[INTERVIEW] Perverting the Genre: A Conversation with John Cho and Kal Penn.
It’s just after 11am in Phoenix, and after a long morning of radio and press appearances, John Cho and Kal Penn are seated across from me in the dimly lit Club Lounge at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Penn has just noticed the gorgeous hardwood cabinets behind the bar, each with a black-and-gold nameplate. “What do you suppose those are for?”
“I think those are liquor cabinets,” Cho replies. “You buy a bottle of liquor when you have a membership to a club–”
“Why wouldn’t you just drink at home?” Penn interrupts.
“Because you have this particular bottle,” Cho explains patiently. “Like an incredibly special bottle of cognac, and you have a shot and they put it back in your locker.”
“That’s such a strange concept to me,” says Penn, shaking his head. “Wouldn’t you just wanna drink at home, invite your friends over?”
Cho sighs and rolls his eyes heavenward. This sort of thing must happen a lot. “Look, we mega-wealthy like to live a particular way. I don’t wanna hear it from you.”
Penn is nonplussed, citing the greatness of two-dollar cans of PBR, a sentiment which I can agree with. “I like this bit, by the way,” he says. “That somehow along the way you became super wealthy.”
“Who says I’m not?” replies Cho, looking at him gravely before adding, “I own DSW,” which causes Penn to burst out laughing.
The chemistry between Penn and Cho is just as evident in person as it is onscreen in the Harold and Kumar films. After two successful installments, the duo recently teamed up for a third adventure in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, which they are quick to insist is not a parody, but a legitimate attempt at paying homage to the Christmas films they grew up with. “We’re perverting the genre,” Cho admits. “But we’re mostly tipping our hat to it. It’s a Valentine to Christmas movies, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor.”
Having seen the film for myself, I’m inclined to agree. Written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also penned the previous two films, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas doesn’t skimp on the rampant vulgarity and sexual content the franchise has become known for, yet still manages to come across as honest and heartwarming, with plenty of references to classic holiday films.
“One of my favorite memories is watching A Christmas Story,” says Penn excitedly. “Both as a kid, and nowadays when it’s on a 24-hour loop, so I got really excited when we were paying homage to [it], albeit in an inappropriate manner.”
“It was very cool to see that in there,” agrees Cho. “Because you knew they were serious when they said it was an homage to Christmas movies.”
Despite appearing in a film which puts its own unique spin on the holiday spirit, Cho has a bit of a confession to make. “I believed in Santa Claus for about twenty minutes,” he reveals.
“Twenty minutes?” Penn asks, incredulous. “We just worked with him, what’s not to believe?”
“When we immigrated to the States I was six years old,” Cho continues, ignoring his co-star. “They hadn’t talked about Santa Claus in Korea, but since we were in the States my parents decided to go with the flow and told us about Santa Claus, and said this old white man was gonna be invading our home and bringing us gifts. So on Christmas morning, I open our gift from the home invader, and it was wrapped in a Hoover vacuum box. Coincidentally, my parents had just purchased a Hoover vacuum, and I said ‘this is a lie, there was no visitor.’ So that was my brief flirtation with Santa Claus.”
Since the release of 2008′s Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, the actors have taken very different paths. Penn took a sabbatical from acting, accepting a position as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison for the Obama administration, while Cho starred as Hikaru Sulu in the hugely successful J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek. But as soon as they received a script for the third film, they were eager to come back and work together again.
“The scale of the Harold and Kumar movies feels good to return to,” says Cho. “It’s like going back to your hometown, in a way. You miss it and wanna come home and it feels good when you return.”
“You’re coming back and working with friends,” Penn echoes. “The [Kumar] character is grounded in this sweetness and this innocence that all of the vulgarity is kinda based on, so no matter how ‘out there’ he is, it always comes back to his sweetness. So I love coming back and working with friends and playing someone like that. It’s great. I would do an off-Broadway version of this.”
With Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle becoming a surprise hit, and the sequel grossing more than three times its budget at the box office, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of the characters, which is something that continues to surprise their real-life counterparts.
“Hollywood has really underestimated the American public,” says Cho. “It seemed impossible that people that looked like us could headline a movie, and we’ve found an audience, and that audience is incredibly varied.”
Penn agrees wholeheartedly. “I didn’t realize, when we shot the first film, that anyone was gonna see it, but something I’ve learned after doing these movies is that regardless of somebody’s demographics, or their beliefs, people just love to have a good time and laugh. Ideally, you want comedy to appeal to a wide array of people. We get emails and Tweets from people serving overseas, and those guys love these characters. I was in D.C. for two years, and people on the left and the right and the middle say they like the shenanigans.”
“What does ‘D.C.’ stand for again?” asks Cho.
“District of Columbia,” Penn answers helpfully. “But don’t worry about it, you should never vote.”
Returning to the Harold and Kumar franchise also presented another opportunity for the duo to work with Neil Patrick Harris, who appeared in the previous two installments as a lecherous, drug-crazed parody of himself. Neither actor had met Harris before their first scenes together. “We shot, and he was doing blow off a hooker’s ass,” recalls Cho fondly. “He’s a very great man, I’ve seen it up close.” He pauses. “That doesn’t sound like it will print well.”
“Neil is such a commensurate professional,” says Penn, who is currently appearing with Harris on long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother. “I was curious, walking onto that set, what it would be like, and it was so cool to see the Neil we know from the Harold and Kumar movies, who’s hilarious and super-thoughtful and loves working with his fellow castmates and crew, is exactly like that on the set of How I Met Your Mother.”
“Less meth on that set,” offers Cho, who also guest-starred in a 2007 episode of the series. “Less meth, more quaaludes.”
“More family oriented, yes,” Penn agrees.
With the movie nearing release, Penn is now actively developing a sitcom with NBC, a workplace comedy for which he hopes to shoot a pilot in the spring, and Cho recently finished American Reunion, directed by Harold and Kumar scribes Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, and while there is no deal in place for a fourth film, both actors were happy to brainstorm ideas for another adventure.
“I’ve always wanted to play an astronaut,” says Penn. “So they should go to outer space.”
“Harold and Kumar go to the 80s in a time machine,” suggests Cho, but Penn disagrees. “We can’t compete with Bill and Ted,” he reasons.
“We should go on a safari,” Cho offers, which draws another protest from Penn. “Working with a cheetah was enough for me,” he says. “What if they win the lottery?”
Now it’s Cho’s turn to shoot down an idea. “No one wants to see Harold and Kumar rich,” he points out. “Harold and Kumar Meet Nirvana — wait, that’s another time-travel movie. Sorry, I’m really obsessed.”
So what’s the most important thing they’ve learned after doing three movies together over the past seven years?
“Designer shoes don’t have to cost a fortune,” says Cho. Penn is laughing too hard to respond.
For more on A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, check out our review.