John Cho on road trips, his go-to karaoke songs and approach to life: “I’m very open to risk”

John Cho delivers a heartbreaking performance in the terrific, if bittersweet, father/daughter tearjerker Don’t Make Me Go, directed by Hannah Marks. Max (Cho) is the single, do-it-yourself father of responsible teenager Wally (flashy newcomer Mia Isaac). When Max insists that Wally accompany him on a road trip to his college reunion, she doesn’t want to go. Wally has issues with Glenn (Otis Djanji), a classmate who is reluctant to become her official boyfriend. Max’s plan – unbeknownst to Wally – is to track down his ex-wife, since she is his daughter’s only living family. He has just been diagnosed with a bone tumor near his brain and has limited time to live.

Traveling from California to New Orleans, Max teaches Wally life and driving lessons. And as in any road movie, the characters fight and bond, discover new things about each other (and themselves) and have some terrifying experiences – like a scene on a nude beach.

As in the poignant “Columbus,” Cho is reserved here, as Max is both sensible and overprotective. And part of the strength and depth of his performance is how thoughtful Max is with Wally, even in his greatest anger. Max is patient with his daughter in a casino, albeit less so when she’s merging in traffic. But when he gives her advice while dancing or takes her to a karaoke bar, these characters show how much they love each other. In some of the more emotional moments that involve harsh or hurtful words, there is caring and compassion.

“Don’t Make Me Go” showcases the push-pull relationship between father and daughter that, combined with the strong performances, makes this film so touching. (Warning, it can ruin viewers.)

Cho spoke to Salon about his new movie, his karaoke skills and a family trip to remember.

Max has to make an important decision in the film and is risk averse. Do you often play it safe? How are you “boring and grown up” and when do you take risks?

“The non-diverse stuff is the fiction. That felt authentic to me.”

I am very protective of my loved ones. For example, I wanted my parents to be in a room during COVID and never come out to protect them, and they said, “We’ve got to take some risks,” and they were obviously more willing to take risks for themselves than I was comfortable with. This is a tension my whole life. I am very willing to take risks for myself and exclude myself from risks for my loved ones.

The film doesn’t really address racial issues, although they do hang in the background; Wally’s mother is Black. Also, I liked that there was no overt racism in the film, no stereotypes except that the straight white males in the film are mostly jerks. Was that important to you for the project and is it another step forward?

I haven’t really thought about it. It came naturally. The screenplay was written for a white man I believe. Hannah wanted me in the role and we were looking for an actress for my daughter. We auditioned various actresses from different racial backgrounds. We went with Mia because she felt like the right choice. That led to the casting of the mother. This fits with my general worldview about diversity, which says that non-diverse stuff is unnatural and diversity is very natural – it’s what you see in the world. The non-diverse stuff is the fiction. That felt authentic to me. It wasn’t mentioned [Wally] being biracial explicitly in the script. Hannah asked Mia if there was a way to address it, if there was something natural from her childhood that might fit, and there have been a few instances. But the focus was on the relationship, and it didn’t seem natural to cram any of that into this particular narrative.

The scene where Max and Wally dance was one of many that brought me to tears. How do you feel about applying the lessons you learned from your parents to your children?

“It’s not in the lyrics, but if there’s a subtextual Asian reading of the film, that’s it for me. I grew up in a family where we children were protected from many things that were hidden from us.”

Obviously being a father drew me to the script and it also made me feel like I could bring something to the story. It’s a lesson I’m learning now — and it’s taken decades — and I’m still learning how to be present and prioritize who and what matters. I meet so many people in my work, more people than normal, so it’s important to be selective about who you let in, who you hang out with, and who you value. The smaller the circle, the better for me. It’s something I’m struggling with. To me the film is a testament to the time we made it, which is an early pandemic – and that time was so awful because we couldn’t see our loved one and our friends – so we got this opportunity, this one Making a film about appreciating that, so it seems fitting that that’s the film’s lesson for me.

do not let me goJohn Cho and Mia Isaac in Don’t Make Me Go (Amazon Studios)

The film is about “masking” as several characters hide painful truths to protect other people’s feelings by pretending that everything is fine. Can you talk about this facet of the film? It’s important for Max to tell Wally things, but often his hand is forced, which doesn’t do either of them any favors.

It’s not in the lyrics, but if there’s a subtextual Asian reading of the film, that’s it for me. I grew up in a family where we children were protected from many things that were hidden from us. I don’t know if this is healthy or not and I struggle with that as a parent – what to reveal to them and what to protect them from. It’s a balance.

I wrote a middle-class novel [“Troublemaker”] that came from a very similar circumstance, but it wasn’t personal. It was us who watched the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and asked, ‘How do we engage kids in this and how much do we tell kids the story behind it and what’s going to be counterproductive and what’s going to be productive? “That’s the balance of parenting I feel.

While Max was wilder in his youth, he is now very overprotective. However, from what the film shows, Wally is primarily responsible. What observations do you have about Max and Wally and their issues with trust and truth and the power struggle they have?

“I don’t mind making a fool of myself at karaoke. For me, this is a low-risk situation.”

From Max’s point of view, many parents are afraid that their children will do exactly what they did, sometimes attributing personality traits to them that don’t actually exist, or seeing what lies ahead; not being present and receiving information from their children is not doing them any favors. The journey of the film is that Max, through that time in the car, that melting pot, they actually see each other. It takes a while to see someone who’s been in front of you their whole life.

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How are your karaoke skills? It’s fun to see you sing and it’s fun to see you rap on Don’t Make Me Go.

I don’t mind making a fool of myself at karaoke. For me, this is a low-risk situation. But I also like to hear all kinds of voices and I love karaoke for that reason. I prefer listening to people who can’t sing well. I love the sound of the human voice.

Which song(s) would you perform in a karaoke bar?

My favorites are “Hello” by Lionel Richie, “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones and “Like a Prayer” by a young artist named Madonna.

Can you share a particularly memorable road trip you took with your family?

I will give you a glimpse of Korean-American family life. My parents said, “We’re going to see the Grand Canyon. Let’s get in the car!” We drove [from Burbank] to the Grand Canyon and I had seen the Brady Bunch so I imagined them going down the canyon on a mule. We got there, got out of the car, took some photos, got back in the car and turned around. [Laughs] “We have the picture. Let’s get out of here!”

Don’t Make Me Go premieres July 15 on Prime Video. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

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