Exclusive Interview: #StarringJohnCho creator William Yu

Could John Cho have swept Emilia Clarke off her feet in Me Before You? Or could have been everyone’s favorite astronaut in The Martian? Or could he have been Captain America in The Avengers? These possibilities and more are imagined with the hashtag #StarringJohnCho.

#StarringJohnCho, which also has a site and Twitter page by the same name, explores the roles John Cho (and by extension, other actors and actresses of Asian descent) could have played, and played well, but were denied solely because of race. The site and Twitter page, both of which contain photoshopped posters featuring Cho in the films’ leading roles, has gotten tons of press, and rightly so; the movement’s mission is to make people think critically about who gets cast in roles, why they get cast, and who gets left with the riff raff. Even better: #StarringJohnCho also has the support of Cho himself.

I was excited to speak to the man behind the movement, William Yu. In an email interview, Yu discussed the origins of #StarringJohnCho, Hollywood’s annoying casting practices, and what film role he would have liked to see Cho crush.

How did you come up with #StarringJohnCho?

As a Korean-American who has a passion for television and film, I’ve always had the lack of representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood in my mind. With the rise of television shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None that bring nuance to the portrayal of Asian-Americans, I wondered why the current state of racial diversity in Hollywood remained largely unchanged. When I read that films with more diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and higher returns on investments for film companies, I couldn’t understand why Hollywood wouldn’t cast lead actors to reflect this fact. I’m tired of hearing from people that they can’t “see” an Asian-American actor playing the romantic lead or the hero, so I created #StarringJohnCho to literally show you.

Are you surprised by the immediate success of the hashtag/Twitter movement?

This was a relevant topic that was important to me, so I always hoped that it would take off. But I am definitely blown away by the support that has come since I first launched a week ago. I’m very grateful that the majority of the reactions to the movement have been positive! I’m really appreciative of the followers who have gone the extra mile and created their own movie posters, it’s been amazing to see people really make it their own. While there have been a few opposing individuals along the way, I think their reactions prove that this conversation is a necessary one.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Why do you think there was such a groundswell of support?

I think a number of factors came into play at the right time. John Cho has always been a cult figure for Asian-Americans and those that have followed his work, but there has never been a rallying cry to bring these people together. With #OscarsSoWhite and #whitewashedOUT trending, the conversation of diversity in Hollywood has never been more relevant and top of mind. When I’ve had conversations with others about how Asian-Americans are represented in media, many times it comes down to being able to envision or imagine how an Asian-American would be a part of a film or TV show. Having a tangible, in your face solution, is something that I think people didn’t even realize that they needed to drive the message home.

John Cho has always been very vocal about AAPI visibility in Hollywood, so it must be great to have him like the hashtag/Twitter page. How does it feel to have Cho’s support?

It’s wonderful knowing that he acknowledges and understands the message of what we’re trying to get across. Choosing Cho as the focal point of the movement was a conscious decision, but there was definitely some risk in using his face, especially if the tag started to take off. It’s been great having other Asian-American thought leaders like Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, Ellen Oh, and Phil Yu also support the movement! Because as much as #StarringJohnCho is centered around him, there is a greater conversation about how Asian-Americans are perceived in our society to be had.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Cho’s most recent TV endeavor, Selfie, made waves for actually casting an Asian-American in the leading male role, but the show eventually went off the air. It was probably thought that another Asian American man wouldn’t be cast as in a leading male role, but now we have Daniel Wu on Into the Badlands and Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Albeit that’s only three roles in the tons of roles awarded to non-Asian men in Hollywood, but with that said, do you think the tide has shifted (if at all) for Asian actors on TV since Cho’s romantic comedic turn in Selfie? And why do you think there’s been no movement in film?

While I love seeing Wu and Ansari on screen, as well as Randall Park and Ki Hong Lee making waves, I don’t think we’re at the point to say the tide has shifted. I’m hopeful that these shows and actors are setting the right precedents for demonstrating that there is a desire and appetite for story-telling that integrates Asian actors. It represents possibility and opportunity. The staying power will be proven in the frequency and reception of future programs.

As for film, I believe that there is an issue in that Asian-Americans are not seen as individuals who can carry a major film. As the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA’s Bunche Centers shows, films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office and have higher returns on investment than those that are less diverse. I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t cast leads to reflect this fact, as the risk seems worthwhile. I think Alan Yang said it best in The Hollywood Reporter‘s article when he said, “[Hollywood] cast Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”

Hollywood seems to adhere to a set of stereotypes when it comes to uplifting or degrading men that are or aren’t their idea of a “viable leading man.” Why do you think Hollywood still lives by these stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes affecting Asian actors?

I think it dates back to the time when movie audiences would typically go see movies because of the actor who was in it, not because of the story that was being told. Thinking of Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, these stars draw audiences before a trailer gets released. As such, I’m sure executives want to continue to greenlight movies that feature these few individuals or find those that closely resemble them. But with franchises like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, and many Marvel films, we’re seeing a greater focus on the stories that these films are telling. There’s an opportunity for diverse casting because the films make the stars, not the other way around. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates that these stories still work with Asian-America lead, so why not take the chance?

John-Cho-Selfie-ABC-LARGE
John Cho in ‘Selfie’. ABC.

How do you think #StarringJohnCho ties into other AAPI/POC-visibility movements like #whitewashedOUT, #OscarsSoWhite, etc.?

The goal of #StarringJohnCho was always to ignite a conversation and build upon the amazing discussions currently being had around race. I think that the movement adds another facet to the discussion by questioning why Asians can’t play leads that aren’t race specific. It’s not just about jobs and Hollywood dollars, but asks how we perceive people of color in our society.

How do you hope #StarringJohnCho affects Hollywood? Also, what message do you want viewers of the hashtag to come away with?

I hope that #StarringJohnCho will not only show fellow Asian-Americans that they can be anything they want to be, but also show those with less active imaginations that the opposition to an Asian-American playing the lead of a major motion picture is an unfounded and antiquated notion. It’s been great seeing those in the film industry support the movement, and I do hope that those in the decision making positions are taking note. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates the desire for an Asian-American lead, now Hollywood execs just have to see it.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

The film adaptation of Crazy, Rich Asians is coming. Do you think the film could open the door to more Hollywood films starring all-Asian or mostly-Asian casts?

I love that a movie like Crazy, Rich Asians is getting made. With films that feature an all-Asian or mostly-Asian cast, I think what’s great is that they are amazing opportunities to show the world the complexities and nuances of Asian-American culture that are not typically brought to life onscreen. I am hopeful that these stories will resonate with audiences both Asian and non-Asian. And with its success, films like these will absolutely make the thought of creating similar movies will be far less daunting for Hollywood.

What would be your dream film or TV show starring John Cho?

My favorite movie last year was Ex Machina. Would love to see John Cho tearing up the dance floor as Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman.♦

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Other articles to check out:

THR Dream Casts the ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’ Movie|The Hollywood Reporter (written back in 2015!)

Working in Hollywood When You’re Not White|The Hollywood Reporter

#StarringJohnCho Was A Reality, Briefly, in ‘Selfie’|Inverse