Star Trek Beyond: Karl Urban and John Cho interview
Karl Urban and John Cho chat to us about playing Bones and Sulu in Star Trek Beyond and the franchise's meaning on its 50th anniversary...
Appropriately, the opening of Star Trek Beyond sees Kirk (Chris Pine), now a little older and wiser, wearily pondering what the point of his five-year mission really is. “My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it,” he says to his old friend Bones (Karl Urban). “I joined on a dare.”
With Star Trek as a whole celebrating its 50th birthday this year, perhaps it’s the right time for a film that takes stock of the Federation, the Enterprise, and even the franchise itself. Is the world now too divided and cynical for something as idealistic and utopian as the United Federation of Planets? As fans of the series, I think we know the answer to that question, but it was exciting to be able to ask the cast of Star Trek Beyond what they thought about the franchise’s relevance in the 21st century.
We found Karl Urban and John Cho in a relaxed and thoughtful mood when we met them in a London hotel earlier this month, and even their responses to heavy and not particularly junket-friendly questions were thoughtful and movingly personal. Here’s what they had to say…
I liked that the film suggested that space exploration can be exciting, but sometimes also repetitive and tedious.
John Cho: Ha, yeah! That was pretty cool, huh?
It’s sort of claustrophobic.
Karl Urban: It’s a great way to open the film, to deal with the day-to-day reality of a five-year mission. Yes, there’s exciting stuff that happens, and we all see that, but it’s interesting to see the bits in between.
JC: And I think it was such an interesting coda to the first movie, which is the genesis story. It’s all bangs and explosions and how they get there, and to start [this film] with a moment of… really, boredom [Laughs] and an existential crisis as well…
KU: …it’s a bold way to start a movie, isn’t it?
JC: I really do think so!
KU: “We’re so bored!” [Laughs]
JC: You know, there’s a shot that they didn’t use, of Kirk eating a breakfast burrito.
KU: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] That’s very [Chris] Pine.
JC: Yeah, it’s very Pine. It’s all Pine. There’s a Star Trek mug, a Starfleet mug in there. A coffee mug.
I did notice that.
KU: On sale at K-Mart for $9.99!
JC: Does K-Mart exist anymore?
I don’t know!
KU: Yeah, they do.
We don’t have K-Mart in this country.
KU: You don’t?
No. I’d probably have to buy them at Asda or Londis or something like that. Anyway, so yeah – this film feels like it really evolves your characters – that they’ve moved on from being the young trainees from the Academy. You’re two and a half, three years into your mission. Was that good to get your teeth into as actors?
KU: It was. And that comes across in subtle ways. When the ship’s under attack, Spock and I, we leave and I’m doing my job and he’s doing his and [snaps fingers] you snap into being a professional. It was nice to have that evolution of character. For me, I felt that this version of McCoy was the most dynamic version that I’ve had the benefit of playing to date.
JC: It’s a Bones picture!
KU: You can see a lot of different aspects to the character, and it was a real treat.
It’s more of an ensemble this one, isn’t it?
JC: I think it’s interesting too, because the typical set-up for Star Trek is that each character is relating to Kirk and he’s the centre of his wheel. And to split us up, I think, it naturally feels more ensemble-y because we’re relating to one another in different pairings. Then also, you get different emotional stuff as a result. For me, the emphasis on protecting the family, getting to Yorktown to save them – those personal stakes and so on… there’s just some more flavours in there.
Do you have much input into the tone of your characters?
KU: Definitely. Early on, Simon [Pegg] emailed us an early draft and said, “Here it is. Let me know what you think.” And, you know, “If there’s anything you’d like to see in it, let’s work on it.”
JC: And we did.
KU: That’s exactly what we did. I can look at that picture and see many different beats from that collaboration up on the screen. I’m quite proud of that.
Can you describe any of the bits that got into the film that were yours?
KU: Yeah, well the sequence where Bones finds out that he has to go and fly a space ship and he’s not happy about it. That thing about, [huffily] “The next time you need a doctor…” To me, that was a throwback I’d seen DeForest [Kelley] get to do. I was always looking for the opportunity to sprinkle a little bit of that in there.
The themes of Star Trek are very much unity and inclusivity. Do you think it’s timely, having a film like this out?
KU: Yeah, and for a multitude of reasons. Not only because it’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, but also because it’s what makes it relevant today. There’s the Brexit that’s just gone on, the rise of extremism. The constant outbreaks of violence in the States. Star Trek represents a vision of hope, hope for humanity, that we can move beyond these times. We can work together and that we will no longer persecute each other and destroy each other and kill each other. That we will be unified, and I think that’s why Star Trek resonates – I think that’s why it’s important, culturally.
JC: [Star Trek] came about at a similarly tumultuous time in America. It was a time of great optimism, but also marred by great tragedy as well, so it was an interesting portrait of the hope of modernist America. Sadly, there are some parallels that are happening right now. We’re dealing with some… [trails off] incidents that are striking at the very heart of what we believe right now, at least in America. And it’s testing our values as a society. Not to read too deeply into it, but I just feel like Star Trek is a nice answer culturally speaking. It’s not a political answer, it’s just a cultural answer. The theme of this one is that family bends but doesn’t break, you know? There’s something beautiful about it. I hope people have an appetite for that message.
As you said, when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek 50 years ago, it was a utopian vision of the future. Now we’re in the 21st century, do you think we’re any closer to that vision?
KU: Personally, no. I don’t believe we are. It’s pretty disheartening to see what’s going on in the world, not only the way we treat each other as human beings, but also the way we treat this planet. We were flying over here, and we passed over a country and it was pointed out to us that they were burning the forests. It’s sad, but I think that’s part of why Star Trek’s important. It’s a beacon, it’s a lighthouse, as it were, a vision of humanity. It shows how we can operate at the highest level and be the best that we can be. And in some ways, because it is about earthlings, it resonates more on that level than say, something like Star Wars.
JC: Careful! [Laughs]
KU: I love them both. I’m not…you know.
JC: I don’t know. I think I disagree. I think the Earth may be in bad shape, [but] it does seem like there’s an assumption… we’re more in agreement that there should be equality amongst genders. That’s an assumption. In the 60s, there was not consensus on that. There was a debate about the superiority of the races or something, but that was still a debate. Now, at least, maybe culturally we’re policing that more. There are dissenters, but generally, there seems to be an agreement that one life is worth one life. Now, in practice, that’s not happening, but at least there’s not that debate. I don’t know.
KU: Alright, look… the ideology’s always been there. It was present in the 60s, that’s why Star Trek was created. But you asked whether we’re closer to this utopian vision? I just don’t think we are.
But like you say, John, the sense of inclusivity is much more clear and present. Like your character – it’s a tiny moment in the film, where it emerges that Sulu has a husband. But that doesn’t define your character, it’s just a part of who he is, and nobody bats an eyelid…
JC: Yeah. And listen, George [Takei] was saying that he had a discussion with Gene Roddenberry about Sulu’s sexuality back then, and Roddenberry was frank and said, “You can’t do that. Not at this time.” But now we can. And ironically, George is the one who’s objecting, but that doesn’t seem to be the case worldwide. So it seems there is some marker…
KU: I know what you’re saying. There is some progression, yeah. In terms of certain microcosmic changes in society, for sure. But still, globally? We’re a mess. [pauses]
What a downer.
JC: What a downer! Yeah! [Laughs] Star Trek Beyond – in theatres July 22nd!
KU: Go check it out! [Laughs]
JC: Go check it out, so much action! From the director of Fast & The Furious!
I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’ve brought everything down haven’t I? No, but this is why it’s such an interesting franchise, because you can have these conversations within an action-packed movie.
KU: That’s always been the point of Star Trek.
JC: That’s its lasting power. Roddenberry developed a really delicious set-up. It can hold so much. You can do so much to it, you can discuss so much with it. It’s a big bowl into which you can put just about anything. It’s fascinating.
You probably wouldn’t tell me if you knew, but where would you like to see the franchise go next?
KU: It’s very difficult to gaze into a crystal ball at this juncture and hypothesise about what might be. Obviously, they’re doing a new television series – Alex Kurtzman’s a producer on that, and he was involved in the writing of the first two films, so there’s a great brain trust there. But for us, we don’t know. We love working together, that’s definitely a fact. It’s just a question of us getting this film out there and we hope that people enjoy it and have fun.
What about the things you’ve been working on separately? Karl, you’ve been trying to get Dredd 2 off the ground, and that’s been difficult, but how about an extended version of the first Dredd, on DVD, perhaps?
KU: No. We literally used every scrap of footage that we had to make that. But I’m constantly blown away by the fan response to that film, and here we are years later still talking about it. It’s really wonderful to see how it’s become this cult classic.
How about you, John? Do you think there’ll be another Harold & Kumar any time soon?
JC: I didn’t think so. But I thought of a really great idea, and I pitched it out to the director when we happened to be having dinner one night. And I don’t know… I think we’re gonna get this made.
KU: I think you should make it. Those films were so much fun.
JC: We kept saying, “What’s the idea?” And I think I’ve got a good one.
KU: I think I know what it is. [The two exchange a glance, then burst out laughing]
JC: I’ll tell you in a minute.
KU: No, I’ll tell you and you tell me if it’s right.
JC: Okay, go ahead.
KU: Not here! [Motioning to me]
JC: Oh. Okay!
Aw. I thought you might let it slip. [Laughs] But no. Are you surprised at how enduring the [Harold & Kumar] films are? Like Dredd – they’ve been embraced.
JC: It’s so funny that Hollywood has become so entrenched in its formulas. Because what I’ve experienced is that the good stuff comes from places you don’t expect. You can never tell – well, actually, you can – fans really love originality. And that’s counter to the thinking that’s around right now. But they love things that are fresh and honest and interesting. And if you give them that, they’ll come back, I think. Hopefully there’s someone else who’s dreaming up these things, because if we just keep making films about board games, we’re in a bad space for cinema.
We’re on another down note! [Laughs]
JC: Dude, this interview’s gone off the rails, man! [Laughs]
Is the way of getting unusual, different films made to produce them or push them through yourselves. in some way?
KU: A few of us are at that juncture where we’re looking to take a more active approach to the material we want to get involved with. I’m certainly investigating avenues of interest – John and Zachary [Quinto] are as well.
JC: Yeah. To some extent it’s out of necessity. At the moment I’m producing and starring in a TV series on cable. We haven’t made an announcement yet. But to some extent it’s necessity, and to some extent it’s about being as enmeshed in the process as you can, and to enjoy it to the full extent. But yeah, that’s definitely where I’m headed more and more.
Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you both.
KU: It’s been uplifting! [Laughs]
I’m sorry! John Cho and Karl Urban, thank you very much.
As John Cho said, Star Trek Beyond arrives in cinemas on the 22nd July. “Go check it out, so much action!”