It wasn't easy for any of the cast of 2009's Star Trek to pick up roles that had been so iconically inhabited on the original series, but for three of them the challenge was even harder. William Shatner's Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's Spock and George Takei's Sulu weren't just famous, but the actors themselves were still ever-present in the public eye; if you're not following Shatner on Twitter or Takei on Facebook, you're not using the Internet right.
By the time this year's Star Trek Into Darkness came along, John Cho says he'd become more comfortable stepping into Sulu's shoes-- but with a role that mostly has him on the bridge of the Enterprise and even occasionally taking over the captain's chair, there was a whole new set of challenges. Like, how do you pretend you're under fire when you're sitting on a set? And why does Sulu want that power anyway? I asked Cho these and many other questions when we caught up on the phone last week, and also was sure to ask him about his role on one of the all-time great 30 Rock episodes, in which he plays the Canadian mastermind of a mobile meth lab (he, like all Canadians, is named Lorne).
Sulu seems really, really excited to get to sit in the chair this time. Where'd that power-hungry side of him come from?
I prefer to think of it as ambition. It's a characteristic that I've been thinking about since the last movie, and going off of their character descriptions of Sulu, I thought this might be something to keep in mind as we filmed the first one. Ambition is a young man's trait, and this is a younger version of the crew, so I thought it might be useful. Luckily enough it came out in this one.
It's weird how calm they are about just handing the controls of the ship to somebody else, basically any time Kirk leaves the room.
It's excessively calm. Well, it can't be empty, and the captain has business to attend to.
You're not in on the action as much this time, and I know you enjoyed getting involved in the fight scene in the first film. Are you pushing so they'll give you more action next time?
I don't tell them what to do at all, ever. I have ideas, but I'm afraid to ruin my own career by giving them bad ideas. Strangely enough I was glad I had something physical to do in the first one because it gave me some routine that I really loved, and I missed that this time around. Having to learn the martial arts and having to keep up on this fight routine was some kind of regularity in a chaotic process.
Were you not around on set as much this time because you weren't in the action scenes?
I was in and out, but it was mostly on the bridge. You do a lot of that at once. I was not around as much.
I've always wondered this about Star Trek movies, because the cast is basically locked in a room and told to pretend they're flying through outer space ,and you have to stare at a wall and seem like you're staring outside a giant spaceship-- or when the ship is under attack just yelling "OK, everybody shake now!" How do you make that convincing?
JJ is aware of that problem and works harder than most to make it easier for the actors, starting with the way the set is built and making the control panels as believable as possible, giving us graphics that we're always looking at and stuff. He always brought actors to the set for the green screen stuff. When we're talking to someone Peter Weller [playing Admiral Marcus] was always there, and Benedict [Cumberbatch, playing John Harrison] was always there for those scenes. It was never an assistant reading off camera. But when the ship is being rocked by a torpedo, we're just going "OK, 1, 2, 3 shake!"
Are you less nervous about being in the shadow of the original cast, now that you're on your second movie?
I guess so. I feel like people are more accustomed. I was afraid of people calling fraud that first time. When it didn't happen you're a little more relaxed about it. I was actually just afraid of doing an imitation of George the first time. It felt like for whatever reason he as a person had become kind of iconic. Not even as Sulu, George Takei had become this American icon in some weird way.
How long did it take you to relax and realize nobody was calling fraud?
I waited a long time. It hasn't happened yet, or to my face. I actually was surprised at how overwhelming the affection was for the first one. It felt like real Star Trek fans were into it and appreciate, and I think correctly picked up on it
You were on one of my favorite 30 Rock episodes ever, "Double Edged Sword," and I'm curious about what you remember about that experience.
I remember being frightened of Alec Baldwin. My memory of Alec Baldwin is like he's a gigantic man in every way. His face is gigantic, his hands are gigantic, his presence is gigantic. He's this enormous beast of humanity. I have fond memories of it. Also the coldest I've ever been. We were filming in the middle of the night in Queens, and I remember it because Alec Baldwin apparently is famous for liking the set freezing. He requests when he's working onstage that the temperature be lowered, and everyone wears parkas and he wears a suit and tie, and that's where he's comfortable. It was so cold that Alec said, "It's a little chilly." And people said, "My God, Alec says it's chilly!"