Star Trek's John Cho navigates his own course as Sulu

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

John Cho, who plays Sulu in the upcoming Star Trek reboot feature, told SCI FI Wire that he elected not to mimic the performance of George Takei, who played the character in the original television series and films.

Cho also said it was "very important" for him to meet Takei before he started work on the J.J. Abrams-directed adventure.

SCI FI Wire spoke exclusively to Cho by telephone several weeks ago. Following are edited excerpts from our interview. Star Trek opens May 8. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

What did you know about Star Trek before auditioning for the movie?

Cho: I knew very little. I just knew that J.J. was doing it, and that was enough for me. It just seemed like a really explosive combination. It was obvious to me from the get-go that he was going to be able to handle the challenge of doing something that was familiar and re-energizing the franchise. So that's really all I knew.

And how aware of the franchise were you before now?

Cho: I was a fan of the old show. I wasn't a huge fan. And I watched some of The Next Generation when I was older, but Star Wars was my mythology of choice as a kid. As a kid, Star Trek was a little cerebral for me, you know? It's true science fiction in that it deals with so many contemporary issues disguised in different ways. So I wasn't as attached to that as a kid.

What was the audition process like on this?

Cho: The scenes that I had, I'm not sure whether they were created for the audition or got shaved out of the final script, but it was some meaty stuff. I'd auditioned for science fiction movies before, and it's tough to get scenes from a movie that are proper for auditioning because sometimes it's just like, "Three degrees left!" And it's hard to jazz that up in an audition and for them to tell who's a better actor based on stuff like that. So they had some great scenes, but it was a long time before I heard. It was the first time in a long time that I was really, really invested in whether I got the role or not, so I was sweating bullets. I actually ended up getting word while I was in Florence on my honeymoon.

John Cho (right) as Sulu and Chris Pine as Kirk (click for larger version)

In the film, how well do we get to know Sulu, and how much action do we see him involved in?

Cho: Being the actor that played Sulu, not enough. But he's got a fun introduction, and I'm confident that we're seeing a more active Sulu than in the original series, which of course is not to denigrate the original, but the whole movie tries very hard to give every single character something really active to do.

People are going to compare and contrast your version of Sulu with George Takei's. Taking that into account, how did you approach the role?

Cho: Well, I sort of took my cue from J.J., who was very hands-off with me in particular. I don't know how he was with everyone else, but with me he didn't really say too much, and I took that to mean "Be closer to you than to the original Sulu." [Takei] has such a distinctive voice, and he's such a distinctive person that I thought I'd probably do myself a disservice to try and copy him too much. His voice is really, literally impossible to replicate. So I think I tried to do more of my own take while being respectful, just because I felt like it was going to be dangerous to do George Takei.

Have you reached out to Takei, or has he contacted you?

Cho: I reached out to George. When I got the role, I wrote him a letter and asked if we could meet. He gave me what amounted to a blessing and some great advice. It was a really nice way to touch base with him, particularly because even though I wasn't as huge a fan of the show growing up as other people, more than Sulu's presence, George Takei's presence on television as an Asian-American kid meant a great deal to me. It was very important to me to see him on TV not throwing karate kicks and not doing an accent, but being the helmsman of a spaceship. It meant so much to me growing up, and it was very important for me to meet him before I did this.