When “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” premiered in 2004, it followed in the understated footsteps of films like “How High” and “Half Baked” – in other words, no matter how many spliffs the characters burned, the film itself never quite set the box office on fire. However, it became a sensation on home video and cable repeats, finding a legion of fans. For its two stars, John Cho and Kal Penn, the film was a big breakthrough in their careers, leading to a variety of other projects that, perhaps fortuitously, weren’t as pot-related. Cho landed regular spots on the TV shows "Kitchen Confidential" and "FlashForward," and stepped into the shoes of Hikaru Sulu when J.J. Abrams relaunched "Star Trek" in 2009, while Penn appeared on “House” and guested on “How I Met Your Mother” when he wasn’t working with President Obama in the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs.
But despite their explosion of so many decidedly more sober options, Cho told The Playlist that he was eager to step back into Harold’s shoes for a third installment in the series, “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.”
“I was always excited,” Cho told us when chatted with him on the weekend. “I have a big soft spot for Harold, and the whole universe. I also like working with these guys so much at this point; it’s kind of a reunion every time, because the core people are the same, and so it’s a real pleasure. It’s also refreshing to return to comedy. Always when I go away from it, I end up missing it, so it’s a great way to spend a summer, just figuring out how to make people laugh.”
The last time Cho and Penn reunited on screen was in 2008 for “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guanatanamo Bay,” and Cho said that it took until he actually worked with his longtime costar to fully get back into the mindset of being one of these two iconic potheads. “The thread for me is getting back into it with Kal [Penn],” Cho explained. “That’s the common thread and that’s the thing that I need to connect with for each movie. When we came back, I remember being a little frightened because the first week of shooting, we were shooting separately and I was with Tom Lennon. We were getting funny stuff, but it was not a ‘Harold & Kumar’ movie yet, and I didn’t feel right until we shot our first scene together. And then I was like, oh – okay, that’s it. I remember this.”
'Harold & Kumar' set a significant precedent by prominently featuring two Asian-American actors in lead roles, and not reducing them to the sum total of the stereotypes the filmmakers could make jokes about. Cho indicated that he and Penn feel more able to focus on who they are and what they do rather than where they come from. “I was noting when we started our press tour, I said to Kal, 'You know, we’re not talking about race any more!' ” Cho said. “I think the first movie and the subsequent press tour was about justifying these two faces on the big screen, and we had to talk it through, the reporters and us and the viewers, and we just had to understand why we were on the screen. And then as we have gone onto other things, we’ve talked about it less and less, and the movies deal with it less and less, and maybe the country’s changed, but it just doesn’t seem necessary to talk about it as much.”
That said, Cho insisted nothing was off limits if it draws a laugh, “We’re a comedy and we’re opportunistic, and whenever we can make a joke about race, we will – and we do.”
As we mentioned, Cho has enjoyed a lot of terrific and diverse opportunities since the first 'Harold & Kumar' film, and he said that even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t worried about being associated with the character more than any of the others he’s played. “If I went to my grave being called Harold it wouldn’t be a bad fate,” he confessed. “But I don’t even see that happening, because people seem to know my other work. The part and the franchise have given me so much that I just don’t see a problem with it. I’ve done two other movies, and it hasn’t had much negative effect that I can see on my career, so I’m just not worried about it.”
Simultaneously, Cho revealed that he tries to be very aware of the roles he takes on elsewhere in his career, if only to avoid jobs that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. “I have to be vigilant in the sense that I never want to do anything that the 12-year-old me would be embarrassed by as an Asian, or that would be upset with,” he explained. “Harold probably would make 12-year-old me happy, as would Sulu, and I try to pick things that version of me would love. And that’s a personal yardstick for me.” That said, Cho observed that he feels like his success has allowed him to avoid those sorts of roles altogether, for the most part. “As the years go on, it’s either people are more familiar with what I would prefer to do and more familiar with what I can do, or there’s less being written, but it has gotten better over the years, I think.”
As for his other big-time franchise, “Star Trek,” Cho said that he was ready to take on Sulu again, this time without having to worry as much about the expectations of playing such a famous role. “I think old-school Trekkers enjoyed it and were appreciative of it -- that’s my feeling -- and so I leave that, I don’t take that into the next one,” he said. “I’m not sweating that, so now I can just sweat the performance part. And you’re bound to sweat when you are following in the footsteps of, you’re inhabiting a character that’s iconic, and also following the footsteps of an actor who has become iconic in his own right. So that was just doubly difficult, and since people are hopefully used to that idea, I’m less stressed this time around.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t have any other details about the forthcoming sequel, but said he expected to hear more about it in the weeks to come. “I haven’t seen a script so there’s nothing to connect to at the moment,” he revealed. “But you know, it’s around the corner, and it’s like a spy movie – I will have a briefcase with further instructions shortly.”
With three 'Harold & Kumar' films under his belt, Cho has officially completed the industry-standard trilogy of films in this series. But he said he was happy to watch the characters grow up and would love to see where a fourth film takes the pair. “They’ve aged and I’m really happy for that,” he said. “So I’m sure if we do another movie, it would be a new circumstance. I would love to see Kumar with a baby. I think that would be high comedy.”
Of course, there might be another aspect of these character’s evolution to consider – namely, at what point an addiction to pot stops being funny and becomes depressing, or even dangerous. But Cho isn’t worried: “This has yet to be seen,” he said. “This is a great question that we set out to answer with this franchise, and maybe we’ll do a glaucoma movie.”
"A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" opens on Friday, November 4th.