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John Cho on Netflix's ‘Cowboy Bebop’ remake, his ‘most intense job’ yet

"I can do a Western, a screwball comedy, a buddy-cop movie, noir and an action film all in one,” Cho said.
Image: John Cho as Spike Spiegel in "Cowboy Bebop."
John Cho as Spike Spiegel in "Cowboy Bebop."Kirsty Griffin / Netflix

He's the star of Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop” remake, but John Cho would be the first to admit that he hadn’t been aware of the original anime television series before his agent sent him the script for the reboot. But when he read it, he was hooked. 

“This is the most intense job I’ve ever had, for sure, in what it required of me,” he tells NBC Asian America.

“Cowboy Bebop,” based on the anime series of the same name from Japan's Sunrise animation studio, is available to stream on Netflix. It takes place in the future where the Earth is uninhabitable and mankind has created colonies on other planets. The hero of the show is space cowboy Spike Spiegel (played by Cho), a bounty hunter who captures criminals with his partners, Jet Black (Mustafa Shakir) and Faye Valentine (Daniella Pineda), aboard the spaceship Bebop.

“The show is such a mixture of disparate genres,” Cho says. “And that was the attraction of it: I can do a Western, a screwball comedy, a buddy-cop movie, noir and an action film all in one.”

Mustafa Shakir as Black Jet and John Cho as Spike Spiegel in "Cowboy Bebop."Geoffrey Short / Netflix

Cho is no stranger to space narratives (he did play Sulu in the “Star Trek” reboot, after all). But “Cowboy Bebop” has allowed him to stretch himself as an actor in ways he hasn’t before. In the 10 episodes of the first season of the show, he does everything from hand-to-hand combat and gun slinging, to cracking jokes and being a romantic lead — it’s equal parts drama, action, and comedy. “It’s definitely fun to do all of the above at once,” he says.The original “Cowboy Bebop,” which premiered in Japan in 1998 and in the United States in 2001, is considered an anime classic, with legions of fans attracted to its stylish imagery, jazz-infused score, sense of listlessness and ennui. So there were high expectations for the live action remark. Cho was aware of all of this, which made the project all that more intimidating.

“As soon as I saw [the anime], I was a fan,” he said.

Cho says that a key challenge in making a live action “Cowboy Bebop” was that, “it has to be recognizable as ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ but ... you want to do what you can to make it feel creative. And you want to feel free and like you’re having fun.”

The first thing that he did was figure out who his version of Spike Spiegel was. Though he wears the same iconic blue suit as the anime character, and even grew out his hair to mimic Spike’s hair, he is older than the character, who is 27. Cho is 49.

He admits he wasn’t sure if he was able to tackle the role: “It’s a different medium. And he was painted. So how do I make him a person that I have to walk around in,” he explains. “I wasn’t assured that I was going to be able to find it. 

In “Cowboy Bebop,” Spike is a character with a dark and tragic past he is trying to run away from. He is playful, with a cool swagger. He is also reserved and keeps his feelings, and his past, close to his chest.

To Cho, Spike is “trying to erase the past and become a new person,” and the show asks, “Is that possible?” To him, this notion of reinvention was relatable. He is an immigrant and came to the U.S. when he was 6 years old. Spike wants to chart a new path for himself. Cho saw parallels between Spike’s journey and “the immigrant journey,” he says. “I could definitely relate to Spike wanting the freedom to declare who he is.”

As a kid, after moving to the U.S. from Seoul, his family moved around frequently, living in Houston, Seattle, then hopping around California to Daly City, San Jose and Monterey Park, before settling in Glendale. Likewise, the characters of “Cowboy Bebop” don’t have a home and they float adrift, in space, on the Bebop. They are tied together by a sense of loss: either of family, loved ones, or even their memories. To him, the new show expands on the anime by exploring more of the characters’ personal histories.

“[It’s like the] Israelites before they were in Canaan, they’re wandering,” he says. “I definitely felt like that as a kid. [The characters are] adrift and, to some extent, purposeless; their purpose is survival. And I think part of our season one is them finding some purpose, be it passively or actively.”

Though there are certain shots and story beats that are inspired by the original anime, the live action show also charts its own narrative path. The characters have expanded backstories: Jet Black is a father with a daughter, Faye Valentine is now bisexual, Spike’s love interest Julia is more fully developed and appears more frequently. And a pivotal fight between Spike and his nemesis, Vicious, begins in the same way that it does in the anime. But how it ends is markedly different.

In describing the new show, Cho compares it to covers of Bob Dylan’s music. “Why do people record his songs? There’s already a recording,” he posits. “Because it’s a really good song. And they want to try it on for size and see what their interpretation does to the song, and expand the meaning of the song—give it another flavor.” He then adds, “What we’re doing is adding, not replacing.”

Overall, it’s been an eventful two years for Cho. “Cowboy Bebop” began filming in New Zealand in 2019, where Cho relocated with his family temporarily. He then tore his ACL while filming, which set production back by eight months. The pandemic then created further delays. Last April, he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about the surge in violent attacks against Asian Americans.

In the piece, he wrote, “The pandemic is reminding us that our belonging is conditional. One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who ‘brought’ the virus here. Like fame, the ‘model minority’ myth can provide the illusion of ‘raceless-ness.’” 

When talking about the op-ed, Cho becomes more chagrined, admitting that he has been very discouraged about the current discourse around race, and the fervor against critical race theory. “Clearly, we have a race problem in America, but zero people declare themselves racist,” he says. “Maybe we have to replace that word with something else. It has to be a word that allows people to examine themselves. How do we discuss racism, if no one is willing to examine themselves, including people of color?”

He admits that growing up, he was encouraged by his parents to assimilate, so that his race would not be a liability. But in his estimation, the events of the past year have shown Asian Americans that living a “raceless” life is impossible. “[Race is] sort of too built into the fabric of this country. And what’s reasonable is coming to a place of respect, in coexistence, and love. And maybe we can get there. Maybe that’s possible.”