John Cho in a romantic lead?
It’s hard to remember the last time an Asian male played a romantic character in a television series. Unless you count the time George Takei as Sulu in Star Trek groped Uhura. But that’s because he was momentarily insane.
Asians are among the most under-represented minority group on TV and Asian males in romantic leads are practically unheard of.
But Cho now finds himself starring in a modern remake of Pygmalion and the color-blind casting of himself as “Henry” with co-star Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Eliza Dooley in ABC’s Selfie for the fall TV season.
“I would call this revolutionary. It’s certainly a personal revolution for me,” said the 42-year old actor who says he normally never gets offered such roles. Fans may best know the actor as the current Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek, or as stoner Harold Lee of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
“Asians narratively in shows are insignificant. They’re the cop, or the waitress, or whatever it is. You see them in the background. So to be in this position . . . is a bit of a landmark,” says Cho.
Selfie tells the story of Dooley, who seeks the help of Henry, who happens to be a marketing whiz, to remake her Internet brand. In the process, he changes who she is as a person.
Creator Emily Kapnek says producers initially thought along more conventional lines, casting someone who was British in the vein of the original Henry Higgins character.
“The casting process was pretty extensive . . . the idea was to find someone several generations older and British,” says Kapnek. “We looked at tons of different actors, and really once we kind of opened our minds and said let’s get off of what we think Henry is supposed to be and just talk about who is, we just need a brilliant actor—and John’s name came up.”
Kapnek said it was ABC who first brought up the idea of color-blind casting.
Once Cho was cast, writers decided not to dwell on the interracial relationship, making it a non-issue in the storyline.
“To not even talk about it is a really new and, I think, mature way to look at it,” says Cho.
There aren’t obvious similarities between Cho’s tech-savvy character and the curmudgeonly Henry Higgins who teaches Eliza Doolittle linguistics in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
But Cho says he could relate to the role from his experience as a high school English teacher in California.
His immigrant background (he was born in Seoul, South Korea) also helped him to further appreciate the spirit of Henry Higgins, a character who has spent his life studying the mannerisms and speech of others.
“As an immigrant, I learned by watching other people,” says Cho. “When you’re not born in this country, you kind of study how people talk and how they act and you try and break things down.”
Unlike Eliza, Cho doesn’t have a lot of choice when he finds himself needing a mentor for his upcoming role. The question is, will his new-found leading man status pave the way for other actors of color?
“I sure hope so,” he says.