TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Bridget Everett, who Amy Schumer described as her absolutely bar none favorite performer to see live. Everett has been featured on Schumer's TV series and was in Schumer's movie, "Trainwreck." Everett's comedy cabaret act was described in Vogue as vaudeville meets raunchy storytelling set to filthy, hilarious and really pretty vocals. I'll add that sometimes in the middle of a beautiful ballad, she'll do something sexually crude. Her costumes are designed to comically reveal as much of her 6-foot body as possible. In 2015, she received a special citation at the Obie Awards, the off-Broadway theater awards. She's collaborated with Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys and musical songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Now, she's co-starring in the new movie "Patti Cake$." Her character, Barb, used to be in a local rock band that never made it. She's become bitter, relegated to singing at a local dive bar in New Jersey. Her daughter wants to make it as a rapper, but Barb is uninterested in rap and assumes that her daughter will also be crushed by her unfulfilled dreams. Here's a scene from the film. Barb's at the bar, singing an '80s song.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PATTI CAKE$")
BRIDGET EVERETT: (As Barb, singing) I went to a party last Saturday night. I didn't get [expletive]. I got in a fight. It ain't no big thing, but I know what I like. I know I like dancing with you. And you know what I like? You know I like dancing with you, dancing with you. Come on. Kiss me once. Kiss me twice. Come on, pretty baby, kiss me deadly. Come on. Kiss me once. Kiss me twice.
GROSS: That's Bridget Everett singing in the new movie "Patti Cake$." Bridget Everett, welcome to FRESH AIR.
EVERETT: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Have you sang in a lot of bars like this one? Have you sang karaoke in a lot of bars?
EVERETT: Yeah. I mean, that's where I spent my formative years. I mean, by formative years, I mean my 20s and 30s. But yeah, I love a karaoke bar.
GROSS: So this role in "Patti Cake$" is, to my knowledge, your first big role, where, like, you know, you're a leading character. Are there things you had to learn in preparation for the movie?
EVERETT: Yeah. You know, I'd never done a dramatic role before. And so I've - and I've never taken an acting class or anything. But Geremy, the writer-director of "Patti Cake$," was involved in the Sundance Labs and thought that I should come and give it a shot. He saw me singing on "Inside Amy Schumer," you know, running around and, you know, being wild and stuff. And he's like, you should be the mother in my movie. And he kind of just took the pressure off. He's like, come to Sundance. You know, don't worry about getting it wrong. Just come here. And I think this is all going to work out. And so I just took the chance.
GROSS: Was there anything that you drew on as the mother in this movie from your own experiences or from your experiences with your own mother?
EVERETT: Yeah. You know, Barb is equal parts Bridget frustrated as a waitress for many years and my mom, who, you know, was a single mother and bitter, you know. And sort of the drinking part to get you through pain is not something that was too hard to tap into. And then also the - you know, I feel like Barb is really lonely. And, you know, my - both my dad and sister had died a couple years ago. And I don't know. I guess I just had some sadness I needed to work through. And Barb kind of helped me do that.
GROSS: In the movie, your character - the mother - kind of blames her own daughter for the end of her singing career, for the end of the mother's singing career because she was a single mother and she couldn't - she couldn't pursue her dream. She had to raise her child. And the daughter knows this. It's, like, not the best way to establish a great relationship with your daughter, to blame them for shattering your dream.
EVERETT: So mean.
GROSS: I'm hoping that your mother didn't do that to you.
EVERETT: No. No. No. My mom didn't do that. But I can relate to blaming anybody but yourself, you know, for not achieving what you want. You know, I think that that's something that probably a lot of people can relate to. But my mom wasn't like that. I'm her favorite (laughter).
GROSS: Did you have a list of people who you blamed for a few years before you established yourself?
EVERETT: Oh, just about everybody but myself. I was like, the audience doesn't understand me. Comedy clubs don't want to, you know, they don't want to book me. Agents don't want me, you know. They don't understand me, you know. Like there was - yeah, for sure, anger and frustration. But I guess that's why I love the, you know, I loved the gay community so much because they just accepted me.
GROSS: So I want you to describe your cabaret act.
EVERETT: You know, it's sort of like a rock-'n'-roll punk rock cabaret. Lots of tender moments and many notes (ph). And, you know, it's a wild ride, for sure. And it's definitely blue. And it's not for everybody. But I also try to mix in, you know, stories that are, you know, the part of the pain and part of the stuff that keeps me, you know, ticking. So it's not just all in your face. But yeah, I sing and write my songs and all that, too.
GROSS: It is literally in your face, like you put yourself in people's faces (laughter). I mean, and when you say it's blue, it's not just like language blue. It's like physically blue. You reveal a lot of yourself emotionally and physically onstage.
GROSS: So how did you arrive at that persona - at the person on stage who's almost like aggressively sexual with the audience?
EVERETT: I think that just for so many years, I couldn't get anyone to listen to me, you know, or a job singing. And all I ever really wanted to be was a singer. The persona sort of came on as an afterthought. I just, you know, I was singing in karaoke bars. And I was getting up on top of the bar and like ripping my shirt open and just going nuts. And then I found cabaret and the performance art scene in New York. And people were just so wild and so alive. I was like, oh, my God, this is what I've been waiting for.
And so I don't know. I feel like it's not meant to be like sexually explicit. It's more meant to be about the power of owning your own body and who you are, you know. And that's who I am. I'm just, you know, I've always sort of had a blue sense of humor. And I'm not really ashamed of my body, or at least my stage persona isn't. And I want - it's just a different way of gaining acceptance, I suppose.
GROSS: Were you ever shy or inhibited about your body?
EVERETT: Not really. I grew up as a swimmer, you know. And so I was in locker rooms all the time. I'm the youngest of six kids. And everybody just kind of walked around in their underwear or some form of, you know, disrobed in some way. It just wasn't a big deal. And I probably have like some kind of reverse body dysmorphia. I probably look a lot better in my head than I really do. But I'm happy with it, and it's paying the bills.
GROSS: So there's the audience who comes to see you because they know who you are and they want what you are offering. And there's the audience who kind of stumbles into seeing you and they have no idea what they're in store for. So what kind of response do you get from people who kind of showed up without really knowing how raunchy your act really is?
EVERETT: Yeah. Well, you know, there's - it's not like I haven't had people walk out. And I kind of like that because it's like, you know, I want people to have a reaction. I'd rather be doing something that thrills people or, you know, disgusts them. But honestly, the audience is what shaped my performance. They kept wanting more and more of me. And I just kept giving them till I got - giving it to them until I felt I'd found, like, my sweet spot and my voice. So, you know, people will come back again and again. And sometimes they'll bring their mother or their grandmother or their kids or something. And it's kind of insane.
But when I go out on the road and, like, people bring their grandmothers, you know, I'm talking like - among this last tour I did, there were a lot of, like, Roses for some reason. I'd be like, Rose - hey, Rose, what are you doing here tonight? How old are you? I'm 90. And she would just like bring down the house every time. It's fun when you can get somebody like that to unlock and let go.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bridget Everett. And she co-stars in the new film "Patti Cake$" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD FISHMAN'S "DIRTY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Bridget Everett. She does a very raunchy cabaret act. She has a great singing voice. And she's been on Amy Schumer's TV show and in her movie "Trainwreck." Now she co-stars in the new movie "Patti Cake$" as a mother who's kind of bitter because the singing career she dreamed of never happened.
So I want to play one of your songs from - this is from an album that you recorded. And this is a song you often perform in your act. And you did it on your Comedy Central special, which was called Gynecological Wonder, which helps give (laughter) an idea of your act.
EVERETT: It gives you a little taste, right?
GROSS: Yeah. So why don't you talk a little bit about "Stay With Me."
EVERETT: You know, I wanted to...
GROSS: I wanted to play something beautiful. And I wanted to also play something that we could play on the air.
EVERETT: Well, "Stay With Me" I wrote with my guitar player Mike Jackson. And I wanted it to be like last call at the bar and sort of have like a romantic '70s kind of vibe or something. And, you know, I just - I wanted it to be like a love song but a love song that was on - in my way of doing it.
GROSS: OK. So this is Bridget Everett singing "Stay With Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")
EVERETT: (Singing) Hey, old friend, come sit with me. Don't be lonely tonight. Oh, please, take my hand. We'll dance around the moon as slow as we can. Oh, stay right here till the night is through cause there ain't nothing in this but me and you cause tonight you're all I need. You stay with me.
GROSS: That's Bridget Everett singing "Stay With Me." I mean, that's really beautiful. Did you try for a straight singing career for a while? Like, what did you do to try for just a straightforward singing career?
EVERETT: Well, I went to school. And I studied opera. I got my degree in vocal performance. And then I moved to New York so I could like, you know, try Broadway and all that. And I got my equity card really quick doing a children's theatre tour. But I quickly realized that it just wasn't for me. There was - you know, there's not a lot of roles for somebody like me. And I just was more suited to like...
GROSS: What do you mean somebody like you?
EVERETT: Well, I'm 6-foot tall. I'm like - I've got a big build, you know? I'm - I don't - I can't think of anybody that sort of looks like me that was up on the Broadway stage a lot, you know? And I can't dance. And, you know, I just sort of felt like I had to make a path for myself. And so I just started singing and telling stories and got into the - that cabaret life (laughter). And I don't know. I just - I'm really happy that I found it because it's like - it's just changed - it's just opened up my heart and my world and everything. I love it so much.
GROSS: When you were studying opera, did you expect to become an opera singer or was that just a good way of learning as much as you could about your voice and how to use it?
EVERETT: It was a good way to get out of Kansas, you know? I got a scholarship. And - but, yeah, I really wanted to learn how to do it the right way because I used to lose my voice a lot. And I wanted to learn how to be a really good singer. I just love singing so much. And so it was good to get, like, the, you know, the mechanics of how to do it right. But I realized, like, I would take the languages - you know, that's all part of the curriculum - and I just - I have no retention. I can't retain languages. I'm like, I'm in the wrong - I'm in the wrong line of work. I got to get out of here. And I didn't feel really that - I loved singing. An aria would be super exciting but not like I felt when I was on top of a karaoke bar. So I just figured out how to translate that into a job.
GROSS: Do you feel like you know how to sing powerfully without shredding your voice because of your opera training?
EVERETT: Yeah, that and I took - I also took voice lessons from Liz Caplan who's - you know, she teaches everybody on Broadway and a lot of rock stars in New York. And she really helped change the way that I was doing things. And I take it all very seriously. Like, before a show, I'm - I spend an hour doing stretches and warming up. I do vocal cooldowns and then that way it gives me the, you know, the flexibility to go onstage and just act like a wildebeest and walk away with my chords intact.
GROSS: What are some of the things she taught you?
EVERETT: You know, she does that - she has, I think, a background in the Alexander Technique. And so it's sort of, like, about your body. And my college teacher, Darlene Cleaver Britain (ph), also did that, too. And I think, like, when...
GROSS: It's a kind of posture technique so that...
GROSS: Your breath is aligned with your body and...
EVERETT: Yeah. And that's really so important. And I think when I was younger I was just like - just thinking from the neck up. And that's not - that's not the way to do it. You're going to see yourself in a whole lot of trouble if that's the way you're working.
GROSS: So what's the music that most inspired you when you were coming of age?
EVERETT: Oh, I really love very Barry Manilow (laughter). And I also loved, like, Freddie Mercury and Debbie Harry and, of course, Bette Midler. I just liked people that - you know, like, when you see, like, Freddie Mercury perform, like, how sort of - he just seemed like his own particular thing, you know? And he's kind of wild and looked a little different. And it just gave me a lot of hope that there was a space for me somewhere.
GROSS: Where does Barry Manilow fit him - fit in? Because he's more of, like, a songwriter craftsman and pop singer.
EVERETT: I think it's...
GROSS: It seems really different than what you're doing.
EVERETT: Yeah, I think it's, like, the unabashed, like - not melancholy, what - I'm kind of think - trying to think of what the right word is. But just, like, he just says what's on his heart and mind, you know? And I really like that. And I love all the key changes and just the drama of it. And, you know, it's sort of the soundtrack of my youth.
My - there was a lot of nights where I'd - my mom would be sitting in her blue chair having a scotch, and I'd be brushing her hair. And we'd be listening to Manilow, and she'd be crying. And I don't know, just sort of brings me back to the sweet life.
GROSS: Your mother was a music teacher, right?
EVERETT: Yeah, she's a retired music teacher. And...
EVERETT: She taught, like, you know, elementary school music. And then she taught privately after school, you know, piano lessons, guitar, like, basically everything. And she, you know, call - or in high school, she wouldn't let me take a computer class, but I was taking three credits of music, you know, show choir, and then choir choir and then some other music class. And she just always, you know, music was always in our house.
And when we were growing up, like, you know, my - we had a, you know, like everybody, sort of a tricky - you know, parents got divorced and all that. But the best times were, like, singing and drinking around the piano and singing Manilow, or Lionel Richie or show tunes. And it's just the sweet spot.
GROSS: So did she teach you music?
EVERETT: She didn't, really. But we would, you know, she insisted that we would, you know, practice a half hour a day on the piano. And, you know, if you played a wrong note, she'd be like, F sharp, from the kitchen (laughter). So she'd, you know, she'd definitely crack the whip and made sure that we kept at it.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you were influenced by performers in gay clubs.
EVERETT: Oh, yeah. That's what changed my life. When I moved to New York, my friend took me to Fez in the Time Cafe, and that's where I saw Murray Hill and Kiki and Herb. And I was a big fan of Sweetie, who's a drag queen who passed away just a few months ago, and just, like, the sort of vital nature of their performance and just, like, the, you know, not to be corny but, like, the coloring outside of the lines kind of thing, and crawling on tables and just, you know, sometimes just totally sick humor.
But, also, you know, the ones that I responded to were the ones that just had a lot of heart sort of pulsating underneath it. And yeah, I didn't know that that existed living in Kansas and then going to school in Arizona. So they are constantly inspiring me, for sure.
GROSS: What are the things that made you feel most different when you were in front of audiences? Not gay audiences, but audiences who you felt weren't getting what you did.
EVERETT: I think, like, I'm - physically, I'm different. I don't see a lot of people onstage that look like me. I don't see a lot of people onstage that are, you know, wearing plunging - you know, a gown that goes all the way down to their navel that are built like me that are swinging it all around.
You know, I think, like, I am - and then just, like, going out into the audience and just being, like, a - just a wild child, like, somebody used to call me a cabaret hurricane. It's, like, I just didn't see that. And I just feel like, I don't know why, but queer audiences just ate it up and just - and treated me like I belonged there.
GROSS: My guest is Bridget Everett. She stars in the new movie "Patti Cake$." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll hear from actor John Cho, co-star of the "Harold & Kumar" movies and the "Star Trek" reboot, and star of the new movie "Columbus." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "NOCTURNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bridget Everett. She co-stars on the new film "Patti Cake$" as a single mother who's become bitter because she's never achieved her dream of having a singing career. It took a long time for Bridget Everett to make her living as a performer. She's now known for her cabaret act in which she does comic, sexually crude banter and songs, and sings some beautiful songs, too.
During the years you wanted a singing career and didn't have one, you worked as a waitress. What kind of restaurants did you work?
EVERETT: I worked at Ruby Foo's on the Upper West Side for 10 years. I opened it and closed it. And then I worked at another restaurant on the Upper West Side. Yeah, I waited tables or worked in a restaurant for 25 years before I finally got to quit about two years ago.
GROSS: That's really recent, two years ago.
EVERETT: Yeah (laughter). I don't know. It was - I kept it a little bit longer than I might have needed to because I had health insurance, but I needed the money. You know, it's - touring is like - well, you're sort of trying to tour around, not making a lot of money, just trying to get people to understand what cabaret is and not be scared of that or the kind of performer I was. You know, I needed to make a little cash.
GROSS: So what were the best and worst aspects of being a waitress? Like, what did you hate most when somebody behaved in a certain way or asked you for a certain thing?
EVERETT: Yeah. What I hated was that I felt like I should be on stage singing. And so I just started to resent everybody around me. And I was - you know, I was 42 and - you know, I think 42 or 43 when I quit waiting tables. And I'm like walking around and there's all these 20-year-olds, you know, that are - have the same job as I do, and their future is looking so bright. And I'm like, God, am I - am I like - is this ever going to happen for me?
It's like the only time I would ever question what I was doing, like, is when I was on the clock waiting tables. And people just, you know, they - most people are lovely, but there's just a lot of monsters out there that don't, you know, they don't think of you as a human. But I met some great people. And I got a really sick knowledge of wine when I was waiting tables.
GROSS: Was that because you could drink it at the bar because you were supposed to taste it so you'd know what the wine menu was?
EVERETT: Oh, yeah. They used to call me the wine whisperer because I could, you know, smell a glass and know, you know, the grape, the region, all that business. I've sort of lost that, but I took a lot of pride in that.
GROSS: And you're still drinking a lot of wine. You drink on stage. I was wondering, like, what's in the bottle?
EVERETT: Not just on stage, Terry.
GROSS: I was wondering, what's in the bottle? You know, is it water, or is it scotch, or is it wine?
EVERETT: It's chardonnay. I love to drink Rombauer chardonnay, but it's not cheap, so sometimes I have to downgrade a little bit. But yeah, that's mother's juice. And I also like to have that at home when I'm sitting on the couch with my dog Poppy watching documentaries.
GROSS: Do I need to worry about you, that you're drinking too much?
EVERETT: Probably. That's probably a valid concern. I try to - I have DNDNs. They're called designated non-drinking nights just to try to keep myself in check.
GROSS: 'Cause you mentioned your mother drank a lot, too.
EVERETT: Yeah. She - but, you know, she quit the game probably a little too late, but she quit. And yeah, I come from a family of people that like to imbibe. Is that the right word?
GROSS: Yeah. It strikes me that there's probably a fine line between drinking enough and drinking too much when you're on stage. Drinking enough to lose the inhibitions you want to lose but not drinking so much that you actually lose your place, you know, that you...
EVERETT: For sure.
GROSS: ...Lose your train of thought. You lose your command of the act.
EVERETT: Yeah. I've done that before, and I don't like that. I mean, it's really - for me, it's about nerves. I get so nervous before I go on stage, so I have a little bit to, you know. I think it was Elaine Stritch that said, why would I go out there all by myself? Or something like that. Or I don't want to be out there alone. But yeah, there's like a certain amount that I know that - where it's my sweet spot.
GROSS: It almost seems counter-intuitive that you'd be nervous since you're so, you know, I almost want to use the word exhibitionistic on stage. And you seem to, like, enjoy being on stage so much.
EVERETT: Yeah. It does seem a little nuts. But like, literally before every show, I turn to my band. I'm like, why are we doing this? Why do we do - why am I doing this to myself? You know, I get like the jelly thighs. And like a lot of times, if I'm performing at a venue I've never performed at, I do that thing where you blur your eyes, you know, and you can't really see what's in front of you. And, you know, I'm like spraying wine and acting like a maniac, but I'm terrified inside for the first five minutes.
GROSS: You single out people and bring them on stage to either dance or to put people's heads on to your chest. And I'm wondering, like, if you ever choose the wrong person? Like, the person who, like, is very shy about this kind of thing and wants to see your performance but doesn't really want to be a part of it because they're just not that kind of person. You know what I mean? They want to just sit and watch. They don't want to have other people be looking at them.
EVERETT: Yeah. I think by that point in the show, people - you can sort of tell who's going to be willing to go all the way.
GROSS: How can you tell?
EVERETT: I don't know. It's like you don't want somebody that's like pick me, pick me, pick him, pick him. And you don't want somebody that's just like white knuckled, clinging to their seat. You know, there's someone that lies in the middle that's kind of just kind of looking at you. Like, you know, when I walk through the audience, if somebody's looking down, but there'll always be somebody that just sort of picks up a little. And I'm like, perfect. I got you. I've found you. Or there's been somebody that I've been talking to throughout the show and sort of getting to know them. And that is often the person I pick.
But I've gotten pretty good at it. I mean, I've had a couple missteps. I remember I was sitting on some guy's lap one time. And he was older because I love - I just love the sort of - the AARP set. I'm always so delighted when they come to this kind of show. And I was sitting on his lap. And he whispered in my ear, I just had my knee replaced. And so I was like - so there's always something like that, you know. But I try to - I think I've gotten pretty good at it.
GROSS: Well, how did you respond when you found out about his knee replacement?
EVERETT: Oh, I freaked out. I was like, oh, my God, just, you know, I felt horrible, you know. And he was fine, you know. But I made a big stink about it, stopped the song. Cut the track. Cut the track. What have I done?
GROSS: Well, Bridget Everett, thank you so much for talking with us.
EVERETT: Thank you. This was a delight. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Bridget Everett stars in the new movie "Patti Cake$." And she has a new pilot called "Love You More" that will be on Amazon starting September 1.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest, actor John Cho, may be best known for playing Harold in the "Harold & Kumar" stoner comedy films or for his role in the recent reboot of the "Star Trek" films playing Sulu, the role originated by George Takei. Now, Cho stars in the film "Columbus," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. He plays Jin, who's estranged from his father, a scholar in architecture. Just before the father is supposed to give a talk in Columbus, Ind., he has a stroke and falls into a coma. Jin is called to Columbus from Seoul, South Korea, to be at his father's side. And once there, he feels obligated to stay. Jin befriends Casey, a young woman interested in architecture. Casey wants to leave Columbus to study architecture but feels that her mother, a recovering addict, needs her to stay.
John Cho spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a scene from "Columbus." Jin and Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson, are discussing Jin's dad, who remains in a coma in the hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COLUMBUS")
HALEY LU RICHARDSON: (As Casey) Do you think he's got a chance to recover, even if it's just enough to go back to Seoul?
JOHN CHO: (As Jin) I hope not.
RICHARDSON: (As Casey) What?
CHO: (As Jin) Truth is, if I were in Korea, I'd be expected to be there when he died and to express sorrow in the most dramatic fashion. There's this belief that if you're not there when a family member dies, you're not adequately grieving. Their spirit will roam aimlessly and become (speaking Korean) - a ghost. Of course, my dad didn't believe in that [expletive]. It still would be expected of me.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: John Cho, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHO: Thank you for having me.
BALDONADO: So that scene in particular, you can feel the character struggling with what the right thing to do is - what it's like to be a dutiful son. And what's great about this movie for you, for people who've followed your career is that you get to do something that I don't feel like we've seen you do before - sort of get deep like this. Was that difficult? Was it sort of hard to sort of deal with these issues of family and obligation?
CHO: I think particularly immigrant children have to deal with this clash of cultures - what's expected from their parents from this culture that they didn't grow up in. I remember reading as a kid the Judy Blume book, "Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing." And I remember reading Peter, the main character, was told to go to your room by his parents. And he said, be glad to, and stormed off to his room. And I thought, wow, that was cool. And I was told that by my Korean immigrant parents, go to your room, one night. And I pulled that out of my hat. I said, be glad to, and promptly received a thrashing (laughter).
BALDONADO: I didn't go over...
CHO: A full-on beat down.
BALDONADO: ...the same way. It was a different Peter.
CHO: It was a, oh, you were in trouble then? Oh, you're in trouble now, kid. So yeah, (laughter) I've been thinking about that in some form - this cultural disconnect between parent and child all my life.
BALDONADO: One thing that's interesting in the film is, you know, Jin's father, who's sick, was an architectural historian, an architecture expert. And at one point, Jin says that he hates architecture - I think sort of as a reaction to what his parent loves.
CHO: I hate Benny Goodman, they used to say. I prefer the Stones.
BALDONADO: So - yeah, I was wondering if you'd talk about that. And I was wondering if that factored into acting at all. I'll put it out there. You know, Asian-American sometimes get pushback if they want a career in the arts.
CHO: Oh, yes. You know, I think my parents were surprisingly cool with me entering the arts, although I think they thought it was going to be a phase. And they didn't expect me to actually stick with it. And rightfully so, they were concerned with whether I could, you know, afford groceries being an actor. But, you know, I've said this before, like, I feel like immigrants sometimes, you know, they're such risk takers because I can't imagine moving to another country. And they're pioneers. They're cowboys. And yet, they often encourage really conservative choices from their children.
BALDONADO: So I want to ask you a little bit about your background. You were born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. when you were around 6. Is that right?
CHO: That's correct.
BALDONADO: Do you remember that move? Was it difficult to make that big move?
CHO: I do. I remember it. You know, I was young enough to where I could learn the language pretty quickly. And as a kid, you're very adaptable. But I remember being traumatized going to that first day of school and not knowing the language. I mean, it's just crazy to think about now because I have children of my own and thinking about dropping my kid off at a school where he didn't know how to communicate with anyone. He couldn't tell, you know, if he was hurt. He wouldn't be able to express that. But on the other hand, you know, I learned how to swim, that's for sure.
BALDONADO: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue acting as a career?
CHO: I fell into acting in college. And then I did a professional show while I was in college called "The Woman Warrior." It was based upon the book of the same title. And it was there that I met actual live human being Asian-American actors. And I thought, oh, this is a job. You can do this. And that's when I started to, you know, sort of toss it around in my head. And I will tell you the moment where I thought, this is amazing. This acting gig is amazing.
We went to Boston to tour the show. And I must have been earning 200 bucks a week or something like that. And I got a studio apartment of my very own. And I had never slept in a room alone my entire life. In Korea, we slept - the whole family slept in one room on the floor. And then when it came to America, I always shared a room with my brother. And then I went to college and I had roommates. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was in a room, alone, laying down. And I thought, this acting gig, this is glamorous. Maybe I'll stick with it.
BALDONADO: A few months ago, Kal Penn, your co-star in the "Harold & Kumar" films, posted - on Twitter posted a bunch of pages from some of the worst auditions that he's been asked to go on, you know, the worst sort of stereotyped parts that he had to read for when he was starting out. Do you have any memories of, like, the worst kind of stereotypical parts that you were going to try out for - audition for?
CHO: You know, I - early on, I just started saying, I don't want to go in for those. And I had no right to. I was - I had no experience. I had no standing in the business, as it were. But it struck me as not worth it to do that. But I remember being - very early on - I can't remember what job it was - being asked to do something that I was slightly uncomfortable with, politically, in that sense. And my memory of it - I can still feel in my bones, which is that I was asked to do something - I think it was laughing at an accent or something like that, making fun of an accent.
But what people don't really see is, you know, when you perform that, particularly back in the day, there are no other people of color around set. It was all white men laughing at this joke about Asians. And I remember thinking, this feels terrible. This feels wrong, and I don't ever want to feel this again. And so I've tried my best to avoid those situations.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with John Cho, who stars in the new movie "Columbus." After we take a short break, they'll talk about his role as Harold in the "Harold & Kumar" films. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROYAL MUSIC PARIS' "CLOUND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with John Cho, who stars in the new film "Columbus" and plays Sulu in the "Star Trek" reboot.
BALDONADO: One of your big roles was in the 2004 movie "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." How did you come to get that role?
CHO: That role was based upon a guy named Harold Lee, who is a friend of the writers. And they wrote the movie with me in mind because Harold got mistaken for me all the time. And so the - I met Jon at a screening, and he gave me the script. And I thought it was a hoax. No one's writing - no white guy is writing a movie for a Korean-American guy. That's not possible, is it? This is a joke. It turned out to be real. And even when we got up to set, I didn't 100 percent believe that the movie was actually being made. It was so strange.
BALDONADO: Now, I will say, so this is a raunchy stoner kind of comedy aimed towards young people. But I think what's really interesting about it is that it complicated the image of Asian-Americans in film. Can you talk about why you wanted to do this role? Was that part of it, sort of this complicating the image of Asian-Americans, they can behave as badly as white kids, I guess?
CHO: The basic answer is it was available to me. It's not like - I felt like I was turning down stuff. But yeah, it was really funny. It was really clever, really raunchy but really funny and smart. And it said things about race that were funny to me and were - that were insightful. It was very insightful. And it pushed back against certain stereotypes. And I like that. And it was specific.
You know, little tidbit. Like, the directors - there was stuff in the movie that didn't quite make the cut. They had written in more verbiage about being Korean and being Indian. They wrote that stuff with a heavy hand because they were afraid that an executive at some point would try and - if they didn't do that, somebody would get the bright idea to change the character's race to white. And so they felt as a defensive measure, that it would be wise to put as much cultural data in the script as possible so people wouldn't get that idea.
BALDONADO: Now, you play Sulu, the character first played by George Takei, in the "Star Trek" reboot. The most recent one was "Star Trek Beyond." And in that most recent film, viewers learn that Sulu is gay and married, and has a daughter. And I read that you were originally worried about the Sulu character being gay, not for you, but you were just worried about what the original Sulu thought. What were your concerns?
CHO: Well, primarily, I was concerned that George wouldn't like it. And I thought that he would feel as though we were doing a disservice to him as an actor because he's - he portrayed a straight character, and then later in life, came out as gay.
And then - and I felt that he would feel that we were conflating character and actor, and that he might say, hey, I come out of the closet, and all of a sudden, Sulu's gay. Is it because you can't see anything but gay now, you know, if I come out of the closet? I felt that he might be sensitive about that. And that turned out to be incorrect. He was - he objected because it wasn't Roddenberry's - Gene Roddenberry, the creator's vision.
BALDONADO: The original creator.
CHO: He's the original creator. You know, looking back and having gone through it, I realize how positive it was and that people took it as intended, which was a way to sort of expand Roddenberry's diverse universe, you know, to take it a step further than he could at the time.
BALDONADO: I also read that you were one of the people who insisted that Sulu's partner be Asian. Why did you want that to be the case?
CHO: Well, you know, it was a little bit of a valentine to my gay Asian friends. You know, this may be presumptuous, but I feel like the family hang-ups preventing gay Asian men from loving one another because the shame leads them away from people who look like themselves - and so I wanted to posit a future in which, you know, that it mirrored more heterosexual relationships, where there's no shame factor - and so wanted to look hetero-normal.
And secondarily, I just feel like, sometimes I feel like, in American cinema, there's a lack of Asian people loving one another. And I, myself, am more often paired with people who are - women who are not Asian, than Asian. And sometimes I wonder, is that healthy? In any case, I felt that it was important for it to look - this gay relationship to look as, quote, "normal as possible." There was talk of, initially, was this person human? Is this an alien? And I said, no, it's - I really want this person not only to be human but to be Asian, as well.
BALDONADO: Well, John Cho, thank you so much for joining us on FRESH AIR.
CHO: Oh, what a pleasure to talk to you. It's - I - as I said, it's going to be a trip to see my own interview on my own podcast feed.
GROSS: John Cho spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Cho stars in the new film "Columbus." He's in the new season, season three, of the Hulu series "Difficult People." And in the fall, he joins the cast of the TV series "The Exorcist."
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Max Brooks, the author of "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "Minecraft: The Island," and the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, check out our podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD'S "A GO GO")
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