When we spoke with John Cho before the season debut of The Afterparty, he agreed that there has to be some kind of massive “murder board” where producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord track the details of the twisty whodunnit comedy and the myriad pop culture references that they pack into each episode as the show jumps from genre to genre while trying to keep us all guessing. “Crafting a mystery like this requires so much planning and so much forethought,” says Cho, comparing the show to a “huge mechanical clock” that the creative team somehow keeps in time.
If you’re a fan of the show, you know that Cho’s character, the mysterious globe-roaming Ulysses, has been somewhat off to the side, spurring reactions with his reemergence as a surprise wedding guest, man of adventure, and long-lost funcle (fun uncle) to Grace (Poppy Liu) and Zoë (Zoe Chao). In this most recent episode (which just dropped Wednesday on Apple TV+), though, some of that mystery is explored as we get a heartbreaking backstory of betrayal, passion, dance, and exile.
So, what’s it like to play a character who is good at everything? We asked Cho before diving into how he found a connection with his Afterparty character, his philosophy on whether an actor needs to like the characters they’re playing, and why adults don’t sing in the shower more. We also briefly revisit the #StarringJohnCho social campaign that highlighted gross deficiencies in the casting of Asian actors and get Cho’s thoughts on wanting to see more behind-the-scenes progress before wrapping up with a talk about why ratings and longevity don’t necessarily define the success or failure of a project like the short-lived Cowboy Bebop or Selfie.
This guy is like an action figure. He can do everything. He can sing, he can dance, archery. The Most Interesting Man In The World might give him a run for his money. Is it a challenge to play a character that’s so spectacular on the page?
There were some formal challenges, having to learn how to do some dancing and get comfortable on a horse and do all these things. But like the character, I didn’t have to be a particular expert at any of these things, but I had to get good enough. So I tried my best, but I think it was the most expansive number of skills I had to bring into any role. It was a lot, but it’s one of the great pleasures of being an actor is just wandering into different worlds and learning a thing or two. So it was fun.
The shower singing scene. Do you have a go-to shower song of your own?
(Laughs) Oh geez. I’m realizing that I don’t sing in the shower as I used to. I don’t know why.
I realize that I don’t either anymore. Is that a thing with age? Do we just lose the music?
I don’t know. I spend my shower thinking about what I need to do, like I need to answer those emails. I have that meeting. (Laughs) I don’t know why I’m not enjoying myself in the shower the way I used to. Yikes. This is disturbing! I need to start singing in the shower again. My kids sing in the shower. It’s the best thing to walk by the bathroom and hear singing coming out of it. Ugh, I’m upset.
Yeah, because it means happiness. And we’re all just stressing about, “Did I check the right box on that form?”
We really made some headway here in this therapy session.
The show does a really good job of telling a funny story while also really fleshing out these characters. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m curious about the draw of playing a character that is going through PTSD, a character that sort of thrusts himself into a mode of reinvention to try and move past the trauma. Was that part of the appeal?
It’s always fun to play a character who’s trying to fill a hole of some sort. And mine was emotional. Everyone in the cast is lacking something and that was a really big pleasurable one to play, I guess. And it was what caused me to like him because he was sort of unlikable on the page for me. And that combined with his backstory made this a really delicious role.
Unlikeable because of how he came off? Or unlikeable because of some of the things he’s done?
That’s right. The way he came off. He’s sort of ostentatious and braggadocious. And so you go, “Oh, I’m not supposed to like this guy.” And then you go, “Oh no, I will like him because of this.” And so it was my opportunity for kinship with him.
Is that important? Is that a must for you with a character?
Sure. You’ve got to like the character for some reason. Well, I’d like to. That’s the way I like to do it. I want to like something about my character, otherwise, it’s very difficult.
Can you play a character if you don’t like him?
If I’m repulsed by the character? I don’t know if I can. I think you’re doing it wrong if you really dislike your character through and through. I don’t think so. Yeah, I think you have to.
I’m trying to recall a character that you’ve played that would’ve been a villain.
I haven’t played many villains. I played what would be a gross inappropriate in-the-workplace guy in a movie called That Burning Feeling. But that was probably the most where I was like, “This guy’s gross.”
You’ve done so many different kinds of roles (Star Trek, Harold & Kumar, Searching, Columbus). I’m curious if that was what you set out to do or if there was a certain point where you felt like you were able to take control and say, “No, I want to drive the bus here, I want to be considered this kind of actor who can play so many different things.”
Hey listen, I feel like I’ve had very little control over my career. When I came in, it all seemed accidental and I was just trying to do things that interested me. And sometimes I succeeded in getting something that interested me and sometimes it eluded me. But when I have a choice in front of me, I just go for whatever feels good, whatever feels most interesting, whatever people are the most interesting to work with. And so you’re just sort of seeing what feels somewhat random but could be due to a larger result of my will. But in the moment, it all feels like I’m just sort of impulse buying.
(Laughs) When I was doing research, I was reminded of the #StarringJohnCho campaign. You’ve played so many revolutionary roles. I’m curious about where you sort of see representation right now and is there ever a worry about people getting satisfied with where things are in terms of representation and not pushing forward?
No, I guess I’m seeing it less in terms of pushing for representation and more pushing for more creators. The more creators you have involved in the process, you’re going to (see that) variety in representation is going to be a result of that. And so really having a plurality of people expressing themselves is going to be good. I’m curious to see what the results are going to be, but I’m worried less about the minutiae of where we are and the progression of the state of representation and more the progression of giving opportunities and access to filmmakers and storytellers.
Last question. You’ve been on some things that have come out strong but which haven’t necessarily worked out, like Cowboy Bebop, and Selfie. As someone who invests themselves in these characters and these projects and has real behind-the-scenes experiences with castmates, friends, et cetera, when something doesn’t go as long as you may have hoped it had, is it possible to still look back on that experience as a positive?
Oh yeah. If it isn’t a hit, it’s not like the thing is burned up forever. It’s still there.
Well, with some studios now it may not always be there.
That’s true. You’re right. But yeah, it’s definitely a mixed bag because, on the one hand, it’s hard to avoid feeling blue about these things that aren’t hits. And on the other hand, even in failure, you learn things. And I would argue that failure doesn’t have to mean necessarily financial either. It can still be a success even if it isn’t a hit.
But to answer your question more directly, no I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time bemoaning those things. I still value those experiences. On everything that’s tanked that I’ve been in, I still have made good friends and have learned something on the job. So yeah, it’s just like anything else in life, I said yes for a reason. I don’t say yes because it will be a hit. You always know that there’s a question mark, so it’s not like anything is assured. You just go in thinking, “This is a world I’d like to give myself to for a period of time,” and go from there.
I got a lot of joy out of that season of Cowboy Bebop. I’m sure you did too. If the storytellers feel satisfied at the end of it and everyone involved feels satisfied and there are people that like it, that’s the job, right?
Yeah. Actually, I would argue that really, the best thing about doing what I do now is I love seeing a whole bunch of people work at one thing together. And when you can come to the end of that process and you can slap people on the back and say, “Good job,” that feels so good. And I don’t know that anything could ruin that for me. If you feel that you’ve given you’re all to something and worked well with people who have also given their all to something, that’s kind of the whole bag.
New episodes of ‘The Afterparty’ drop every Wednesday on Apple TV+