John Cho, who takes over the role of Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek, jokes that he's changing Sulu up: "Sexy. Very sexy."
No, seriously. Cho has a lot of respect for the character and George Takei's interpretation of him in the original 1960s TV show and subsequent movies. (Spoilers ahead!)
"George's Sulu was a veteran, and he was always in control of the ship," Cho told reporters in a group interview in Los Angeles last week. "And ... since this is his first mission, he's thrust into the position of helmsman by accident, and all of these things are happening. ... He's not supposed to be on the ship; he's not supposed to be doing all this stuff. So ... I wanted this Sulu to be a little bit more innocent, a little bit younger and a little bit more caught off guard by all of this stuff. And I felt like it would be a nice way to begin that arc, since we're going back in time."
For Cho, walking onto the set of the Enterprise's interior was a singular experience. "It feels familiar, but it's completely new, and you're walking on as the character, and there's just so many things racing through your mind," Cho said. "It was a very strange and wonderful moment for me, you know? I remember very vividly, and with anticipation, we walked [on], I said, 'I can't believe I'm walking onto the Enterprise set for the first time!' It was like walking through a cathedral."
Cho does seem to have the serene mannerisms of Sulu down pat in the film, but he said he never tried to copy Takei's take. "It's probably more due to George Takei than Sulu [the character], but I thought, 'George is such a iconic personality,'" Cho said. "You know, he's around, and he's very famous, and I just felt it best not to imitate him. One, I do not have the vocal cords. They do not do that voice. They don't do that sound. I think there's exactly one person in the world that can do that voice. So I just felt that that would be a bad idea for me, and it would just scream imitation."
Cho had met Takei before he took on the role in Star Trek through a Los Angeles theater company called East West Players. But they didn't get to know one another until Cho wrote Takei a letter after being cast as Sulu, and the two actors met for lunch. "I asked him how he deals with Star Trek mania and what's his method of engagement, essentially," Cho revealed. "And he said, 'You can be overwhelmed by it, or you can use it for something positive that you believe in.' ... He and I ended up at the same press conference, actually, to speak out against Proposition 8, which was a California ban against gay marriage." (Takei, who married his longtime partner, Brad Altman, last September, is a well-known advocate for gay rights. Cho is married to actress Kerri Higuchi and has a son.)
"And then it runs down to even smaller things for him," Cho said. "[For instance,] he's concerned that Americans are becoming too obese, so he runs every morning, and he would be at conventions and he would make an announcement: 'I'm taking a jog at 8 a.m. tomorrow, if you want to meet me in the lobby.' And open it up. And that's how open he is about it. And I was just really amazed by how he deals with it, which is just to embrace it, and himself, as an agent for change that he believes in."
Paramount Pictures presents Star Trek on May 8 in theaters everywhere.