It’s hard to believe anyone would fall for it, but John Cho did. The cast and crew of Star Trek Into Darkness, the newest iteration of the blockbuster franchise, which opens Thursday, was filming at the National Ignition Facility. That’s a laser-based fusion-research facility in northern California, home to the largest and most powerful laser in the world. (Hey, why build a futuristic set when real-life geniuses have done it for you?) Chris Pine, who plays Captain James Kirk, and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock), concocted a prank to play on Cho (Sulu, the senior helmsman) and Karl Urban (Bones, the ship’s doctor), and enlisted everyone else to help.
“Chris and Zach convinced me that it was radioactive there, and I was stupid enough to believe it,” Cho said in an interview in Toronto on Tuesday, heaving a self-deprecating sigh. “Then I was stupid enough to walk on-set anyway.” They told him he had to wear a white cream on the tip of his nose and his prominent cheekbones, to ward off the radiation. They also told him he had to jump up and down often, shaking his hands as he did so – “to shake the neutrons out,” Cho continues, miserably.
As if that wasn’t enough, the pranksters gave Cho and Urban a fake script, and set them up to film a public-service announcement the duo believed was real – “while wearing our neutron cream,” Cho makes sure to remind me – in front of the entire cast and crew. “That’s when it was revealed to us that we were the butts of a joke,” he concludes.
He thinks he’s done with this anecdote. But I am alight with questions, so he’s stuck here for a while. Did Pine and Quinto wear cream and shake their hands, too? “No,” Cho says, “but they had other people join in intermittently.” Is Cho usually an easy mark? “Well, I, uh,” he stammers, trying not to admit what he finally has to: “Yes. Yes I am. I accept what people say. I don’t have time to dissect it. But I didn’t realize I was that gullible.” I assume we’ll see this fake PSA eventually, in the – “DVD package?” Cho finishes for me. “Probably.” And he’s okay with that?
He sighs again, deeply. “It happened,” he says, shaking his head at himself. “I’m not okay with it, but it happened.”
Meeting Cho, it’s easy to see why the pranksters chose him as their mark. He comes off like an ideal straight man. He’s slim, elegant. He looks about half his age, which is 40. He’s sincere and seems sweet, but without being particularly emotive. Born in Seoul, he moved to Los Angeles as a child, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and caught a break when his then-unnamed character in 1999’s American Pie coined the term MILF. (His role grew with each sequel.) The stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle hit big in 2004, also followed by several sequels.
Cho says he’s always surprised when something he’s in succeeds – “I really do mean that” – but he’s particularly surprised about Harold & Kumar’s popularity. “It seemed so bizarre to have Korean and Indian characters as potheads. I never thought it would catch on,” he says. “But I think it doubled the underdog factor, and people hadn’t seen that pairing before.” I ask him if acting stoned gives him a contact high. “I guess I feel high,” he says, then smiles mischievously. “But all I’d have to do here is walk around downtown Toronto.” O-ho, our citizens are fragrant? Cho nods, lifting his brows tellingly.
And now here he sits, not just in one of the most popular, generation-spanning film franchises of all time, but literally, for a few scenes in the new movie, in the captain’s chair. “The chair feels good,” Cho admits. “It feels good. Everyone takes turns sitting in it. In fact, we got in trouble on the last film [2009’s Star Trek ] – we actually broke it. Too much funny business. But it’s got a great vantage point. It’s up higher than my chair. You’d think having the controls would make you more authoritative, but actually it’s the absence of stuff that does it. The biggest boss has the clearest desk.”
The new film is “pretty intense,” Cho says, featuring a heightened focus on the Spock/Kirk bromance, and so many countdowns to imminent disasters that I lost count. But director J.J. Abrams is a master of keeping things light between takes, Cho goes on: “We’re all real friends at this point – we see each other off-campus and everything – so we’re constantly laughing.” To master his jargon-jammed dialogue – complicated swirls of co-ordinates – Cho listens to podcasts about mechanics. “Typically, actors overplay jargon, or toss it away in an extravagant display of casualness. Real people hit the important parts hard. So that’s what I try to do.”
When he’s not saving the galaxy on screen, Cho is home in L.A. with his wife, the actress Kerri Higuchi, and their son, 5, and daughter, three months. “That takes up a lot of my time, especially being a modern father,” he says. “My own dad, he wasn’t even in the country when my brother was born. I don’t think he ever changed a diaper. He thinks babies are cute, but he doesn’t know what to do with them.” Cho’s parenting advice is simple, though: “You being around is all that they want,” he says. “Ninety per cent of being a parent is just being present and available.”
But when the final frontier calls, Cho is happy to answer. “Being part of this franchise is a gift,” he says sincerely. “It’s part of the American cultural canon, so I’m honoured. Without sounding corny, I think Star Trek is good for the world. It’s a positive message, with positive imagery, people of different backgrounds going on a scientific mission.”
He’s happy that, despite all its explosions, this instalment has an anti-war message. “In rehearsals, we talked a lot about the nature of good, and who we designate as good versus bad, and what those assumptions are,” Cho says. “The Enterprise is not supposed to be a vessel of war, yet the captain takes it on an aggressive mission. It shows you what the chain of events can be when one begins retaliation. That’s a welcome note of caution right now.” And that’s no joke.