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Approaching Warp Speed with Star Trek Into Darkness’ John Cho

Whether he is accelerating the USS Enterprise to warp speed or desperately trying to get an oversized bag of tiny hamburgers and escape Neil Patrick Harris, John Cho is always a welcome presence on the big screen. After his impressive turn as Hikaru Sulu in 2009′s Star Trek, Cho is set to reprise the role in one of the summer season’s most anticipated films, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a grittier outing which crash lands into theaters everywhere tomorrow (and, if you’re lucky, certain IMAX screens tonight). This time around, Sulu is no longer the fresh-faced navigator we saw in the 2009 film; he has grown as both a man and a leader, and we get to see him in full effect in Abrams’ follow-up. To get the inside scoop on what it was like to boldly go where no man has gone before again, I caught up with Cho to talk about the film’s underlying themes, the undeniable experience of deja vu, and his experiences with the notoriously nitpicky Star Trek fandom.

Nerdist: First of all, congratulations on a job well done. Despite all the hubbub about an ostensibly darker tone, I found it to be a fast-paced, fun film, which is what I look for in a Trek movie.

John Cho: Oh, excellent, excellent. Music to my ears.

N: So, tell me, did you experience any deja vu stepping back on to the set? 

JC: There is a lot of deja vu. [laughs] We couldn’t get over how little had changed in our behavior. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a couple of franchises. It’s one thing to return to the same cast mates, but it’s quite another when they’re dressed exactly the same and you’re on exactly the same set. It’s a really queer feeling. We responded by – I think we actually picked up conversations exactly where they had left off. We were talking about the same things, joking about the same jokes, we were doing the same bits we were doing during the first film. It was really weird and we spent the first week going, “What is going on?” It felt like it was thirty minutes ago that we filmed the first one.

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N: That is a really odd phenomenon. Character-wise, how has Sulu evolved from when we last saw him?

JC: As a crew, I would say everyone has been a bit battle-tested. We’re more together, and that parallels us as a cast; we have a shorthand with one another. With Sulu, something we’d talked about in the first one and tried to do in the second one – and I hope will continue, maybe – is his ambition. This is something I’ve kept in mind, particularly going into the first one. It’d be a characteristic that would serve him well, especially since we were painting a younger crew. I thought that’d be a young man’s trait, and I think it’s coming out in the second one.

N: Yeah, I’d definitely agree with that. There’s that sequence where Sulu takes the con and he has the negotiations on lock. Even McCoy is like, “Holy shit – remind me not to piss you off.” It definitely gives the sense that even if Kirk’s not there, someone will step up to the plate.

JC: Yes, yes, I think that the movie in large part is an exploration of what it means to be a leader, how difficult that can be, especially in discerning what’s good and what’s evil, who is good and who is evil. You know?

N: There’s a sliding scale of morality that was very interesting.

JC: Right, right.

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N: That comes into play, too, with John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film seems prescient in certain ways as it touches on issues that we’re facing in real life, like domestic terrorism. That in mind, can you speak a bit to the film’s tone?

JC: As fun as it is, the central internal battle that Kirk has, the tone is sober. Let me explain with a story. I remember JJ saying once – I’m not sure whether it was during filming or during rehearsal – I remember him saying, “I think this is a film I’d like to show to my son when he’s ready.” And I agree, because I think the film has something to say about wisdom and manhood that resonates with me. Part of that is maybe that being a leader is having understanding and having judgment about who’s your enemy and who’s your friend, and empathy, maybe. There’s something that to me, as a father, seems really useful.

N: With John Harrison, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding his identity; the Internet has been whipping itself into a frenzy. The reveal is a nod to series lore, but also subverts fan expectations in an interesting way. Was there any difficulty in keeping the secret on your part?

JC: Well, at this point, we know what the Bad Robot rules are. [laughs] And so do my friends and family, so they’ve been trained not to ask. The first time was difficult because not only could we not talk about the script, but we were so unaccustomed to – we couldn’t walk from our dressing rooms to the stage without wearing cloaks that cover every inch of our costumes and our hair. We would go in golf carts that were blacked out with felt so no one could see in. It was maddening, not being able to step out into the sunlight; that simple thing can drive you crazy. But we knew the deal this time around, so we were prepared.

N: Yeah, it’s a bit annoying that you have to ride around in those custom Popemobiles, but that’s the nature of the game these days. How’s your experience been with the fandom since the first film?

JC: My experience has been extraordinarily warm; they’ve been really cool. My fear has always been that they would be overly critical, and that may be true because they’re knowledgeable, but what they’re looking for from us, as people who are continuing this series of stories, is for us to love the Star Trek universe as much as they do and to respect it. And if you have the right attitude about it, I think you’re halfway there with them. They have a reputation of being nitpicky, but my take on it is that, in fact, it really starts with you having the attitude of respect.

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N: Exactly. I think you hit the nail on the head.

JC: It makes sense. I was thinking back to when I was a kid – there were a couple (of) book series that I loved, and if another author came in to write more, I’d be nervous, but I really just want them to love the books as much as I did and start from that place.

N: That’s a good attitude to take. One more question for you: what would be inside your ideal burrito?

JC: Huh. Well, you start with guac, beef… I’m a black bean guy. Tomatoes, chopped tomatoes. A little rice – I don’t like too much rice in a burrito. Cilantro for some kick. Let’s stop there. I feel like that’s good.

N: That is good – you don’t want to go the Chipotle route and have it explode out the side.

JC: Yeah, there are those times when you’re at Chipotle and you start pointing at things and you regret it. Because everything looks good.

N: But, really, who can say no to giant tubs of grilled meats?

JC: Exactly.

Star Trek Into Darkness beams into theaters everywhere tomorrow and on select IMAX screens this evening. Want to talk to John Cho along with J.J. Abrams, Alice Eve, Chris Pine, Damon Lindelof and astronaut Chris Cassidy, who is currently on the International Space Station, and astronauts Michael Fincke and Kjell Lindgren from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX?  You can join them for a talk about how space is represented in both fact and fiction on a Google+ Hangout tomorrow at 9:00-9:45 am PT.

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