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John Cho wants to set the narrative and collaborate with more Asian Americans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Netflix's live-action adaptation of "Cowboy Bebop" stars John Cho. He plays Spike Spiegel, who hunts bounties across the galaxy with his partner Jet Black, all in their ragtag ship the Bebop.

JOHN CHO: Spike is a cool cat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COWBOY BEBOP")

CHO: (As Spike Spiegel) You keep saying it like it was all my fault.

MUSTAFA SHAKIR: (As Jet Black) It was.

CHO: He seems disaffected and doesn't care about anything. It turns out he does care about people, but he would have you think that he doesn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COWBOY BEBOP")

CHO: (As Spike Spiegel) So unless you died and I didn't notice, how about we move on, huh?

CHANG: Now, Spike Spiegel is a proficient martial artist. So I asked John Cho when we spoke, was there any part of him that felt like, you know, he was this Asian actor feeding into the Asian action hero stereotype?

CHO: In the past, I've had those thoughts about martial arts and about accents, and I'll start with accents. When I was younger, I avoided parts that had me speaking accented English because the framework was that it was always a joke, that it was always a comedic way of speaking. And I think that there's been so much content since then that now I feel like I would love to do an accented Asian English part because, of course, I love people...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHO: ...In my life who speak English with an accent. And, of course, they're not less human.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHO: But it was a reaction to the times, and I felt that that was the appropriate response at that time. And I also avoided learning martial arts because I said, I'm not going to do that. I wish I hadn't, actually, because it was - it's been so fulfilling for me. I wish I hadn't avoided it, but I came to it late in life. And I don't think that that danger exists the way it did when I started.

CHANG: Oh, wow. That's fascinating. Well, I was curious about the physicality of this role. Is it fair to say that this is the most physical role that you've ever taken on? Like, had you ever gone through this much training before for any role?

CHO: It's second only to the physical challenge of eating 35 hamburgers in one sitting.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHO: But...

CHANG: Right, which is...

CHO: Which is its own feat.

CHANG: Totally.

CHO: But, yes, it certainly was the most challenging role I've ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COWBOY BEBOP")

CHO: (As Spike Spiegel, vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Spike.

CHO: If I'm going to do this role, I thought, I just wanted to be available as much as I could during those action sequences. Obviously, you have a stunt man, but character-wise, I want it to feel like I could do some of that stuff. And it turned out to be the most informative character work, which is the training, because if I had a question as to who Spike was - because there was some difficulty for me understanding how to translate an illustration into a person. And...

CHANG: Oh.

CHO: So I was like...

CHANG: A drawing into a human.

CHO: A drawing into a human.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHO: So I was thinking, how am I going to do this? Unlike, say, a book with an interior monologue, I didn't really have access to his insides in that way. But I certainly had access to what he looked like and what he could do. When you're fighting with a towel rather than a knife, you - which is literally one of our sequences.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

CHO: They're inherently built in with character.

CHANG: Right. Can we also just talk about your hair for a minute?

CHO: OK.

CHANG: Like, did you ever fully appreciate that your hair was capable of such volume? - because I never appreciated it until I saw you in this series. Like, wow. His hair is...

CHO: Well...

CHANG: ...Quite nice.

CHO: (Laughter).

CHANG: Congrats. You have great follicles.

CHO: It's never been this long, but I have had the wiry Asian awkward phase. Once you - you go three months without a haircut, and you're like, it's not growing down. It's growing out.

CHANG: (Laughter) Totally. So I also want to ask you a little bit about the franchise. "Cowboy Bebop" has been, you know, a much-beloved anime series since it first premiered in Japan in 1998 and then in the U.S. in 2001. So some of the people who are going to be watching your adaptation have literally grown up...

CHO: Yeah.

CHANG: ...With "Cowboy Bebop." Anticipation is high, right? So I'm curious because this is not the first time that you've been part of an adaptation of a much-beloved series. Like, you were in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"...

CHO: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Reboot. What is it like to step into a role that you know audiences already have opinions about, strong opinions about?

CHO: Yeah. I mean, you feel anxiety. You feel like, we got to get this right. This is a big deal, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHO: But what made me relax every step of the way as we got into it was that every single person was a fan. And you cannot control whether people will love the outcome or not, but what you can control is your intentionality. And I thought, well, as long as we're really fans, we have to trust what we're going to create. It is a little bit - like, sometimes I think about all this stuff as covering a song. The original song is still there, and we're just doing a cover of a song and adding our own expression to it. So I think it's how you express yourself in the retelling.

CHANG: Yeah. Finally, I want to turn to the hashtag #StarringJohnCho. I am sorry if you are sick and tired of talking about this hashtag, but it became a meme where your head got Photoshopped onto all these major movie posters so that people could reimagine these huge movies starring an Asian American guy instead. Well, I guess, like, now people don't have to imagine, right? Like, "Cowboy Bebop" is starring John Cho. Other Asian actors are starring in other major roles. Where does this conversation about Asian American representation in Hollywood go from here? Like, how can Hollywood continue to be more inclusive, you think?

CHO: If there's anything that I'm super-excited about in the next 10 years, it's really reaching out and knowing and becoming friends with and collaborators with more and more Asian Americans in the industry and see what happens. What I'd like to avoid is sort of selling our history for someone else. But I want to do projects that we want to do and not things that are perceived as what would sell to non-Asians. When I first started acting, there was this idea of the one Asian. I think that there was a sense that to advance, I can't be seen as someone who only deals with other Asians. You know that feeling when you're the only two Asians at the party? Are we supposed to talk...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

CHO: ...To each other? What's going on?

CHANG: Hey.

CHO: You know?

CHANG: We're not an Asian clique, guys.

CHO: But now I'd be like, hey.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHO: We're here.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHO: Let's hole up in a corner together and share notes.

CHANG: Yeah, where shared identity is celebrated.

CHO: That's right. And I think that that's the big change that's around the corner that I'm really excited about.

CHANG: I love that image. John Cho stars in the new Netflix series "Cowboy Bebop."

Thank you so much for sharing this time with us. This was so much fun.

CHO: Oh, same for me, same for me. It's a real honor to be on the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEATBELTS' "RUSH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.