Two years ago, John Cho found himself the mascot of an unlikely social movement called #StarringJohnCho when his mug was Photoshopped onto the posters of such hits as (500) Days of Summer, The Martian and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Started by digital marketer William Yu, the campaign called out Hollywood for whitewashing Asian characters by Caucasian actors (hello, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell!) and pushed for more Asian-American representation in leading roles.

Cue to the present. The prolific Korean-American is now the leading man in a mainstream Hollywood thriller. In fact, he’s the first Asian-American actor to do so. (Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have all headlined Hollywood movies, but they were crossover stars from Hongkong.)  

In Searching, opening this Thursday (Sept 27), Cho plays David Kim, a single father whose teenage daughter has gone missing. But the lack of progress in police investigation forces David to take matters into his own hands, as he goes digging for intel online — and finds things about his child he'd wished he hadn't. What makes David’s quest unique is that it’s told via digital screens, from smartphones to laptops to surveillance monitors.

Searching’s first-time director Aneesh Chagnaty, an Indian-American, and producer Sev Ohanian, an Armenian-American, said they wrote David with Cho in mind. Why? Well, why not? Whatever their reason, it’s probably the same reason Yu chose Cho for his hashtag project — he’s a darn good actor. It’s as simple as that.

While Cho made his name in comedies (stoner-com Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and American Pie, where he’s ‘MILF’ Guy #2’), he never let them defined his career. He’s also done drama (Columbus), romance (Selfie), sci-fi (Star Trek), horror (The Exorcist), action (FlashForward), and things in between. Whatever the role, big or small, in big or indie movies, “he always shine,” Chagnaty tells 8 DAYS recently. 

When 8 DAYS spoke to Cho, Crazy Rich Asians had just opened and was on its way to becoming a global blockbuster (it’s made US$206 million worldwide since). Cho hasn’t seen the epoch-making rom-com, but hopes to catch it once his Searching promo schedule clears. (Hopefully he has time to spare because he has another movie, The Oath, a political satire, co-starring Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish, out next month).

“I’m really excited to see it because I’ve been driving around Los Angeles where I live and I’ve been seeing these posters and they make me so happy,” says the father of two. “A picture of two Asians embracing each other. It’s so uncommon. It warms my heart every time I see the poster.”

8 DAYS: Searching isn’t a conventional movie; it’s told entirely via digital screens. What things did you learn from acting in this kind of narrative?

JOHN CHO: It was really a very interesting exercise that I had to be convinced into doing. It started out with the idea that we are all living our lives in screens. More humans are interacting with each other through devices rather than face to face, so as storytellers, how do you dramatise that? How do you put that on a big screen? 

And this was an attempt to do that, to explore that area. So they came up with a story device, the engine, of a missing daughter that propelled that story so it would keep your interest through these devices, and they can see it kind of work.

You spent a lot of time in front of a keyboard. Did you do your own typing, or was there a stunt typist? 
I had a dummy computer during the filming of the movie. I didn’t have any actual graphics to look at, so I had to do exactly as choreographed to match the graphics that would exist later on. 

They were very specific with me on set — where to look exactly, and with the timing [of the keystrokes]. And then after we finished filming, they spent a year and a half creating all those graphics [in post-production].

In a way, Searching is an emotional action film, where action is not explicit. Were there scenes that you found hard to do?
You’re right to describe it as an action movie. If there was an older version of this movie made, my character would be going from place to place with a picture of my daughter saying, “Have you seen her?” and chasing people around. 

What was difficult for me as an actor was just not having any scene partners for most of the movie; I was doing it into a webcam. So that was antithetical to all the ways that I’ve worked before. 

There’s just a webcam in your face, so it’s not for the faint of heart; I had to let go of my vanity and just allow it to happen. We didn’t have any cuts, so it was just an extreme close-up for most of the movie. So it was unusual; I felt sort of unmoored as a performer.

Cho with Searching producer/writer Sev Ohanian (left) and director/writer Aneesh Chagnaty. Photo: TPG News/Click Photos 

Was your character, David, always written as a Korean? Or was he an ethnic-neutral character?  
[Director-writer Aneesh Chaganty and producer-co-writer Sev Ohanian] wrote the piece with me in mind. I think they went out to one actor and that’s me. So I’m very thankful for that. 

They were setting it in Silicon Valley and Aneesh Chaganty, the director and co-writer, grew up in San Jose and wanted to make these kinds of thrillers and popcorn movies, but he’s never seen one with anyone that looked like him. 

So when they developed the idea for the movie, he said, “Well, we’re going to set it in San Jose, and we’re going to choose somebody that looks like the people I grew up with. And John Cho looks like the people I grew up with,” so that was it. 

And I do love that it doesn’t really have anything to do with the engine of the plot, and in that way, I think it’s really a movie from the future, where these are people that look like us, and that it’s normal that people who look like us are on screen.

Cho in Justin Lin’s 1997 feature debut, 'Shopping for Fangs', an offbeat comedy thriller about a payroll clerk who thinks he’s a werewolf. Cho worked with Lin again on 2002's 'Better Luck Tomorrow' and 2016's 'Star Trek Beyond'. 

It must be exciting working with first-time directors. Did working with Aneesh bring back memories of working with Justin Lin, the director of Star Trek Beyond and Fast & Furious, on his first movie Shopping for Fangs?
It was different in this way. I didn’t know what filmmaking was when I first started. There was so much to know, and there was so much I didn’t know back then. I was working on just raw energy. In this case, the similarity is that they’re both very brilliant, young directors. The difference is my level of knowledge going into both projects. 

With Justin, I was very green and didn’t really know how to put a whole arc together, to really understand the macro process of making a movie. This time around, I’m older now, and I’m able to participate and act as a kind of co-storyteller. 

At least, that’s my posture going into projects now, or I try to be. I try to be an assistant storyteller in a lot of ways. Maybe they don’t like it, but I did love working with Aneesh and I think there was a certain kind of first-time-director energy that’s hard to duplicate, because it’s your first project and you have boundless enthusiasm and energy. And to get through this process, it needed large reserves of enthusiasm.

Have you seen Crazy Rich Asians yet?
Not yet, because when they were opening, they were shovelling me around talking about my movie. I’m really excited to see it because I’ve been driving around Los Angeles where I live and I’ve been seeing these posters and they make me so happy, a picture of two Asians embracing each other. It’s so uncommon. It warms my heart every time I see the poster. So I’m very excited to get into a cinema. My duties are done promoting as of Saturday, so I predict I’ll be in the cinema on Sunday.

Searching (PG13) is out this Thursday (Sept 27). 

John Cho Picture: TPG News/Click Photos