Just over two years ago, William Yu began photoshopping the actor John Cho into the posters of Hollywood’s biggest films, accompanied by the hashtag ‘#StarringJohnCho’. The question that the photos posed is this: Why not?
What has kept this talented, handsome, charming and versatile actor relegated to supporting roles? Why can’t he be cast in the sorts of roles occupied by Matt Damon and the endless supply of Chrises? What’s so ‘other’ about this American man of Korean decent?
As Hollywood changes, as the world changes, the liberal view that diversity matters has come to the forefront of culture, accepted now as a mainstream viewpoint. But as we celebrate films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians for putting non-white cultures in the forefront in the sorts of big budget studio genre films that usually only star white actors, Hollywood still hasn’t shed the latent white supremacy that it has held since Birth of a Nation was triumphantly screened at the White House 100 years ago—not to mention the fact that even then, issues of class are buried, and ‘culture’ is exaggerated.
One of the biggest issues that storytellers from non-white backgrounds face is that when they have the chance to share their stories, they are asked, first and foremost, to speak for the community that they come from. Though they may grow up loving the sorts of genre filmmaking, for example—the sorts of horror, thriller, romantic comedy, science fiction and fantasy that dominate the box office and the cultural conversation—if they try to make a film in that space, the question that they will be asked, time and time again, is: why? If a filmmaker tries to cast a non-white person in the lead in that type of film, they will be asked: why?
Where does that ‘why’ come from?
People who are considered white do not have these same pressures—and they often see this neutrality as non-political. Characters in Hollywood stories are, by default, white. To them, this is not a viewpoint in and of itself—they do not see that when they talk about being ‘inclusive’, they’re still proffering a white center. Even the people who are vocally against white supremacy have internalized far more of it than they realize.
Searching, the first major genre film actually #StarringJohnCho, is a deliberate subversion of this trend. The film tells the story of a father trying to find his missing daughter, with no cultural angle to be found. The fact that the family in the film is Korean American isn’t for a ‘reason’—and that’s the reason.
It’s simple—as long as the ‘average American family’ is thought of white first, as long as the white hero is seen as normal and everyone else is seen as a variant, white supremacy is still the real default that a ‘default’ American implies.
Ahead of its release, I’m sitting for lunch with Searching director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer and producer Sev Ohonian, to speak about the film that won raves at Sundance and has already achieved box office success as a sleeper hit. I bring up the hashtag, and while that they didn’t cast him because of Yu’s movement, they were driven by the same ideals.
“#StarringJohnCho exists because John Cho is the only Asian American star that you’ve heard of. Obviously there’s Steven Yeun, but as a leading man, John Cho is the face of that. It’s less being inspired by that movement and more that we wanted to cast some one from the beginning that was a representative minority. When we grew up, we just never saw ourselves in these kinds of movies, so we thought, ok, it’s time Hollywood do this, and here we are with the opportunity to do that for the first time. Let’s absolutely cast somebody who looks like us, who looks like the kind of people who I grew up with in Silicon Valley—I grew up in San Jose. That was the overall MO there,” says Chaganty.
Having said that, they didn’t choose John Cho just because of his ethnic background.
“Then we found John to just work. We said, ok, this guy is amazing. This guy is purely amazing. Let’s write the role for him. And try our best to convince him. He said no once, but I convinced him after that,” says Chaganty.
“Why did he say no?” I ask.
“He saw another movie that took place on a computer screen that he didn’t like, and I didn’t do a good job talking to him explaining why ours would be different. I don’t want to name names because a couple people that worked on this movie worked on that one as well, but his fear was that it had not been done in a cinematic way, and it could not be done in a cinematic way. We originally said no to this project because it had been done poorly in the past and we also didn’t want to do it because we thought it couldn’t be done in a cinematic way. What ended up needing to happen is me taking him through exactly why we said no first, and explaining why we’re saying yes now, and why he should say yes now too. It was the best pitch I’ve ever given as a do-over, and he ended up coming on board,” says Chaganty.
“You wanted to subvert the internalized white supremacist view that there’s the white-default family and that’s the only real family there is,” I say to Chaganty and his co-writer and producer Sev Ohanian.
“Hell yeah,” says Ohanian.
For the two of them, however, it wasn’t direct activism; it was about wanting to be represented, and to see others represented, too.
“There’s nothing against anything—we didn’t do this against anything—we just wanted to see people who look like us,” says Chaganty.
“That’s the beauty of it. It’s not a story about an Asian American family—it’s a story about a family, an American family. It’s a universal thing, a story of parents and kids. We have a reference to Kimchi I think one time. That’s it. It was all very much by design to just make it a universal, relatable story,” says Ohanian.
“Is there a small part of us that’s feeling good and maybe activisty about helping to show that Asian Americans have universal family values for the white supremacists that you mentioned? Absolutely. But that was never the goal, that was never the agenda. We just wanted to tell a good story,” Ohanian continues.
Ohanian is of an Armenian background, Chaganty an Indian background, and each has felt a level of pressure to represent those backgrounds.
“I’m American. I grew up in America, I was born in America, and my culture, for the most part, is American. Obviously my family is in India and there’s a huge tug in my life from that. For me, representing myself is not any different from any person that gets the opportunity. Yeah there’s a slight tug that says ‘shouldn’t the stories that I tell come from a more Indian background’,” says Chaganty.
“When we got the question that shouldn’t an Asian family have more Asian themes to it—the narrative that we’re trying to spread is that it doesn’t matter. American is American. It looks a thousand different ways. Hopefully that’s what comes across. That said, there are stories I want to tell about the other side of my identity, but the bigger agenda is to tell stories that have nothing to do with race, at least for us, and cast people who have not been in those narratives,” Chaganty continues.
Ohanian believes that the more box office success they find, the more they’ll be able to represent their cultures on a mass scale.
“My first ever film that I made was an $800 movie called My Big Fat Armenian Family, and it became a cult hit with Armenians around the world and led me down this path. The best thing that we can do to represent our mutual people and our cultural heritage is to just succeed. The more films that we make that reach wide audiences, we can further ourselves, we can then reach the point where we can do for our cultures what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther,” says Ohanian.
“We want to extend a hand,” says Chaganty.
While the pair don’t expect to tackle identity head-on with their next film, that is the plan with their third film, the two reveal to me.
“This we’ve never talked to a reporter about: We have our second movie announced called Run. What we’re aiming to do with our third movie is to answer your question,” says Ohonian.
“It’s about identity. In the same way that we took a story about a father and a daughter in Searching and put it in the narrative of a thriller, this one is going to take questions about identity, skin color and race and put it in a very mainstream package, which is something that I think we like to put forward an agenda, in a way that is palatable for everyone,” Chaganty says.
“We know the whole story now, but we’ll talk about it after our next film comes out,” says Ohonian.
Listen to the full interview on the Cutaway podcast – episode 1: