the script and our meeting and our discussing the film. And when I said yes, I said, “What do you want me to expose myself to in the Grudge universe?” And he said this film connects very directly to Ju-On, and that’s the one I want you to see, and just keep it there. So I haven’t seen the other ones, but I guess it’s a good time to go back now.

The central of this series is that rage becomes something that lingers on even after death. Do you see that as an interesting metaphor for the idea of rage or repressed anger in general?

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Oh boy, I hadn’t really even thought about it that way. Even though the premise sounds supernatural and it sounds far-fetched, I think the reason it works is we all actually believe it. Like I have avoided buying homes where I’ve learned of an unfortunate death, because on some level I believe that there is something left over in that house. That the house has a memory of it, you know? I think it’s the reason the genre works — when it really works, it works spectacularly, because it’s speaking to something within us that’s true.

What did you hone in on about this character?

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The thing that I liked about Nick’s script is that all the characters in the film are dealing with tragedy, but they’re unfortunately mundane, you know? They’re everyday adult problems. I think the thing linking everyone in the film is one, the tragedy of the grudge, that they encountered the grudge, but it almost seems to be related to their love for one another. All their issues stem from a very intense relationship of love, and the fact that the universe sends this supernatural force their way makes it extra tragic. But I think that that’s the way it feels sometimes in the world, that the best people get the worst.

You shot this before you started working on Cowboy Bebop and got injured. So if I may ask, how’s the knee feeling?

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I’m coming along. We’re in the middle of rehab and I’m not sure what the timetable is. I’m trying not to think about it too much. That’ll be fluid as I get better and better, but things are coming along really nicely and I’m really excited about the show. I’ve seen some of it and it’s just a really unique kind of vocabulary. The most unique kind of filmmaking experience probably that I’ve had that I can remember. The visual elements, the music elements, character stuff. It’s just very unusual. I love it.

What are you hearing on the Star Trek front? What’s your sense of where things might be going with that? (The film series has reportedly been handed off to Legion creator Noah Hawley.)

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I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything directly from Paramount or anyone associated with it. I’m not even in a position to confirm any of those things that you’ve heard, so unfortunately I got nothing for you. But every time I hear about a potential Star Trek film, I get really excited. The ideas all seem really good. I wish we’d go ahead and make one. I’m ready.

I imagine you’d like to get to explore Sulu some more now that they were starting to move the character forward a bit.

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Yeah, it’s that and it’s just a great bunch of people. It’s just one of my favorite casts I’ve ever worked with and it’s always a blast just being in one place at the same time with those people.

You’ve done and spoken a lot about representation for Asian actors and Asian-American actors in the system these days, so are you sort of intrigued to see what Marvel is doing with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings, which is the first Asian-led superhero film that’s going to be coming out in a year or so?

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Sure yeah, that sounds exciting. I’m a little resistant to sort of hanging everyone’s future on superhero movies, just as a concept, and I don’t know anything about it, but I’ll certainly be watching. The idea of an Asian superhero is certainly exciting.

The Grudge is out in theaters Friday (January 3).

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye