Being Smith

By Kai Ma
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi

Hair by Jenny Chung, RA Beauty Core
Makeup by Kelly Yeom, RA Beauty Core

Smith Cho loves animals, and she’s not the first starlet known for advocating for their rights. Think Brigitte Bardot, Pamela Anderson, and the scores of other celebrities who rally behind PETA, while proclaiming their vegan diets and refusing to slip into fur.

Yet Cho, who stars in NBC’s revival of Knight Rider, thinks the description is a bit misleading.

“I do believe that animals need to be protected, and it breaks my heart to see an animal in a cage,” says the Hollywood-based actress. “But I’m not exactly an animal rights activist.”

She pauses, her eyes narrowing on her pretty, angular face. “Plus, I eat meat.”

But back in 2004, Cho did rescue two dogs: Humphrey and Lauren (yes, named after the famed Bogart/Bacall duo). “I didn’t name them,” Cho clarifies. “The rescue center did. They would call my American bulldog ‘Humpin’ Humphrey’ because he used to hump a lot.” Before the adoption, the dogs were seized from an abusive owner and placed at the Villalobos Rescue Center. Lauren, a pit bull-Jack Russell mix, had to undergo an emergency operation to remove 39 pellets from her body because her owner had tied her to a tree before shooting her with a BB gun. “Lauren was in such bad shape that she slept with one eye open. She was a mess if Humphrey wasn’t around.”


It takes a plucky type of determination to rescue, then raise two canines with trust issues, especially when the combination of the dogs’ weight exceeds 150 pounds. But for Cho, who talks animatedly, zips through Los Angeles freeways in a black BMW, and rocks out to the Killers and the Shins, it all boils down to a “battle of the wills.”

“As a kid, I played piano, and my teacher was Korean and abused me,” Cho says in a hushed whisper. “He would hit me with a stick, and it was horrible and traumatizing,” she adds with a giggle. “That’s why I adopt dogs: I feel their pain.”

Which also explains how in just a few years, Cho’s prolific resume has grown to include the most popular television shows out there, as well as small and large castings in films, and a recurring Knight Rider role as Zoe Chae, a Korean American linguistics expert. In the cutthroat world of Hollywood, willpower and a tolerance for pain are practically required traits, and actors can’t be strangers to both.

“Acting is really awesome,” says Cho. “But it’s so driven by self-esteem. It’s about seeking revenge, approval and acceptance. Auditions can be depressing. You feel amazing one day, but the next day, you can literally feel like a balloon that somebody put a pin in. The truth is, we’re all a little sadistic.”



Knight Rider was cemented into the American pop psyche shortly after the original series introduced the high-tech crime-fighting Michael Knight, played by David Hasselhoff, in 1982. Yet arguably, the star of the show was not Knight, but his artificially intelligent computer-controlled car, Knight Industries Two Thousand (K.I.T.T.). (In other words, the talking Trans Am).

After a two-hour movie served as a “backdoor pilot” in February, the Hasselhoff-less revival, created and executive produced by Gary Scott Thompson, began airing in September as a weekly series on NBC. Despite some crummy reviews and modest ratings (a recent episode garnered only 6.9 million viewers), NBC picked up its adventure-drama remake for a full season in late October.

Val Kilmer is the voice of K.I.T.T., now code for Knight Industries Three Thousand, a souped-up Ford Shelby GT 500 KR Mustang.

“We never see Val Kilmer,” Cho says. “I think he literally just records all of his stuff out of his house or farm or acreage or forest thing out in Montana or Wisconsin or wherever he lives.” As for Justin Bruening, who portrays Mike Traceur, the estranged son of Michael Knight, “he’s playful and amicable. He really is like a 12-year-old kid. Maybe even younger.”

Cho was the last to join the ensemble cast. Zoe Chae, who is described on the show’s official website as a “ditzy, but surprisingly intelligent office administrator,” tends to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. The series premiere, for example, opens with an explosive, high-action scene: Mike Traceur and Sarah Graiman (Deanna Russo) are with K.I.T.T. when they are hit with a missile. The car motors on, engulfed in flames. “When the temperature reaches 212 degrees, you’ll be boiled alive in your own bodily fluids,” K.I.T.T. informs them, ominously.


“It was this major scenario,” says Cho, “because they were all going to melt to death and die.”

At the Knight Rider Industries headquarters, Zoe is one of many staff members working to rescue the trio. Dressed like a sex kitten assistant, she frantically types on a keyboard and makes phone calls. Ruckus ensues. As K.I.T.T. heats up, so do the actors, who disrobe to provide convenient shots of a topless Bruening and Russo in purple, lace lingerie. Yet K.I.T.T. averts disaster by roaring into the Knight office, where Mike and Sarah are resuscitated.

Zoe’s response to the near-tragedy?

“That was awesome,” she says, grinning.

“Which is so inappropriate,” says Cho. But, “Zoe is mysterious and consistently evolving. You don’t know her completely so she comes off one way, but her abilities are not what you expected from her.”

Those abilities include being multi-lingual. On the show, Zoe has spoken in Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, and Korean (Cho was already fluent in the latter two). On her script, these lines are spelled out phonetically, and include an English translation, but so far, it’s up to Cho to do her own research to make sure she’s nailing the accent and cadence. “It’s tough,” she admits. “At some point, they’re probably going to have to get me a dialect coach.”

In some ways, Cho relates to her character. “I find myself totally laughing at inappropriate times,” she says. And in other ways, she doesn’t. “Zoe is sexual. She’ll either be playful-flirty, or really sexy-flirty. She likes to toy with Billy Morgan [Paul Campbell] and tease him sexually. But in real life, I don’t do that. I’m not overtly flirtatious. I don’t go around thinking, yeah … I’m sexy.”



Growing up in the Silicon Valley sprawl of Northern California, Cho never caught an episode of the original Knight Rider series. In fact, as the only child of a strict, single mom, Cho was barely exposed to television or film, period. “I thought Hollywood was reserved for a different breed of person,” she says, “and that you had to have special blood or be born into it. I thought about TV and movies from a sheltered point of view: completely out of reach.”

That all changed during college at California State University, Long Beach. There, she met a friend that worked as a film extra. “I realized that anyone could be an extra,” Cho says. “And then I realized that all you had to do was take acting lessons, and that anyone could be an actor.”

Upon this discovery, Cho decided to pursue acting full-time and drop out of college. Not that she was getting much out of it to begin with. “I was having such a blast that I wasn’t focused on studying,” recalls Cho. “It was out of control. I was such a screw-up that I wasn’t even getting my financial aid papers in on time.”

During one of her acting classes, a commercial agent showed up and signed Cho on as a client. After appearing in nearly 50 commercials for companies including MasterCard, GEICO, Sears, and Toyota, she was cast in small roles for notable series such as Boston Public, ER, Gilmore Girls, House, and Six Feet Under. As Glitter Cho, she made her network series regular debut in Emily’s Reasons Why Not, starring Heather Graham. Glitter remains one of Cho’s favorite characters.

“I was allowed to be very creative,” she says. “Glitter was evil but fun-evil. She wasn’t, you know, dark-evil.”


Other recurring roles include stints with Entourage, She Said/He Said, and most recently, ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, as the younger sister of Nola Lyons, played by Lucy Liu. And as expected, Cho is often compared to her famous, onscreen sibling. “Non-Asians will comment that I resemble Lucy Liu,” says Cho. “And I’m like, really? It gets annoying, but when I smile, I can also see how they can think that.”

This summer, Cho wrapped Will Gluck’s cheerleading comedy, Fired Up, which is slated for an early 2009 release, and she also appeared in The Last Lullaby and Meet Dave. But most notably, Cho played the female lead in the 2007 feature flick Ping Pong Playa, written and directed by Academy Award winner Jessica Yu. Cho’s character, Jennifer, described as “rough around the edges,” is the love interest of Christopher ‘C-Dub’ Wang (Jimmy Tsai). “[He] kinda likes me,” says Cho. “And in the end, we’re dating. But that’s after his character matures.”

As for Jennifer’s characterization, “being ‘rough around the edges’ makes her sound like a hooker,” Cho deadpans. “But she’s definitely fun. I do tend to be cast as a ball-buster, and it’s probably because I’ve ball-busted several people in the past,” adding coyly, “but not in a mean way.”



These days, when Cho isn’t at a grueling 12- to 17-hour Knight Rider shoot, she’s unpacking boxes at her Hollywood townhouse, where she lives with her “special friend” of six years.

“It’s a mess,” she says, of her new abode. Which posed a problem when Cho visited the KoreAm office for a photo shoot last month because she was asked to bring in various outfits. “My closet is a disaster,” she explains, as she spreads out T-shirts, jeans and a pair of black Vans speckled with pink hippos. “And I haven’t shopped in years. It’s a crisis in my life. I won’t go out because I have nothing to wear.”

After the shoot, Cho settles into a chair, wearing dark skinny jeans and a red fitted tee emblazoned with the words, “I don’t like you.” Her voice, which borders on a breathy purr, is sweet and girlish, and prone to trailing off. Her svelte, 5’4” figure evokes the litheness of a dancer, and for good reason: Since age 9, Cho has trained in ballet and different styles of jazz. During high school at Homestead in Cupertino, Calif., she moved into performance and competitive dance.

“I was really into hobbies,” Cho says. “And it was probably because I was so lonely. My mom was never home so it was just me. I filled my life with playing viola in the school orchestra, flute and piccolo. And then I begged my mom to put me in dance.”

Cho is a fan of Knight Rider’s action genre, but she also aspires to incorporate her dance training into her work. “I’d like to do dance movies like Step Up, Dirty Dancing, Swing Kids. Or the family adventure genre, such as Harry Potter or even Lord of the Rings. I’m all about that magical world.”

Which is why Cho admires the intelligent, fantastical work of Johnny Depp. “He’s got a great career, and an imaginative one,” says Cho. “I’d love to work with Tim Burton, and I adore Chevy Chase and Bill Murray a ton. But really, I want to be in a film like Beethoven.”

The biopic of the German composer?

“No,” she says, laughing. “The comedy about Beethoven, the dog!”

The animal movie, of course.