a very harold & kumar q & a with john cho and kal penn

The wait is over. Time to get your holiday high on in the third Harold and Kumar adventure, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, in theaters everywhere today. It's balls-out, filthy and offensive -- everything you've never wanted to your Christmas movie to be. It's also a lot of fun. Welcome back, boys.

I recently had to opportunity to sit down and chat with the movie's stars, John Cho and Kal Penn, about Christmas, NPH and Asian Americans in Hollywood. The last time I had talked to them both together was in 2004 for the release of the first movie, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.

Seven years later, some things have changed. Some things have not.

When Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was released back in 2004, could you have imagined we'd be here talking about the third movie in a full-blown Harold and Kumar franchise?

Kal No. We signed a three-picture option contract when we did the first one, which was pretty standard, I think, just as a way for the studio to say if this takes off, we want to do more. But the first one tanked at the box office, which a lot of people forget. It was the fans that bought it on DVD and gifted it to each other. That gave us a chance to do a second one, which apparently did well enough that now we're doing a third and much more raucous 3D version.

John: The first one ended, though... It was written with kind of a Back To The Future-type cliffhanger. I think it was even more pronounced in the first version of the script. But even then, it seemed like a goof. They did sign us to a three-picture deal, but it didn't seem logical that the movie would get made, or that two sequels could come from it.

So why a Christmas movie? And why in 3D?

Kal: (Looks at John.) I'll take this one.

I think they go hand in hand. The first two movies poked fun at a lot of things in a good natured way. The first one had an undertone of race relations without taking it too seriously. The second one was not a political film but poked fun at the political spectrum. The third one, we kind of simultaneously pay homage and poke fun at both 3D and Christmas.

Seems like everything's in 3D these days, so we kind of wanted to take the piss out of the fact that it's in 3D, but in a good natured way. There are all these gags that only Harold & Kumar could do in 3D. It was actually shot in 3D, which was really nice graphically -- a lot of other things are done in 3D conversion post-production. We had the chance to shoot it in 3D, so you'll see a lot of inappropriateness that I think the audience hopes to get out of a movie like this. Don't take your children to see it. It's not that kind of Christmas movie.

John: Well said!

Kal: Thank you, sir.

I think it goes without saying, if it's a Harold & Kumar movie, you have to have Neil Patrick Harris. Can you talk about bringing him back?

Kal: Oh yes.

John: He's a delight. Obviously, he's super talented. For us, now he's part of the universe. It's also a great second act trick that we pull. And in the filming, it's always great when Neil comes to town. You're on your best behavior because he's sharp and you better be ready. And in this one, to sing and dance with him, that was an extra pleasure.

Kal: He is so awesome. I mean, the dude co-hosts Regis & Kelly when Regis is out --

John: Great shape.

Kal: He hosts the Tonys. He's on --

John: Elegant taste in clothing.

Kal: ...How I Met Your Mother. And yet still is down to play a filthy, twisted version of himself for our movie.

John: Hair is flawless.

Kal: He's legit.

John: He has really great watches.

Kal: I really like this bit, because it's all accurate.

There was a moment after the first movie where you could have been pegged as "Harold and Kumar" forever. But you've both gone on to do some pretty different, divergent projects. Contracts aside, what informed your decision to slip back into these roles?

Kal: I love playing this character. He's fun to play because he's so different from me, but I also love that he's extremely filthy but has a heart of gold, which allows him to get away with a lot more than you would otherwise.

A lot of comedy is based on cutting other people down. It's based on negativity. I think, especially as performers of color, you usually get a sidekick role. That's changed dramatically in the last eight years, for the better. And so to have the chance to play a well fleshed-out character who's incredibly flawed and has a good heart, it's just a lot of fun. And really, ultimately Kumar's just way cooler than I'll ever be. So why not?

John: I'm thrilled to be back. Listen, these guys gave us our careers. To the first part of your question, I wasn't afraid of being stereotyped or pigeonholed. I was the "MILF Guy" before that, and I survived that. I knew that this was a step up. He had a name, for one thing.

Kal: And it wasn't based on an inanimate object.

John: It didn't have the word "fuck" in it either. [Laughs.] So I'm happy to come back. This franchise has just given us our careers. And people want more. They expect it. It's kind of the trick of naming the movie Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It hinted at serialization. So it's cool.

Perhaps more than any other movie I write about on the blog, people get really excited when I post news about Harold & Kumar. You guys have to know what these movies mean for Asian American audiences.

John: Actually, that was not a given. I remember, Harold originally was... You know, there was an internal battle to not make him a nerd as such. There were some people on the studio level, one guy in particular, who thought he should have greasy slicked back hair, glasses and the whole nine yards. But I had wanted to play him more as an everyman. He was your classic straight man.

And even with that ad campaign, I remember it was, "The Asian Guy from American Pie. The Indian Guy from Van Wilder." There were eyebrows raised, suspicion levels were raised. Some people in the Asian community were on edge that Harold was that stereotype again. That wasn't the case, but I wasn't sure what the perception was going to be. So sitting here with the third one, I'm super thankful that over time, Asian Americans have really embraced the franchise.

I remember the first time I talked to you guys, John, you said that this movie could be "revolutionary" in the guise of a stupid stoner comedy. Do you still think that? Because I do.

John: I do too. You know, it's weird that... it stuck. Do you know what I'm saying? With every group, there's something that breaks through. And everyone has a preconceived notion of what that thing is going to be. I think it was wonderful that it was so unexpected. I don't know if our movies constitute a breakthrough, but you could certainly argue the case that it is. I find it amusing that it was us and not your classic heroes. And eventually, the Asian characters that broke through in film were so flawed, so stupid, and so misguided.

It was kind of the kick in the ass that we needed. They were the heroes that we didn't know we were looking for, and definitely far from the "model minority."

John: I think in a way we had this internal model minority myth too. We wanted this heroic Asian in film and television.

Kal: I was always reject the notion that a representation is either positive or negative. I think that's really dangerous territory. In the same way that we don't like being the one-dimensional stereotype, by the same token, who gets to decide what's positive? What I love about Harold and Kumar is that they are flawed, much like us. The things that they have to explore and have to deal with are the same things that we have to deal with.

At this point in your careers, you two have reached a place where few Asian American performers have really gotten to go -- name recognition, being attached to interesting franchises, a certain level of notoriety. Do guys still feel you face limitations as Asian American actors in Hollywood?

Kal: Yes, absolutely. I don't think that's ever going to go away. Although it's certainly improved for us dramatically compared to seven years ago, which I'm very thankful for. I think for some of the younger brothers that are starting out now, they have the same stories that we had, where they can or can't audition for some things. You know, there was a movie I was up for recently with a huge African American actor as one of the leads, and I was told one of the reasons that I didn't get seen for it is because they weren't comfortable with two people of color in the movie. So I mean it happens at every level, unfortunately.

But I will say the silver lining to that is the opportunities I have had have turned out to be the most dynamic artistically outside of race. So things like 24, The Namesake, Superman Returns and now How I Met Your Mother are the most joyous to play because the producers are just smarter. And then you've got television, which has changed in the last eight years in huge ways.

John: It's gotten a lot better. I'm surprised to be saying that. When I first came into town, even then, my first two films were Yellow and Shoping For Fangs, and I don't know if you remember, but the zeitgeist at the time was that these were the breakthrough films. They were going to change everything. And everybody was very optimistic. But even then I thought, this is being overly optimistic here. These are two independent movies. I don't know how much they can push the envelope. Everyone saw this great new wave coming, but I wasn't convinced of that. There just didn't seem to be critical mass yet. And I'm not saying that there is now, but I was very pessimistic then. But now I've kind of joined the bandwagon.

I credit that, to some extent, to commercial casting. I feel like, oddly enough, they've been the vanguard here. They've seen that Asian Americans have dollars to spend and they've responded accordingly. And I wonder if that's trickled down to narrative storytelling, you know?

What makes you angry? I've asked you guys this before, but seven years later, maybe that's changed. You're older and wiser...

Kal: Oh shit! What did I say before? Oh man...

John: I'll give one. I've got one real quick: Waiters should say "hello" or "hi." Not "wassup man." [To Kal] No? You don't like that one? Does that make me seem like a douche?

Kal: Waiters should say, "wassup man." Not "hello" or "hi."

John: Oh.

Kal: No, uh... What makes me angry: apathy and aggression combined. A lot of times we feel like if something bothers us, we either yell and scream or we don't do anything about it. And I think there are so many... I've learned over the last few years that there are very nuanced ways of handling things that will yield a result. If there are ten things that you don't like, and you fight hard for five them, and win three of them, that's actually a huge victory. You're on the right path and ultimately ten will come.

John: Cruelty to cats.

Kal: I don't like cats, so again I disagree with you here. Not that I'm condoning cruelty to them. Whew.

All right. Thanks, guys. Stay Angry.

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