Why Spike From Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop Looks So Familiar
The iconic space-western anime “Cowboy Bebop” is getting a live-action remake this year and fans are both eager and anxious to see how Netflix adapts the cult favorite ’90s show. Not only are they challenged to capture the animated energy of the original series, but they also must get the key characters right.
Main character and bounty hunter Spike Spiegel is known for his incredibly poofy hair, his badass fighting skills, and his lazy, but kind attitude as he travels the stars looking for the next shot at some cash. Plus, there’s a dark past to him that slowly unravels over the series. The show rests on his shoulders, and, in the live-action remake, those shoulders belong to John Cho. He’s likely a familiar face for many, as he’s been around the scene in several popular movies as one of the most prominent Asian American actors in Hollywood. Here’s where you’ve seen Cho before.
John Cho yelled 'MILF' in American Pie
While John Cho’s career began with plays and a few Asian American indie films, his real break came with a surprisingly small — but memorable — part in the 1999 raunchy teen comedy “American Pie.” At a house party, Cho is the drunk teen who looks at a photo of Stifler’s mom and says, “That chick’s a MILF!” When prompted to explain his meaning, because the term wasn’t widespread before this movie, he helpfully spells out: “M.I.L.F. A mom I’d like to f***!”
Audiences latched on to that short scene and recognized Cho on the street after the movie was released. In a 2009 interview with Asia Pacific Arts of UCLA, he said people would shout “MILF” at him. “I could never understand why people remembered me at all from that movie,” he said. Keen viewers will see that Cho is actually in another scene, as a member of the jazz choir. His friend in the casting department actually brought him in for that part, and he ended up filling in for the MILF scene. He’s such a key part of the franchise that he also appears in the three main sequels to “American Pie.”
In 2004, Cho went to White Castle
That small part in “American Pie” actually landed John Cho a major role in his career: Harold Lee in the stoner comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” plus the sequel “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” the Christmas special, and a few short films. The first movie chronicles the wacky one-night adventure of friends Harold and Kumar as they attempt to get burgers from White Castle. Cho said in the interview with UCLA that co-writer Jon Hurwitz actually wrote the part with Cho in mind, after seeing him in “American Pie.” The character, it turns out, is based on a real friend of the writers who has since become friends with Cho, too.
The movie was unusual for its two Asian American stars, Cho and his co-lead, Kal Penn, who plays Kumar. Cho said, “One of the things I liked about comedy was — it doesn’t seem that way now — but people didn’t think Asians could do comedy, when I started in the business.” The trailer even introduced him not by name but by race, with the line, “New Line Cinema presents that Asian guy from ‘American Pie.'” Cho pushed back on this marketing angle at the time, but the studio went with it anyway (via UCLA Asia Institute).
Cho has always been very conscious of his race with regard to his work. “It’s almost perverse how much I’ve thought about my Asian American audience,” he said. “My whole career, every job, every audition that I’ve ever been offered, I think about how it will serve the community or not. If people will appreciate it or find it offensive, and it’s almost the single factor by which I take jobs or not.”
Cho has since been cast in leading roles that rarely have been portrayed by an Asian American, such as his turn as concerned father David Kim in the 2018 thriller “Searching.” However, he also played a part once portrayed by another Asian American actor on a long-running science fiction franchise.
John Cho took on an iconic role in Star Trek
About a decade into his acting career, John Cho began to lose interest in the job, but then came “Star Trek” to shake things up. “I just had to have it,” he said in an interview with the UCLA Asia Institute. “More than anything else, it just reignited my interest in acting.” For the film reboots, he got the role of Sulu, the USS Enterprise helmsman played by George Takei in the original “Star Trek” series. So far, Cho’s played him in “Star Trek,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and “Star Trek Beyond.”
Doing “Star Trek” was a childhood fantasy for Cho. “[George Takei] was just one of the few bright spots in my childhood in terms of watching television,” he said, explaining that this was because Sulu didn’t disappoint Cho with tired Asian stereotypes. Plus, the role fulfilled some long time career goals. “It was also one of my political goals as an Asian American actor, to do something set in space, because I couldn’t do a Western as an Asian American, and the Western was a real cinematic goal for me. So ‘Star Trek’ was perfect — the frontier,” he shared. Of course, now, Cho’s achieving his cowboy dreams in his current role.
He was the romantic lead on Selfie
For one season, John Cho starred opposite “Doctor Who” actor Karen Gillan in ABC’s “Selfie,” a 13-episode sitcom inspired by the play “Pygmalion,” which “My Fair Lady” was based on. Gillan plays Eliza Dooley, who’s obsessed with social media, while Cho plays her co-worker Henry Higgs, who uses his marketing skills to help her image.
Rarely are Asian American men cast as the romantic lead, so this part was a big deal for Cho and the media in general. “I would call this revolutionary. It’s certainly a personal revolution for me,” Cho said in an interview with The Toronto Star after his casting was announced. “Asians narratively in shows are insignificant. They’re the cop, or the waitress, or whatever it is. You see them in the background. So to be in this position is a bit of a landmark.”
Unfortunately, “Selfie” got canceled halfway through its first season and ended up finishing on Hulu. Though the series didn’t become a cultural landmark like “Star Trek,” it still deeply affected Cho. “It was a turning point in how I approached acting in general,” he said to TVLine. It was a chance for him to look more inward for the part. In an interview with Vulture, he explained, “‘Selfie’ was a chance for me to be centered, confident. There was some kind of stillness to the character that I felt was much more me than any other person I played.”
After comedy, sci-fi, a bit of romance, and plenty of other parts between, Cho’s now taking on his most physically demanding role with the dynamic role of Spike Spiegel in “Cowboy Bebop.”