7.24.2004

q & a with john cho and kal penn



Ready for something different? By now, you've probably heard the hype. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle is a mainstream Hollywood comedy starring two (count 'em!) Asian American lead actors. Whoa. And it's funny as hell. Make no mistake—Harold and Kumar is a stoner comedy, with all the low-brow, to-hell-with-PC humor you need/want/expect from the genre. It's not a movie about being Asian American. Yet somehow, for the very same unapologetic reasons, it is. It takes on the usual Asian stereotypes, and promptly craps on them. And it's completely refreshing.

Recently, I had the brief chance to sit down with John Cho ("Harold") and Kal Penn ("Kumar") to get their perspective on the movie. The two guys are pretty cool, and I had a good time.

DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately, my tape recorder sucks. Due to a some technical difficulties, parts of the recorded interview were skewed and incomprehensible. So, my apologies to John and Kal—they had a lot of great stuff to say, but my recorder jacked it all up. I had to try really hard to edit it down and piece together something readable. Sorry.

Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle opens this Friday, July 30 in theaters everywhere.

First things first, do you guys like White Castle burgers?

Kal Penn: No, I think they're disgusting, to tell you the truth [laughing].

John Cho: He hasn't even had them!

KP: I'm a vegetarian. I have had them, when I used to eat meat, and I still felt they were disgusting.

JC: You know what I will say about the White Castle burgers? If you're into meat, there's not a whole lot of meat on there. But you know what the delicious part is? The caramelized onions.

KP: That's delicious. I like them on their own too.

JC: So I will give it a "Yes."

The title of the movie alone, that's some crazy product placement.

JC: It didn't start that way. The writers wrote the script before we got approval from White Castle. In fact, we started shooting before we got approval. They just thought that White Castle was a great destination. It was true—they had gone on runs like this. It's the joint that people go to when you're stoned or drunk, to beat that out you. We didn't get approval from White Castle until like halfway through the filming. We were afraid that we'd get sued, or they wouldn't let us use it. They were very nervous, because of the weed. They were like, don't hold a White Castle bag and a joint at the same time—stuff like that. All these little studio notes. And then word came through that they were going to let us use it. So I should make clear that White Castle did not make this movie. We're just lucky they let us use the name.

On one level, the film is definitely a stoner comedy. What attracted you to this film?

KP: This is the first movie where I haven't had an accent.

JC: I guess there are elements of the stoner comedy that are cool. They tend to be buddy movies. I think that's a very difficult and interesting art form, and in fact, I wasn't sure whether we'd be seen as a comedy duo. But I think that came out and really worked in the film.

On another level, the movie touches on some really interesting issues of race. It's not like you could stick two white guys in as the leads. In some ways this movie is specifically about Harold and Kumar.

JC: You know, that was a really cool thing for me. One thing I really liked about Better Luck Tomorrow was that is was specifically Asian Americans, and yet it didn't beat you over the head with it. And I think if there can be a similarity between the two movies—our movie and Better Luck Tomorrow—that's one of the things that I like about both movies, that Harold and Kumar are actually Asian American. They're specifically Asian American. The movie's not ABOUT them being Asian American, but that figures into things. Just like how it figures into existing as an Asian American person. It touches upon your life in a significant way during parts of the day, and for vast stretches is doesn't at all. For Better Luck Tomorrow, I think it rang true for audiences that the percentages and fractions seemed right. Whereas other movies and plays from earlier feel false now in that respect. The core view feels true, but an identity play doesn't feel as true for seventeen-year-old kids in 2004, because they don't feel like they walk around thinking "I'm Chinese American," all day. It's a reflection of our racial zeitgeist, I guess.

KP: For about a day, the writers were saying they were seriously thinking about changing "Kumar" to "Ari," and change his ethinicity. But then they just slept on it, woke up in the morning, and were like, "No! What were we thinking? No! It's gotta be Harold and Kumar!" To me, that kind of showed that it was written so well, you could arbitrarily change the ethinicity of the characters. Because it wasn't a driving force, but it also wasn't ignored.

I feel like in some ways, few films have spoken to my experience as an Asian American. Do you guys identify with your characters, Harold and Kumar?

KP: I think personality-wise, in real life, I'm more of a Harold. Not as laid back. But larger than that, I definitely feel like I identify with them, because like he was saying, in reality we don't walk around going, "I'm going to wake up today as a South Asian actor, I'm going to think about my South Asian identity, and I'm going to eat my South Asian food." That's not how it is. So it's refreshing to play and be a human being who happens to be South Asian.

JC: You identify with both characters, and the revolution of this movie is that you follow Asian American protagonists. That how a film's story works—you follow the protagonists. We all watched Sixteen Candles. We didn't identify with Long Duck Dong's character. We identified with Molly Ringwald's character. So if there is a revolution to this movie—and I think that this can be—is that audiences everywhere who watch this movie, because of it's structure, will have to identify with an Asian American male. And that's going to be Asian people, white people, whoever. And that experience is emotional—you engage yourself and put yourself in the shoes' of these characters.

KP: We saw the movie in Columbus, Ohio, and they packed these three theaters with a bunch of Ohio State students. This was the first time that both of us had seen the movie with a real audience. A couple of times this happened, but namely the part in the movie where Harold steals the car, and Kumar flips off those white guys and says, "Thank you, come again!" I knew that Indian dudes would like it, because of Apu on The Simpsons we get tormented all the time with that line. But this white audience just started applauding at that moment. They identified so much with these characters that it doesn't matter what we look like.

Are you guys fans of Wilson Phillips? Did you already know the lyrics to "Hold On," or did you have to learn them?

JC: I was cramming in my trailer before҆ (laughs). Kal knew! But that shouldn't reflect poorly on Kal, because he know the lyrics to every bad song in the universe. He has a photographic memory for it.

KP: Only when it comes to songs! I'm not a science guy, math guy, can't remember lines.

JC: It made for awkward, weird times in the car.

What makes you guys angry?

JC: When you go in somewhere, and they tell you the bathroom is out of order. It's not. That's a lie.

KP: A lot of things make me angry. Getting stopped every fucking time I fly at the airport makes me angry.

JC: When they bring you the check while you're still eating. It's a little premature.

KP: [laughs] When it's cold outside, it makes me angry.

JC: [laughs]

KP: "You speak English really well..." makes me angry. "You've been randomly selected..." makes me angry. I mean, there's a lot. I'm an angry person. Yeah.

Thanks, guys.

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