John Cho and Kal Penn on ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

by W. Andrew Powell
A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

To celebrate “Throwback Thursday” in our own way, and to start getting ready for the holidays, here’s a trip back to 2011 when I interviewed John Cho and Kal Penn in Toronto for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

The interview really needs no other introduction, except to say that the two actors were as interesting and funny in person as you would expect from the guys behind Harold & Kumar.

Kal Penn: “We always sit in order–Harold and Kumar.”

Question: How do you think you would have done if you had switched roles?

John Cho: “That’s a good question because he’s…”

Kal: “I would have been bored, because in real life I’m much more of a Harold. So, I love playing Kumar because he’s so different from me. What do you think?”

John: “Yeah, you know what? I had played a more Kumar-like character and probably would have been more comfortable but I don’t think I would have fared 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 figure that out, but he was clearly born to play the role.”

Kal: “Geez.”

John: “You were birthed specifically for this role…”

Kal: “I really feel that my mom would strongly disagree.”

Q: How much of Neil Patrick Harris is him trying to push it, and improv?

Kal: “Mostly not. I think for all the characters, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg were the guys who wrote all three films and they’re such amazing writers and they’re so vivid for the grounding of all their characters, that I feel like–we’ve ad-libbed here and there, but it’s not like a lot of these big budget comedy movies where they can do take after take of just kind of playing around.”

John: “It’s not like that. The process is more–particularly with Neil I think–the writers discuss a concept with him, and pitch something, and then it’s a thumbs up and then it’s read the script. Most of our discussion is before we start shooting, but 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.”

Editor’s Note: During the interview, the chat turned to where comedy could go next, now that we’ve seen all the bodily function, and Kal jokes that it would have to be internal organs.

John: “A good comedy should put its toes in taboo waters. You have to transgress a little bit and that area shifts with culture and with the year and, yeah, there’s so much full frontal male nudity now it’s going to be de rigueur very soon…”

Kal: “I think if we did a rated G movie…”

John: “I can’t believe you didn’t make fun of me for using a French phrase.”

Kal: “I will later, I thought there were too many people here. It will be distorted in some way.”

John: “He always makes fun of me.”

Kal: “I do. We make fun of each other.”

Q: What keeps bringing you back to these characters?

John: “Contracts. The law. Laywers.”

Kal: “We do have contracts. In addition to lawyers, we like the characters. I have such a great time player Kumar. Like I said, he’s so different than me, it’s a real treat to be able to play someone like that, you know? What do you think?”

John: “It’s a relief to come back to comedy. I like to flip-flop, but making it your day’s work to find a laugh is a really, really good way to spend a day, and I appreciate it more going away and the coming back to it. It’s a relief, and it’s like a class reunion–you know, you’re with all your friends again and it’s just a treat to go away to summer camp and work on something goofy. It’s not real summer camp, that was a metaphor, I just wanted to be clear. There’s no canoes.”

Kal: “They understand.”

Q: How much of your own maturity is reflected in the characters this time around?

Kal: “Maturity or immaturity? What I really enjoyed about this one–the first two movies take place within a minute of each other, in the lives of the characters, and in this one it’s six years later. All of us have done kind of different things since the first one was shot…”

John: “I was in the White House.”

Kal: “Right, and I did Star Trek.”

John: “A lot of things have happened.”

Kal: “Since 2003 there’s been quite a bit. I love that the audience also has aged with the characters–the ones enjoyed it in 2003 and 2004–so hopefully there’s something in it for them.”

John: “Yeah, you know it had been a while and I don’t know if I would have wanted to do a movie that was set a minute after the second one. It was sort of like, we’re aged–he looks decrepit.”

Kal: “He’s still beautiful after all those surgeries.”

John: [Laughs] “I didn’t think that that was feasible any more, so we had to age the characters, I felt, so I was glad when that direction. Additionally, very public things that happened between the second and third one–Neil came out of the closet, [Kal] went to work at the White House–it felt like we couldn’t do that age any more, so our hand was forced a little bit by real life and I’m glad of it. You know, 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 and Kumar movie off with Harold and Kumar estranged from one another.”

Q: How was it working with the new actors that were brought in to play your friends in the new film?

Kal: “It was cool, but it was also weird because I’m so used to playing Kumar with Harold next to me, specifically to my right.”

John: “We always like to frame it so it’s Harold and Kumar. You read it, visually, as Harold and Kumar.”

Kal: “So, that was really strange, sitting in the passenger seat of a car that was not Harold’s Cam-er-ie.”

John: “Did you say Cam-er-ie? You just made it a three syllable word.”

Kal: “It’s a Cam-er-ie.”

Q: Where’s the E?

Kal: “I inserted it there and I’m sticking to it. I can’t go back now, so I’m going to say it again; the Cam-er-ie.”

John: “Cam-er-olla.”

Kal: “… so it was different, right? And I think the crazy thing about those two characters that they play is that Amir Blumenfeld plays epitome of what Kumar would be if he continued down the path that he was on. Just obnoxious. Amir’s character doesn’t have the heart Kumar has, and I think that Tom Lennon’s character doesn’t have the depth…”

John: “There’s sort of the ghost of Christmas future for the characters and Tom Lennon plays the guy that Harold is going to be if he doesn’t stop being a dickhead and the same for Amir’s character. And to answer you question, they were terrific to work with, although, again, Tom Lennon’s fantastic and Amir is super funny–you know, it’s new blood.”

Kal: “Yeah, terrific.”

Q: Do you find serious roles more challenging than your work in comedies?

Kal: “I think they’re both the same, but it really depends on the project.”

John: “Comedy is a little bit more complicated because you’re trying to be in the moment, whatever, you’re trying to act while keeping in mind what the joke is all the time, so you’re playing a scene… two scenes in a drama and a comedy–they’re both at a dinner table, but with the comedy you have to remember–‘Okay, this has to happen because people need to laugh here’–so you have to arrange everything around a joke, so that’s a little bit more complicated I’d say, but we can do it all.”

Q: Growing up, as a Chinese Canadian, there weren’t a lot of heroes I had to look up to in the cinema, so I think it’s really important. Did you have anyone you looked up to?

John: “For me it was Dr. George Takei. He was sort of the guy that–you know, I noticed you were Asian–and when you saw an Asian on television we would yell across the house and everyone ran to the TV. George is sort of the beacon. That’s a metaphor also. I don’t mean a literal beacon–he’s not a light, shining. He’s a person.”

Kal: “I don’t mean to be funny when I say that it was Kermit the Frog, growing up.”

John: [Whispering] “So stupid…”

Kal: “I hate you so much some times. [Laughs] I think it’s because, when we were growing up we had Apu from the Simpsons, which was a white guy doing a brown-faced voice, and that just didn’t really appeal to me. To me that’s not funny, and you see something like Kermit the Frog, all the Muppets for that matter, have this element of what they struggled through, or what they symbolize, is the everyman or the underdog, and they always achieve something beyond that, so I think, subconsciously, that’s why I enjoyed watching Kermit the puppet.”

Q: The legendary Neil Patrick Harris refers to, ‘I’ll see you in the fourth.’ If you guys could create your own adventure for them in the fourth, what would it be? Where do you want to send them next?

Kal: “I’ve always wanted to play an astronaut, so I would love to go to outer space. He’s already been there, since he did Star Trek, so maybe that’s not as appealing…”

John: “Not really a big deal. Doesn’t matter. Umm, I’m going to go for Harold and Kumar invent a time machine.”

Kal: “Bill and Ted, dude.”

Q: Maybe you can meet Bill and Ted and go to the past?

John: “You’re a good pitch man, I like that. Harold and Kumar go get a manni-peddy.”

Kal: “Maybe an SNL short… ah, it’s a good thing we don’t write these movies.”

Q: Do you consider yourselves comic actors, or just actors who happen to do comedic movies?

Kal: “I’d say just actors.”

John: “Yeah, I’d say actors. We just don’t generate jokes. We execute jokes. I mean, comic actor, I take as a compliment, for sure…”

Kal: “For sure. We don’t do stand-up. Bobby-Lee for example or…”

John: “Tom Lennon is a comic actor. I mean, he’s so funny.”

Kal: “These guys write their own stuff and execute it and the whole bit. We’re just puppets. ”

John: “We need lines.”

Editor’s Note: As the two guys joke back and forth, they say that, if you keep the camera running on the comic actors, you’ll just die laughing because they’ll keep being funny, but as actors John and Kal felt they would just flame out.

Q: Is there resistance to being known as Harold and Kumar, or does it come with the territory?

John: “The joy, I think, of being an actor–or something that made me want to pursue it–was this magic that comes from being able to make somebody laugh or cry, or suspend and emotion or feel something they hadn’t intended to feel–or hurt, lessons learned–it’s flattering to know that people enjoyed the Harold and Kumar movies. My experience has been that it’s opened doors in some really unexpected ways. You know, having a chance to have a little arc on 24 or audition for Superman Returns. It seemed like the really smart producers and directors and writers were more willing to take a risk and to see if you can play something different, rather than it being a real hindrance.”

“The story with The Namesake is that I lobbied really hard to get in the room with Mira Nair, and the reason she didn’t want me to audition at first was because of Harold and Kumar, but her sixteen-year-old son kept lobbying, unbeknownst to me, before bed every night saying, ‘Mom, you’ve got to audition Kal Penn.'”

“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, so I think it can go both ways.”

Kal: “I’m sure it has probably closed a few doors, but the big story is that it has opened many more.”

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