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It was a Tuesday morning in February and John Cho was listening to a podcast as he exercised.
He’d selected an episode detailing the night former President Donald Trump posed with a Bible for a “photo op” in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. To get the picture, U.S. Park Police deployed rubber bullets, shields and chemical irritants like pepper spray, forcefully removing protestors from nearby Lafayette Park.
The first-hand account described people huddled, washing each other’s eyes out with milk and water in the home of someone who had opened their doors as a refuge. As he was listening, Cho started to have a panic attack. “These are things thousands of miles away, you know, and I wasn’t there, but these events do enter your heart in a way that’s difficult to predict,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I had to turn it off. I couldn’t breathe. I sort of fell to my knee. It was crazy.”
This is not the first time the actor has been overwhelmed since the summer of 2020. It’s why he pivoted the focus of his middle-grade debut, initially pitched as a mystery novel and “a gift to a younger me,” to Troublemaker (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). The story follows a 12-year-old Korean American boy named Jordan, who — feeling guilty over an unresolved fight and scared for his father, who left to go board up the family’s store — takes a gun from his Appa’s closet and ventures out, without permission, during the first night of the 1992 L.A. Uprising.
The idea of telling a story about the L.A. Riots from the Korean perspective had actually been on Cho’s mind for a while as a possible movie, but how to tell it wasn’t clear. Then in the late spring of 2020, George Floyd’s murder was broadcast across the country, as were that summer’s unprecedented racial justice protests demanding changes to the American policing system. Alongside all of this, anti-Asian racism, fueled by disinformation around COVID-19’s origins, drove a dramatic spike in hate crimes against members of the Asian and Asian American community.
It all invoked memories of two events when Cho was in college: the brutal beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers — all acquitted of their assault and excessive force charges — and the murder of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl shot by Du Soon Ja after the Korean shop owner accused the girl of stealing. Combined, the incidents ignited five days of unrest in 1992, during which more than 2,000 people were injured and over 50 killed. There was a line between those five days and the 2020 uprising Cho says he couldn’t ignore — not for himself or for his children.
Ahead of the book’s release on March 22, THR spoke with the actor turned author about writing the middle-grade novel during a pandemic and racial reckoning, how he approached telling the story differently than the media through its Korean and Black characters, and why after George Floyd’s death “it just didn’t seem like a time to be polite anymore.”
Below, THR also shares an exclusive excerpt of Cho narrating the first chapter of Troublemaker’s audiobook edition, which will release simultaneously with print and ebook editions, and is currently available for pre-order.
You co-wrote this story with Sarah Suk. Why did you choose to work with another writer and what was the process like?
This is my first time writing a book, and I learned over the years — because I have tried writing solo at a computer — that it’s very difficult working solo. I realized that’s why I’m an actor. I like to bounce things off of people, and I like a collaborative process. I didn’t know how to structure a middle-grade novel, exactly, and there are a million concerns that I had that are specific to the genre, so I needed a partner. A lot of these issues are sensitive, and I can’t bother my editor every 15 minutes about what should I watch out for. It would take forever, and so I realized I needed a collaborator to help me tell this story in a specific way for young readers. But I also wanted someone who’s Korean American, who we could sort of excavate each other’s family memories and perfume the book with those memories. Sarah was an amazing collaborator. Shockingly, this was done while I was abroad. We never met in person. I was in New Zealand and working, and we would email and Zoom and talk on the phone on car rides to set and at lunchtime. Somehow, we were able to stitch this together.
In your author’s note, you write about the decision to title this book Troublemaker, referencing potential associations with John Lewis’ “good trouble.” Your main character is also called a troublemaker at one point in the story. Why did you feel it was the best title?
The hardest thing was to come up with a title. I didn’t know what the title should be, but somehow Troublemaker resonated with me. I guess Jordan is a troublemaker, and I felt that I was a troublemaker as a kid at that age. And yet, I felt that I had good intentions and, looking back as an adult at my youthful self, I can confirm that my intentions were good. I just didn’t know how to do it. So that’s what it means for Jordan. Beyond that, it is a word that I hope makes you think about a bunch of things. What kind of trouble started the riots? When does that trouble start? We can go back many, many decades to the real origin of the Los Angeles riots. I think Korean Americans, to be frank, thought of African Americans as troublemakers in the neighborhoods in which they were working. I think that the cops saw everyone else as a troublemaker rather than people who were shouting for justice. Even in a bigger sense, I think that the model minority myth paints brown and Black people as troublemakers and puts Asian people on a pedestal to maintain a status quo that keeps brown and Black people down. Maybe it was too much, but I just thought “troublemaker” seemed like an apt title for Jordan. It made me think of a whole bunch of other things that were sort of dancing around the issues in the book.
There are a few times in this book, including the moment Jordan decides to take his father’s gun, that realistically capture the thought process of a kid. As a father, a son and briefly a teacher, where did you pull from to get into his headspace?
Unfortunately, it’s pretty vivid for me being that age. (Laughs.) I do have a 13-year-old at home, and I can see him grappling with adulthood and fumbling through it. It’s both dangerous and wondrous to watch. The gun to me was representative of the desire to be an adult before you’re ready, which I believe is universal. I was reminded of when I was that age, maybe 14 — we didn’t have a gun in our house. We had a car and I was obsessed with the car. I was like, “I gotta drive that car.” One night — I don’t know why I did it — I snuck out of the house, took the car keys and drove it. I was stopped by cops, arrested; my parents were woken up in the middle of the night and told to come down to the police station. I still don’t know … it was almost a spell. I just was curious about what it was like to drive. I know kids from my youth who were very curious about guns. Boys who had guns in their house. I tell a story in the author’s notes about a friend of mine who played with his father’s gun and almost died. So there is an attraction to these adult things. I think the story is about a boy who wants to be seen as an adult by his father, but he’s really having difficulty nailing it. He’s just fumbling with these adult circumstances and what could be a bigger adult circumstance than this thing that’s happening to his city and he doesn’t understand what the adults have done in his life that has led to this horrendous event.
You and Suk pulled from personal experience for the Korean American characters, but you also feature Black characters, including an older gentleman that Jordan has a sensitive discussion with. How did you approach informing the book’s various perspectives authentically and sensitively in a time when these two communities were operating in opposition?
Part of the impulse to tell this particular story was when I was thinking about the events in ’92 and the image of Korean Americans that everyone remembers. It’s really just the one image of the men on the roof with their guns. I thought, well, what is that family? I was attracted to the areas of the story that weren’t told in the news and everything we’ve read about it since. I wanted to avoid showing fires, protesters, looting — we’ve all gotten drowned in those images. Even Latasha Harlins’ murder was callously shown on television on loop thousands of times. That is a minor who is shown being killed on television. So I wanted to avoid the things that we have been barraged with and go to the darker corners of the room. In terms of Mr. Gary, I wanted for Jordan to see — and for the delineation to be clear — that this is a real person that you can ask these questions to. I wanted that to be as distinct as possible from the news accounts that he was watching. The news accounts whipped him into a frenzy and convinced him that he needed to deliver a gun to his father. That is a bad idea, and it was the news that got him to that point. Yet, when he spoke to someone, he got a very different impression, a very different message, and that aligns with my personal experiences. The news, even though that is real documented footage, doesn’t jibe with my lived experience. So I guess I wanted to play off of those two different impressions that Jordan was receiving.
Similar to that approach of never taking Jordan too close to the uprising, the gun is this looming presence, but you never go into much detail about it. Why?
I guess I felt that the gun was not this machine. To him, it was respect from his father. It was the country he lives in. It was filial piety. It was a solution to everything. It was all these things. In fact, his problem was that he could not see the machine for what it was, a device designed to kill — which is not to say that there aren’t justified uses of a gun, but it is a machine that’s purpose is to kill. So he had problems seeing the thing as the thing, and he made it anything but the thing, and mistakenly so. If he wanted love from his father, this is not the path, but he convinced himself that it was, wrongfully. I was given [toy] guns to play with as a kid — we would “bang bang” and play Cowboys and Indians. We didn’t think about it when I was a kid. It kind of shocks me now to think that we casually introduced these things to children. But I didn’t feel like I should fetishize the gun any further. I think it should be clear if you read the book that a kid realizes what a gun is. It’s a dangerous thing that certain adults use in certain circumstances. But let’s be clear, a gun kills people.
The police are nearly invisible in this book save one brief interaction Jordan has with an officer. You also repeatedly note the police’s lack of physical presence and touch on Jordan’s family’s distrust of them. Why did you keep the police presence so minimal?
Looking back, I happened to be in college, so I was not in L.A. on those days. But I remember going, where are the police? And looking at these reports. You can see the cop cars leaving South Central and Koreatown, and they were around the federal building in Westwood. So I knew that they weren’t going to encounter the police on this night. And that incident with Jordan’s family was based on something that happened with my own family. We made it a robbery but in my house, somebody shot a BB gun that shattered our front window and we called the police. They didn’t do anything, but [the police] walked in with their shoes on and left marks on the carpet. This is a cardinal rule in an Asian household. I remember thinking, “They’re never going to call the police for anything again. That’s it.” (Laughs.) It was then that I found out also that Koreans came to America with their own memories of police in Korea. For my parents, it would have been in the ’70s, and [the police] were known for taking bribes and being unreliable. So they came here assuming that the police weren’t going to help them. There are so many little sparks that set that fire ablaze, metaphorically speaking, and I think that was part of it. It was also the Korean thinking of: We’re going into a war zone and we don’t have cover. They acted in a particular way in African American neighborhoods, partly informed by that kind of war mentality.
In your author’s note, you describe an instance of anti-Asian hate on your block, which you say within the larger context of the protests, helped you realize “it just didn’t seem like a time to be polite anymore.” Had you had that moment before and if not, how did that take shape during the pandemic?
It was a tremendous awakening, what happened two summers ago, and it’s nothing that I wasn’t consciously aware of, but it was an emotional awakening. I can’t explain it properly. I’m sure being locked up because of COVID had something to do with it, but it was for me, personally, a combination of looking back at my life. I wasn’t born in this country, but I came as an immigrant, being told this country was imperfect, but we were working towards perfection. We were progressing, and it did seem like, even though it was a snail’s pace at times, history showed we were progressing. But this was the first time I felt that we were regressing as a country, and that’s what made me think about this very similar event in 1992, the Rodney King beating. I thought at the time: This is what happens in darkness. But there was this motorist who happened to have a Handycam on him, George Holliday, who captured the beating. Then we had these laws. Then the police were wearing cameras on their bodies. Then everyone had an iPhone with a camera on it with broadcasting abilities. I thought, if we shine a flashlight into these dark corners, this won’t happen anymore. And yet it continued.
Seeing [George Floyd’s death] on television being filmed from multiple angles — I know there were events prior to that, but it went from an intellectual understanding to an emotional event for me. My heart was breaking over a lot of things that I’m still sorting out, for my country, for my children. This discussion of things that we talked about in my house when I was a kid that I didn’t think that I would have to have with my children. Some of it was tomfoolery because I thought maybe that I was somehow race-less because I was an actor or something. I don’t know … I just had this optimism and [summer 2020 is] when I thought maybe I was wrong. A lot of this was me grappling with looking at this line from my parents deciding to come to this country to my life and the line extending to my children’s lives and beyond when they were adults, and trying to map the course of our country and I wasn’t liking where that line was heading.
To pivot a bit, you did a sweet and funny video with Chris Pine for Dear Class of 2020 celebrating pandemic graduates. How did that come about?
Chris called me and he said, “Do you want to do this with me?” (Laughs.) He had the basics of a song. I think he has a recording situation at his house. It’s funny because we live pretty close to one another, but we had to do it separately. I just recorded some ideas on my iPhone and emailed it. Then they picked out what they liked, put it in and sent me a cut. He said, “This is what I’m doing. I’m acting like an ass at my house.” I’m like, “I can act like an ass, too.” I drove a few blocks over to the local high school and hung out in their yard to have the high school in the background. (Laughs.) The Star Trek cast, we have this musical thing going — we did the dub smashes. I think on the first [movie], we went to another castmember’s house and — I don’t think this has been released anywhere — the cast recorded a song as their characters. It exists. But we’ve always been a musical little cast. And I don’t think this will be the last time you’ll hear from me and Chris.
You mentioned Cowboy Bebop earlier, which was canceled in December. There was an outpouring of emotions online not just over the show but of people not getting to see you, specifically, onscreen. How did you feel about that cancellation and do you know why people respond so strongly to you?
I put a lot of my life into it. I’d gotten injured shooting that show and so I took a year off because of the surgery and devoted myself to rehab, came back and finished the show. It was this huge mountain for me to climb, healing from that injury. I felt good about myself as a result. We also shot the show in New Zealand, so my family moved there. It was just a huge event in my life and it was suddenly over. It was very shocking and I was bummed. But I was very warmed by the response. I wish I could have contacted everybody and gotten hugs. You can’t do that now, but … I don’t know what this is. I’m mystified a little bit about how you can connect with people that you don’t know doing your work, but I won’t question it. I will value it and treasure it. I’m just really deeply appreciative that anyone would care. It’s stunning to me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Troublemaker will release on March 22.
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