WATCH: John Cho reveals why he turned down Searching before changing his mind
Debra Messing has noticed the pin I have on my jacket, and she’s not happy.
“I can’t believe you wore a Spock pin in the presence of Sulu!” Messing says.
I apologize to John Cho, who has played Hikaru Sulu in the last three Star Trek films, and he accepts graciously.
“I support Spock love,” he says.
Messing and Cho are the stars of Searching, which has, since winning an audience award at Sundance Film Festival, become one of the year’s most acclaimed and innovative thrillers. In an era when filmmakers such as Cary Fukunaga are finding elaborate ways to avoid having mobile phones appear in their work, Searching accepts that most of our lives are now lived on screens, and leans in as far as possible to that conceit.
When a man’s daughter goes missing, he goes to the place where he can find out more about her than anywhere else—her computer. The entire 102 minutes of Searching take place on that computer screen, as we see her father frantically go through emails, make FaceTime calls, and watch old videos in search of clues.
A film with this high a concept shouldn’t work—but it does. Director Aneesh Chaganty, who previously made commercials for Google, makes every move of the mouse seem meaningful. But if you’re skeptical, don’t worry—John Cho was too.
“When this movie was pitched to you originally, you turned it down,” I say.
“Yes,” Cho confirms.
“What changed your mind?”
“For me it was the assurance that it would be a cinematic experience, and it wouldn’t be about the device. That it would be an emotional story, that it would feel like a classical, suspenseful thriller. Meeting Aneesh, being excited with him and about him as a storyteller, I said let’s go. I’m in,” says Cho.
Chaganty has admitted to me when we first spoke that he may not have explained his vision well enough the first time, but after pushing for a second conversation, Cho was finally a believer.
“He saw another movie that took place on a computer screen that he didn’t like, and I didn’t do a good job at first of talking to him and explaining why ours would be different,” Chaganty admits to me. “I needed to take him through exactly why we ourselves said no first, and why we said yes now, and why he should say yes now.”
Cho adds more to the story.
“It took a meeting. Ironically, the reason I turned it down, I think, is that I didn’t get who he was from the phone call that we had. When we sat down and I saw him face to face and I got his energy, and I saw the vision, felt the vision, really, being with him, that’s when I was convinced,” says Cho.
Messing, most famous for her role in the sitcom Will & Grace and in various romantic comedy, was deliberately cast against type as the hard-nosed detective Rosemary Vick, assigned to help Cho’s character find his daughter. Messing was also skeptical, but was impressed with Chaganty’s vision for what the film could be.
“I think it was two-fold. Seeing his two-minute Google video, how emotionally rich it was, what he was able to do with that, made me feel like, in terms of the heart of the story, that it would live in a way that was satisfying. Talking to Aneesh, hearing how passionate he was, how clear he was. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. I just felt that sure-footedness really clearly, and I was like, alright! I don’t know if this is going to work! But I want to support this effort, because it felt so bold and fresh and unexpected,” says Messing.
From an acting standpoint, Searching was incredibly difficult for its two stars. After all, almost every thriller ever made includes very physical performances, with actors running towards and away from danger. With Searching, Cho and Messing spend most of the film sitting in a room, with a GoPro perched on top of a laptop, video-chatting with each other from different rooms.
“I like physicalizing scenes as much as possible. It just makes it easier for an actor. It’s hard to be false when you’re running down a corridor—you’re just running. I always look for opportunities to physicalize something. It helps me, it helps tell the story,” Cho.
“To have to do that—to have to find a way to transpose all those emotions and all that storytelling from physicality to just thoughts and intentions was tricky and new. I didn’t feel comfortable for most of the movie,” says Cho.
“Nor did I,” says Messing.
“When you talk about having the suspense and feeling sure about that it was in the right world, I had no assurances. I really felt like I couldn’t gauge because I was acting with a blank screen. I didn’t know if the energy that I was putting into the screen was out of proportion. It really was giving over to Aneesh and the whole creative team, the editing team, to say, ok, they’re going to protect me. They’re going to choose what’s going to service this film and hope for the best,” says Messing.