There is a nice, brief moment in Star Trek Beyond where we see the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), reunited on the space station Yorktown with his husband and daughter. It’s sweet because it shows us sides of Sulu we never saw before – both the family man and the gay man – and also because it’s handled like it’s no big deal. This is Star Trek, after all, where inclusiveness, diversity and personal freedom has always been one of the cornerstones of the franchise’s philosophy.
It’s no mistake that this moment comes in a film, Star Trek Beyond, that captures the flavor of the original series in a way that we haven’t seen for a few movies now. Directed by Justin Lin (taking over from J.J. Abrams) and written by Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung, Star Trek Beyond feels like Star Trek – a harder thing to accomplish than you might expect.
Den of Geek spoke with Cho about Sulu, George Takei, the unfortunate passing of Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov), the upcoming 50th anniversary of the franchise and more when we met up with him last week in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: Congratulations on the film. It really brought back a lot of the spirit of the original show.
John Cho: Oh, cool, cool. That’s what I wanted to hear.
The film reveals a side to Sulu this time around that we had not seen before. What was your reaction when that was pitched to you?
I had probably three main concerns when I initially found out. I was concerned that George (Takei) might feel that we were sort of lifting from his personal life and feel that we were stepping over a boundary we shouldn’t. I thought that he might feel like we were just seeing him for his sexual orientation as a gay actor who had played a straight character. And then it would be like, “OK, so now I’m out of the closet” and you are just seeing that.
And I wondering whether he would feel like that was proprietary about that. It turned out that wasn’t the substance of his objection, but that’s what I was afraid of. I wanted George to be on board for this. That was a concern of mine.
Secondly, this is kind of left field, but I was concerned that Asians might feel that…There’s been a long history of sort of feminizing — and I am not personally equating being gay with being feminine — but that there would be this objection from Asians or Asian-Americans that we were feminizing another Asian man on screen. That was a concern of mine. Not to say that concerns should prevent you from doing anything you artistically feel like. So that was another thing that went through my mine.
And I was concerned that we would inadvertently be applying that sexual orientation is a choice, because we are the same genetic man, the two Sulus, in different timelines, that we would be saying that you could choose. Now, we weren’t saying that. And I think the reaction, from what I can tell…I’m just the actor; people pat me on the back, mostly. But I think it’s been positive and that people are understanding what we tried to put forth. So I’m pleased with it. And I’m pleased with the way it was done.
Matter of factly.
Matter of factly, nonchalantly. Like I said, I feel like hopefully we’re coming to a place in the world when no one gives an “s” and the film doesn’t really give an “s.” Of course we do, but the film, the way it’s done, doesn’t give an “s.” What I’m proud of is in the future when we see this film at 3 AM on channel 16,484 [laughs] that it won’t startle you.
What’s interesting to me is that on the old show, Sulu was, in a way, the most enigmatic character in terms of relationships. I mean we never saw Sulu…
Yeah, he was an unknown quantity.
So when I heard about this, it seemed to me like this made sense because we’ve never discussed this for Sulu. It’s never come up.
I mean I’ve been wanting to see a personal side of Sulu. And that’s what I appreciated about this, was that it gave some personal weight to the mission. It was good to have some backstory on him. But the version that George played was straight. He had a daughter…I can’t remember in what iteration that happened. I think it might have been a novel. But in the canon, he has a one-night stand with a woman and has this daughter. But in any case, aside for the sexual orientation, I thought it was important to see more of his personal life. In removing that element, I think George would appreciate expanding the scope of what we see in Sulu. He obviously objects to the sexual orientation, which is cool.
I respect his reason for his doing it, though we disagree on what Roddenberry would have wanted, just because he’s not here and it’s hard to quantify what he would have wanted. But I choose to believe that Roddenberry might have appreciated in continuing his mission to diversify the cast.
Sulu has always struck me as a captain in waiting. We saw him become a captain in Star Trek VI. Do you think that’s something you would want to see if you guys make more movies?
Yeah. I mean now I’m a big fan of Sulu the character. I want what he wants. I think Sulu is ambitious. That’s what I’ve always gotten from him. The bad side of ambition is the hunger, but I think he is. And I think that would be cool if he were to become a captain maybe in this timeline. That would be great. I would support that. Again, because I think Sulu wants it bad. I think he really likes sitting in the chair. He’s like, “Oh, good. There’s a lot of trouble. I’ll take over the chair. You go beam down and wrestle someone. I’ll take the chair.”
Let me ask you just a little bit about Anton, your fondest memory of him and what you hope the public takes away about him.
(Long pause) Listen, I just loved being with him. He was just a brother. He was open. He was honest, so smart. He was a very beautiful soul. Sometimes I just felt like he was not of this earth. He just thought differently. He was different from us. I don’t know what else to tell you. We continue to be devastated. I’m also happy that we got another shot, we got our time with him, and trying to be happy and celebrate when I see him in the movie.
How was it having Simon as the writer this time? Was it interesting to have him sort of as a bridge between the filmmakers and producers and the cast members?
There’s some shifting in the team. Obviously J.J. was out. We had a producer step out. So we had some key elements change. (Roberto) Orci and (Alex) Kurtzman were not writing the script. So we’re like, “Well, who? Who is doing this third movie?” Simon came on board and it made a lot of sense. We were relieved. He provided some continuity. He’s a Star Trek geek.
I happened to love Simon’s oeuvre. He’s a great filmmaker. I knew he was going to bring some wit into it as well. So it just seemed like everything we wanted. Would it work? Maybe not, but I was very happy that it presented a possibility that the movie was going to be everything I wanted.
And then Justin came in and was also a fan of Star Trek. Obviously he’s going to bring some action. I just thought, “If the elements can come together, this is going to be great, because we have great ingredients.” The question is always does it bind, all those elements? But it seemed like, “OK. This is going to be great.”
Emotionally, what was best about Simon was, like, he just knows us as a cast. He knows the characters very well. And he has this almost paternal — he’s become kind of our dad now, now that he’s a writer. He just took care of us. That’s the best way I can think of to say it. He took care of the characters, and he took care of the franchise, and he took care of us as actors and people.
What does it mean to you to be carrying the torch for this franchise now that it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary? And the second part of that question is, what do you think makes Star Trek endure? We see a lot of things that people try and reboot, and a lot of them fall by the wayside. But this seems to keep going.
That’s a big question: why is it around after 50 years? It’s something magical. It’s very elastic in what it can do and what it can discuss and talk about. I think there’s something hopeful. It appeals to our better nature as a species. And I think we would prefer, at our core, to believe it.
It’s funny. Especially with these sci-fi blockbusters…Usually with sci-fi blockbusters I think the premise is that man’s baser nature typically prevails. Star Trek is opposite in what it says about us, I think.
But in terms of carrying the torch forward, I would say that, really, we feel like we’re being carried by Star Trek. I feel very privileged to be associated with it. I really do. I’m an immigrant and I admire the American space program. I remember we went to Houston, Texas and we’d go to NASA and visit and see all the, you know, Saturn IV resting there. It was always just the promise of what America could do if they put their mind to it.
Star Trek is this vision of America, I feel like. It’s a pop culture version of the best kind of America. And I was so keen on having this role, not because I wanted to necessarily be in space and wear the Star Fleet uniform. But I wanted to be associated with something that I thought was a good cultural American product, if that makes any sense. I just thought that this was something beyond making movies.
I remember working with LeVar Burton a long time ago. He directed me in one my earliest gigs, which is a television movie about Tiger Woods. I play Tiger Woods’ best friend, Jerry Chang. And LeVar Burton directed it. I was so blown away because I admired LeVar’s career. He was in Roots, Star Trek, and Reading Rainbow. I thought, “Man, this guy is making a contribution.” You know what I mean? He’s making a fricking contribution to American pop culture. I’m similarly proud of being in this.
Who’s the biggest Trekkie in the cast?
It’s Simon. Close second is Karl. Third…me and Zach are in third. Zach, me…Well, maybe Anton would have been up there. I’m not sure.
Star Trek Beyond arrives in theaters this Friday (July 22).