Interviews: John Cho, Kal Penn in ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

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CHICAGO – Harold and Kumar are back, just in time for the holidays. The raunchy, weed smoking pair are taking on Christmas in their latest film, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” in which they both skew and honor the Yuletide. Once again, John Cho is Harold and Kal Penn is Kumar.

Since their last film epic, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” John Cho and Kal Penn continue to expand their careers separately as well. Cho most famously has taken on the role of Sulu in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise, and Kal Penn has appeared on “House, M.D.” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Penn has also expanded his reach in the world of politics, having worked for President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and participating in the administration’s Office of Public Engagement. got the privilege of interviewing the famous movie pair in anticipation of their Christmas film, and they talked about the spectrum of being Harold & Kumar, and their path beyond.

Kal Penn and John Cho in ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures What is it about Christmas the holiday that makes it a perfect vehicle for the Harold & Kumar treatment?

John Cho: Christmas is about tradition and Harold & Kumar are about subverting tradition. It’s good match.

Kal Penn: There is also a lot of heart in Christmas movies, and there is a lot of heart in Harold & Kumar movies, but it’s also very wrong. The gags you see in this movie you don’t see in typical Christmas movies.

Cho: Also every time you buy a ticket, we give you a gift redeemable at the theater. A large, expensive gift. [laughs]

Kal Penn: The budget was $18 million dollars, but you don’t have to pay $18 million to see it. You just have to pay the low admission price. You challenge the conventions of 3D in this film. What did the production decide about this filming technique before you started A Very Harold and Kumar Xmas?

Cho: I not sure if they did anything in particular with the 3D, in fact we didn’t want to overdo it with the gags, constantly thrusting things into the lens. We were trying to avoid doing too much of that. We just thought it would be fun to make this a theatrical event, and it would be silly to make a Harold & Kumar movie in 3D and make it an extravagant event. That in itself would make it enough for the audience to enjoy. The celebration of marijuana is part of the H&K theme. What are your opinions regarding the prohibition of pot in American society, has it marginalized and hurt our culture?

Penn: I’m purposely not well-read on this issue. When we shot the first movie, I pictured it as a buddy comedy. When it came out, it tanked at the box office. But thanks to our fans, the hardcore fans, they found it on DVD and gave us the chance to do the second one. During that process, stoners loved it and the Asian American community loved it. There were debates on whether it was an Asian American movie or stoner movie. I knew if I started learning about this that I might develop an opinion about it, so I have been purposely dumb about it.

Production Extravaganza: Neil Patrick Harris Lights it Up in ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Cho: I’m not very educated on it, either, but the only thing I will offer is I wish we could collect tax money. There is a lot of money that is being just fluttered into the wind. Going back to the beginning of the series, what kind of audition process did the both of you have to go through to land the roles, and what do you each think you did to eventually be cast?

Cho: The audition process was long.

Penn: This should be noted. Hollywood producers often think that if you diversify your cast, that limits your pool of talent. That is not the case. They auditioned all over the place, there was no shortage of professional actors who could have filled the parts.

Cho: It was just hard to find two who were as handsome.

Penn: Exactly. We felt very fortunate to have landed these jobs, but since they were looking all over the place, it was a very drawn out process. I think anytime you’re looking for new leads in a movie, it’s a drawn out process. The legacy of Neil Patrick Harris is in part due to your film series. What do you both personally think is the funniest part of the invention of that character and what can you tell us about Harris that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

Penn: I think there is very little about Neil that the rest of the world doesn’t know. [laughs] He is an open book. There are very few people who can do Howard Stern and Regis, and do them both brilliantly, without compromising any humor. He’s an open book and a very funny one at that.

Cho: The funniest part of that character is that there was never any thought of using any other person in that role, the first draft and the last draft contained the character of ‘Neil Patrick Harris.’ The two elements of the first script that were non-negotiable was Neil Patrick Harris and White Castle. There was pressure to change both, like ‘could we get a fast food chain more nationally recognizable?’

I marvel that the writers knew that Neil was the one. When you look at the current film, note something I observed. His public speaking voice and his private speaking voice, it’s different. When he’s talking on stage, he has a movie star voice and then he has the pervert, crack-addict voice. [laughs] Kal, since you were part of the history of the election of Barack Obama, what would you say right now to the people who are somewhat discouraged that the administration faces such intense and unfair opposition?

Penn: The stakes are always very high, when you have a president who is trying to change things, and he didn’t take any lobbyist money in the campaign. I saw how tough it was to get things done, that’s why we need to continue to help out. I worked on youth outreach while in the White House, and President Obama has had so many victories in helping young people – increasing financial aid, bringing our buddies home from Iraq and repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ These are all accomplishments that don’t make the news networks.

Of course people are going to feel discouraged if all they hear is negativity. It’s hard to find the positivity within that, but it does exist in a big way, and it exists within the people who are working for the administration.

John Cho and Kal Penn in Chicago, October 18th, 2011
John Cho and Kal Penn in Chicago, October 18th, 2011
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for What issue do you believe is at the forefront of the administration right now?

Penn: Right now, you have the President who release this great American Jobs Act, that Congress couldn’t get there act together to pass, even though it was seen universally as a good thing. I think if Congress and the President’s Republican friends are opposing everything, but they are not bringing any solutions to the table. It is clear what the President’s solutions are, but I think through that process there needs to be an intelligent and respectful debate. John, you have now joined the Star Trek Universe. How careful were you in translating the attitude of Sulu as not to mess with that legacy, and how did George Takei help you out with the role?

Cho: I didn’t want to copy George the actor, because he is so unique, and there needed to be some separation so the audience wouldn’t be distracted and we could reboot the franchise. I was keeping my distance from that on purpose, and how do you copy him anyway? He is one of a kind.

George and I had lunch, and got to know one another. One of things that he educated me about was [original Star Trek producer] Gene Roddenberry’s philosophies. Gene was a very interesting and thoughtful man. And George related to me what Gene would have wanted. Specifically, I asked if it was cool for a Korean man to take over a Japanese man’s roles. George told me that Gene wanted Sulu to represent all of Asia, because Gene was into the unification of all cultures. George was a great shepherd for me. One of the great underlying themes in your films is that despite everything, Harold & Kumar are still stereotyped and compromised by the judgmental others in the United States. How is the film series contributing to societal harmony?

Penn: I’ll give you an answer about that. What I love, and have been humbled by, and floored every time, is that we have such a crazy, eclectic mixture of a fan base. When you talk to some of the kids that came home from Iraq, they will tell you stories about how they would watch comedies like Harold & Kumar on their breaks between patrols, and how there was an older lady at the bank that I used to go to, that whispered how much she loved the movies. When I was in Washington, both Democratic and Republican staffers that loved the franchise. I kind of thought, I loved that comedy can do that, bring people together.

Cho: You can’t do too much damage when you’re laughing.

Penn: You can damage your esophagus.

Cho: [Laughs] Horribly, and that’s common. I also think that people are tickled that these two protagonists don’t look like other characters in movies. This is extra-cool. What I thought initially might be an impediment to the movie, has become the key to the franchise, that the audience are on board and cheer the fact that we are double underdogs.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” opens everywhere November 4th. Featuring John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris, Patton Oswalt, Paula Garcés and Danny Trejo. Written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, directed by Todd-Strauss Schulson. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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