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THE ARTS | MUSIC/THEATER

John Cho's game of chance

Known for comedy, the actor now faces a dramatic challenge. But he's used to risk.

June 02, 2005|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

When John Cho heard of "Manzanar: An American Story," a work featuring orchestra, two choirs and spoken text that commemorates the World War II Japanese American internment camp experience, he loved the idea of participating in its Los Angeles premiere. But he wasn't sure he should do it.

"At first I felt funny -- being a Korean American -- doing the piece," says Cho, who was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States with his family as a child. "But [playwright] Philip Kan Gotanda said it was a good thing because he didn't want Manzanar to be seen as an event that just happened to Japanese Americans, and that won't ever happen again."

Gotanda, who provided the text and direction, is but one of several collaborators on "Manzanar," which links the Japanese American experience during World War II with warnings about the fragility of civil liberties. The music was composed by Jean-Pascal Beintus, David Benoit and Naomi Sekiya. Overall, the project was headed by Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano.

Tonight at UCLA, Nagano will lead the American Youth Symphony in the piece's L.A. premiere, with narration by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Martin Sheen, and texts read by skater Kristi Yamaguchi, Broadway performer Pat Suzuki, actor Sab Shimono and Cho.

For some audience members, it might seem curious that Cho is in such a serious production. Though stage work got him into acting, he's best known for his comedic touch in movies like "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and "American Pie." Appearances in films such as "Better Luck Tomorrow" and guest-starring roles on TV shows such as "Felicity" and "The Magnificent Seven" show his broad range in repertoire.

"I wanted to do 'Manzanar' because I'd never done anything like it before. The spoken word there is between a drama and an essay, and I'd never worked in concert with an orchestra."

While he sits in a lounge backstage at Royce Hall, Cho's face lights up as he talks about the importance of sharing stories about Asian Americans. He speaks eloquently about the "bizarre no man's land" he says most Asian Americans find themselves in -- unrecognized by mainstream America as being American and disdained by overseas Asians who see them as being too American.

Cultural identity is clearly a hot button for the actor, who thinks about the effect his face has on audiences.

"The Asian American kids I meet respond to a democracy in the vulgarity of my roles," says Cho, 32. "They get off on me being dumb, or sex-crazed, in a movie. They prefer to see Asian Americans in roles that play against stereotypes."

Cho's life is vastly different than that of his father, who worked in the import-export arena and moved the family from Seoul to Houston in search of a better life in America. That search took the family to Seattle, San Francisco, then Los Angeles, giving Cho a childhood that seemed constantly on the move.

"The worst thing for a kid is to move around and switch schools," says Cho, who has one younger brother, "but as an actor, you go from job to job, meeting strangers and becoming very close right away. I've become adept at that. I don't feel comfortable as an insider. I like the constant shift. I always like to feel like I'm the new kid at school."

Cho, who studied English literature at UC Berkeley, initially thought about becoming a teacher. One day, a friend who was directing the play "Yellow Fever" asked for his help. A member of the cast had gotten sick, and Cho fit the costume. The part? Thug No. 2.

"I didn't even have any lines, but I really enjoyed the rehearsals," he remembers. "It felt like I'd stumbled into a room full of crazies like me. It felt safe in that place without rules."

Cho's first professional performance was in "The Woman Warrior," produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He went on to play Laertes in Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of "Hamlet" and appeared in a number of shows for L.A.'s East West Players.

His next film, "See This Movie," due out in the fall, is executive produced by Chris and Paul Weitz, who've cast him in several projects, including the recent "In Good Company." In "See This Movie," Cho and Seth Meyers from "Saturday Night Live" play two idiots who talk their way into a film festival without a film, then scramble to produce one before the competition ends.

Cho is also a composer and the lead singer for the band Left of Zed, which has gigged in California and last year cut its first album, "Furious Bloom."

"Right now I enjoy the music the most," Cho says. "My level of involvement with that is higher because I'm writing the songs and performing them. I feel more intensely connected to that than acting, where you're serving a director or writer."

But Cho is also particularly proud of his upcoming appearance in the film "Bam Bam and Celeste," a comedy written by and starring Margaret Cho. It's about two women who are trying to get on a TV makeover show hosted by John Cho's character.

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