Six years after their Guantanamo Bay adventure, John Cho and Kal Penn are back playing the roles that made them famous. Their third outing as the loveable stoner duo, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, opens this week and recently, the two actors were in Toronto promoting the film. We had the chance to talk with them and discuss the series, this film in particular and more.
Check it out below.
WGTC: You’ve both had a lot of career success since the first film yet you keep coming back for more. What is it about these characters that brings you back?
JOHN CHO: Contracts.
KAL PENN: (laughing) Well, we do have contracts.
JOHN CHO: Lawyers.
KAL PENN: In addition to lawyers, we like the characters. I have such a great time playing Kumar. He’s so different from me that it’s such a treat to get the opportunity to play someone like that.
JOHN CHO: For me, it’s a relief to come back to comedy. I like to flip flop but making your days work to find a laugh is a really good way to spend a day. I appreciate it more going away and then coming back to it. It’s like a class reunion, you’re with all your friends again and it’s just a treat to go away to summer camp and work on something goofy.
(to WGTC) It’s not real summer camp…it’s a metaphor…
KAL PENN: She understands.
WGTC: So, no canoes?
JOHN CHO: There are no canoes. I just wanted to be clear.
WGTC: How do you think you would you have done if you’d switched roles in the movie?
KAL PENN: I would have been bored because in real life I’m much more of a Harold. I love playing Kumar because he’s so different from me.
JOHN CHO: I had already played a more Kumar-like character and probably would have been more comfortable but I don’t think I would have fared as well. It was a challenge to play the straight man and now I’m really grateful that it worked out that way. It was just a new challenge to try and figure that out. (Kal) was clearly born to play the role.
(to Penn) You were birthed specifically to play the role.
KAL PENN: I really feel that my Mom would strongly disagree.
JOHN CHO: I will allow your mother to think what she wishes.
WGTC: How much of the film’s humour is improvised?
KAL PENN: Mostly none. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are the guys that wrote all three films and they’re such amazing writers and are so vivid in their grounding of all the characters. We’ve ad-libbed a little here and there but it’s not like one of these big Hollywood comedies where you can do take after take playing around with it.
JOHN CHO: Yeah, it’s not like that. Particularly with Neil (Patrick Harris who plays a version of himself in the movies), the writers discuss a concept with him and pitch something. Most of our discussion is before we start shooting. It’s a low-budget movie compared to most comedies so we just don’t have time to do a whole lot of improv. We have to go in there and get going and not waste money.
WGTC: These films, and comedy films in general seem to be getting grosser and grosser in their humour. What will be the next frontier?
KAL PENN: I think they’re just going to start showing (internal) organs. First it was showing an arm or a leg back in the day and it was scandalous and then it was genitals and now we’ll just go inside.
JOHN CHO: I don’t know what the next frontier is but good comedy should put its toe into taboo waters. You have to transgress a little bit and that area shifts with culture and with the year. There’s just so much male full frontal male nudity now it’s going to be de rigueur very soon.
(to Penn) I cannot believe you didn’t make fun of me for using a French phrase.
KAL PENN: I will later. If I did it now it would be distorted in some way and make me look like a jerk.
WGTC: How much of your own maturity as actors and people have figured into how the characters have changed in each film?
KAL PENN: (laughing) Maturity or immaturity? The first two movies take place within a minute of each other in the lives of the characters. In this one it’s 6 years later. All of us have done different things since the last movie…
JOHN CHO: I worked at the White House…
KAL PENN: I did Star Trek…
JOHN CHO: A lot of things have happened.
KAL PENN: Since 2003 there’s been quite a bit. I also love that the audience has aged so hopefully there’s something in it for them.
JOHN CHO: It had been a while and I didn’t know if I would have wanted to do a movie set a minute after the second one. We’ve aged (gesturing to Penn), he looks decrepit.
KAL PENN: He’s still beautiful after all those surgeries.
JOHN CHO: I didn’t think it was feasible so we had to age the characters up. I was glad when they went that way. Additionally, very public things had happened between the second and third one. Neil came out of the closet, Kal went to work at the White House. It just felt like we couldn’t do that age any more and so our hand was forced a little bit by real life and I’m glad for it. It’s more interesting, the stakes are a little higher, the circumstances are different and I think it’s a really unique take to start a Harold & Kumar movie off with Harold and Kumar estranged from one another.
WGTC: Harold and Kumar each start the film with new sidekicks (played by Thomas Lennon and Amir Blumenfeld). How was working alongside the new actors?
KAL PENN: It was cool; it was also weird because I’m so used to playing Kumar with Harold next to me. Specifically, to my right.
JOHN CHO: We always like to frame it so it’s Harold and Kumar. You read it visually the way you’d read the title.
KAL PENN: So that was really strange sitting in the passenger seat of a car that was not Harold’s Camry. The crazy thing about those two characters that (Thomas and Amir) play is that Amir plays the epitome of what Kumar would be if he continued down the path he’s on. Amir’s character doesn’t have the heart that Kumar has and Tom Lennon’s character…
JOHN CHO: …they’re sort of ghosts of Christmas future for our characters. Tom Lennon plays the guy that Harold is going to be if he doesn’t stop being a dickhead. Same for Amir’s character.
WGTC: You both go back and forth between comedy and drama. Which do you find more challenging?
KAL PENN: I think they’re both the same. It really depends on the project.
JOHN CHO: I would say comedy’s a little more complicated because you’re trying to be in the moment. You’re trying to act and you’re also keeping in mind what the joke is all the time so you’re playing a scene but with a comedy you’re thinking “this has to happen because people need to laugh here” and so you have to arrange everything around a joke. It’s more complicated…but we can do it all.
WGTC: In an industry that’s not exactly known for its colour blind casting it’s great that you’ve both had headlining roles that probably put you into a role model position for many people. Growing up, who were your role models?
JOHN CHO: Dr. George Takei! When you saw an Asian on television you’d yell across the house and everybody ran to the TV and George was sort of the beacon.
(to WGTC) That’s a metaphor also. I don’t mean a literal beacon. He’s not a light or shiny. He’s a person.
KAL PENN: Again, she understands.
JOHN CHO: Okay.
KAL PENN: I don’t mean to be funny when I say this but, Kermit the Frog. I think part of the reason was that…
JOHN CHO: (whispering to WGTC) …so stupid, right?
KAL PENN: (to Cho) I hate you so much sometimes!
Anyway…I think it’s because when we were growing up we had Apu from The Simpsons who’s a white guy doing a brown-face voice and that just didn’t appeal to me. To me that’s not funny. You see something like Kermit the Frog, or all the Muppets for that matter, have this element of what they struggle through or what they represent is the everyman or the underdog and they always achieve something despite that. I think subconsciously that’s why I always enjoyed Kermit and The Muppets.
WGTC: Do you consider yourself comic actors or just actors?
KAL PENN: I’d say just actors.
JOHN CHO: I would say actors. We just don’t generate jokes, we execute jokes so I guess we’re actors. Comic actors I would take as a compliment.
KAL PENN: Like, we don’t do stand-up. Tom Lennon for instance, writes his own stuff and executes it. He’s a comic actor.
JOHN CHO: We need lines.
KAL PENN: We’re just puppets. I’m just kidding. Not really.
JOHN CHO: Like, if you keep the camera rolling with a guy like Tom Lennon you will just die laughing because they will just keep being funny and we’ll flame out. We need the scene, we need the lines.
KAL PENN: (to Cho) You especially.
JOHN CHO: That hurt.
WGTC: In terms of your other work, is there ever any resistance to casting you because you’re so known as Harold and Kumar?
KAL PENN: I think the joy that comes from being an actor is this magic that comes with being able to make somebody laugh or cry. It’s flattering to know that people enjoy the Harold & Kumar movies. My experience has been that it’s opened doors in some really unexpected ways, like having a chance to have a little arc on 24 or audition for Superman Returns. It seems like the really smart Producers and Directors and Writers are more willing to take a risk and see if you can play something different rather than it being a real hindrance.
Like with The Namesake, I lobbied really hard to get in the room with (Director) Mira Nair and the reason she didn’t want me to audition at first was because of Harold & Kumar but her 16-year-old son kept lobbying before bed every night, unbeknownst to me. I wrote her a letter at the same time that her son was really beating her over the head with it so she let me come in and audition.
JOHN CHO: Not literally beat her over the head. There wasn’t any bludgeoning associated with that movie.
KAL PENN: No, she gets it…
JOHN CHO: I’m sure it has probably closed a few doors but the big story is that it has opened many more.
WGTC: Will there be a fourth movie? Where would you like to see Harold and Kumar go next?
KAL PENN: Neil alludes to it in this movie. No one’s approached us but I don’t think we’d be opposed to it. I’ve always wanted to play an astronaut so I would love to go to outer space. (gesturing to Cho) He’s already been there because he did Star Trek so maybe that’s not as appealing to him.
JOHN CHO: Yeah, that really wouldn’t be such a big deal for me. I’m gonna go for Harold and Kumar invent a time machine.
WGTC: And they meet Bill & Ted?
JOHN CHO: (after a beat) Okay then, Harold and Kumar get a Mani Pedi? That probably wouldn’t be a feature-length movie.
KAL PENN: It’s good that we don’t write these movies.
That concludes our interview. We’d like to thank John Cho and Kal Penn very much for talking with us. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas opens on November 4, be sure to check it out!