Interview with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas' John Cho: Ho-Ho, don't tell the po-po
In A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, we find John Cho's Harold Lee reeping and sowing as a successful Wall Street accountant (yes, it appears he pitches for the dastardly 1%). He's settled into a suburban wonderland with his wife Maria Quesa Dilla (Paula Garcés), a hot mama who's working hard to make that title literal, and things appear to be pleasant, if not a little lobotomized. A Santa ex Machina brings Harold and the loveable slacker Kumar Patel back together in a chance, disastrous meeting of old friends who have grown apart. You can't rewrite the journey of getting into White Castle and of getting out of Guantanamo Bay: surely, inevitably enough, old 'Rold gets bold.
DramaFever recently met with Cho and discussed his return to the trilogy, an underdog success that owes its mainstream popularity to its initial cult status. Barring the antics, the junction at which Harold and Kumar find themselves is not unalike the growing pain that nearly everyone will come experience: how to reconcile growing up with Growing Up. Cho details the various ways in which his career has taken off since Harold and Kumar's first fateful burn—err, sojourn—as well as illustrating the bond that keeps him and Kal Penn together as real life bros after all these years.
I love coming back to this guy. I have a lot of affection for Harold…I know guys like him. I know a guy named Harold Lee, who the movie was based on, so I love [the character]. Now, I’m friends with the writers and Kal [Penn], so it’s a real privilege, particularly given how nomadic the actor’s life typically is. It’s cool to have this constant.
It is a reunion on set. [Penn and I] go away, and we do our own things. We keep in touch, but there’s nothing like coming together and doing this thing. You see people [outside of filmmaking], but it’s a different feeling to see them and work together on something. It’s a very accelerated, intimate time, and I think [that’s what I was attracted to when I first fell into] acting. You rehearse for a play, and you’re in this room with people for hours at a time. You just really get to know them. I found that interesting, and I liked the intensity of those relationships.
Even though [the Harold & Kumar cast] keep in touch and have dinner here and there and go out and get beers when we can, that’s becoming less frequent because we have families and what have you. Then you get a chance to go back with your friends, and you spend all day [and night] with them, and you work on this project. In this case, the project is so fun because what you’re working on [is], “How do we get the most laughs?” It’s just a really fun thing to do, and I think it’s good for the soul, really. I’m really happy for comedies in my life [in] that way. It’s not so much watching [the films], or the making, [or] the product. The process of spending summer just trying to make people laugh is just good for my cholesterol level.
>> CLEARED LEVEL: White Castle >> BOSS LEVEL: Middle America
If you put yourself in our shoes, before [Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle] came out, and think, “So, we’re going to release a movie starring a [Korean] guy and an Indian guy, and it’s a movie about them looking for burgers in the middle of the night..." Do you think there will be three [installments]? We didn’t think the first one would get made. Even when we were shooting the first one, I [was] like, “They’re going to shut us down.” One day we’re going to show up, and there’s going to be no camera, and they’re going to say, “Go home. Go home, kid.” And [that] didn’t happen. Who knows, we’re still here, it’s really weird.
We have the technology
I was happy that somebody found [Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle]. To be honest with you, I knew that we’d find a modest audience somehow. I just felt like it was too unique of a take and too warm of a movie that nobody would like it. I just figured that somebody would like it. ‘Cause I liked it. I liked watching it, and I knew people that liked watching it. So I just felt that there [was] enough of us to make an impact. It was just a question of, “Could we get it to [the audience]? Could they be aware of it?” And we finally found that audience through DVD. That’s just a happy accident: I feel like DVD’s aren’t as popular right now. We were just there when DVD’s—that technology—helped us.
One Fan Special with a side of Franchise
I’ve always been of the “more is better” school, just from the fan side. Even when the quality degrades, I tend to enjoy [a franchise]. More Rocky movies the better. No idea. It mystifies me. If I knew these things, I’d be rich. I meet [fans] every day whenever I go outside to Trader Joe’s. Wherever it is—the post office—there’s a lot of fist pumping. Strangely, there’s a lot of yelling. If I didn’t know what they were saying—if they didn’t say really affectionate things—I’d think they were angry with me. They make it very clear how they feel about our movies. Very clear.
We now bestow upon you the keys* to the castle (*locks subject to change)
The temptation was to hope for more. We had a hard lesson and [had] hubris. The opening night of [Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay], Nathan Kahane, head of Mandate Pictures, got a few limousines, and we all had a nice steak dinner, and we piled in. We had bought tickets at five different theatres around L.A. We were just going to see how audiences were reacting. We had our martinis, got into the limo, went to the first theatre: nobody there. Second theatre: nobody there. So on and so forth. It was depressing. And [Kahane] has never done [this round on opening night] since, with any other movie, because he was like, “This is bad luck.”
So, we never get too confident just [because] you never know. You never know. We’re hopeful about [A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas]. We think this is probably our strongest [installment]. Strangely, I think it has the most mass appeal, and I hope the 3D brings people to theatres because it’s a legitimate use of 3D. It’s funny, and it’s warm, and I just am very proud of the movie, but you never know, so you continue to bark and tell people about it. So, we’ll see what happens.
[Filming] was difficult for a few reasons. One, the [camera] rig is really big—bigger than normal. [Normally], when you do over the shoulder shots (OTS), the [opposite] actor stands right next to the lens, and you can look [him or her] right in the eyes. But [because] this camera was so big, the look would be too wide. So, [we] had to look at a piece of tape inside the lens, and it’s just really hard to talk to a piece of tape. That drove me really crazy about halfway through [shooting the film]. I was like, “I quit, I can’t do this. I can’t just talk to a piece of freakin’ tape.” I was going crazy. That was probably the hardest thing about it.
The lighting takes longer. [There are] essentially two lenses—they’re recording two sets of images to create the depth—so you have to light for two different areas. It’s a longer setup. So, how that affects us [actors] is that it leaves a little less time for acting. This third movie was probably the hardest, in terms of just the technical aspects of acting.
We're not in the business of clay pigeons. Clay penises, however...
I hesitate to enter TV at this point because I’m not sure that I want to be the same person for seven years, which is the length of the contract [an actor has] to sign. So, I don’t know whether I’d do a sitcom again, and I’m not the kind of person who wants to create a role for myself because I just feel like the writers are good at doing that, and it seems fresher when somebody else thought of it. Because whatever I think of is just going to be, like, what kind of costume I want to wear, you know? Something lame. Even with this third movie, we’ve been asked whether we had reservations, and we did. I didn’t know whether I wanted to do the penis-on-the-pole bit, and I didn’t know whether we should have a baby doing cocaine. I don’t know if that’s my business. I feel like movies work for a reason, and they don’t work because I make people take things out of it, so maybe I should just go with the flow and let them be what they need to be.
Father Cho, Pastor and literal father of John, on cinematic transgressions:
Don’t tell him. He has seen the films, of course. The flipside is: I’m in no movie, and I’m waiting tables at Applebee’s. But what [my parents] get about the movie is what a lot of people get about the movie: it’s that Harold and Kumar are, at the end of the day, very sweet and well-intentioned people, and the movie, as raunchy as they are, have a very sweet side to them. The humor is not malicious or crass—well, it’s crass—but it’s not creepy, do you know what I mean? I think that has given us a pass with audiences and with my parents, and both our [Cho and Penn’s] parents are cognizant of how much ground [the Harold & Kumar series] has broken [and] how unusual it is that we’re headlining a movie in the United States and how weird that is. So, [our parents] are definitely proud of that aspect. Recently, I took my dad to the White House for a state dinner, and we met President Lee (South Korea) and President Obama in one night, and this movie is part of how I was there and how [my father] was there. My career is part of what took me there. If you’re my dad, you can’t hate on [Harold & Kumar].
The future’s bright; it’s out of sight (with Asian-Americans in full view)
It’s better than it used to be, I’d say. When I came to town in the late 90’s, I started my career off with…my first two movies… [Chris Chan Lee’s] Yellow and [Quentin Lee and Justin Lin’s] Shopping for Fangs. There was this feeling of this of this Asian-American film renaissance that was happening. Not [just] a feeling: it was discussed, you know? People were very bullish about Asians in cinema. Asian-Americans, that is. I was not as optimistic. Looking around, I wondered if whether we had a critical mass, whether there was enough support on the audience side, whether there was enough studio support, whether we had enough Asian-Americans in the studio system, whether we had enough financers—all that stuff that needs to happen in order for projects to take off. I was hopeful, but deep down wondering whether there was just enough support. I felt we certainly had the talent, I just wasn’t sure if whether there was enough ancillary support to make the whole thing explode.
Now, I feel a little better. The business world seems to have recognized that Asian-Americans have buying power, and as a result, you see Asians in commercials a lot. And that’s one of the first steps: people go, “Oh, [Asians] buy things. We should get their money. How do we make them happy? Oh, maybe we should put people that look like them in our product. Maybe that’ll make them happy and buy things.” That’s just a giant, important step. So, that’s been encouraging, [along with] the way casting directors have been behaving, [and] producers seem to be more open. I’d like to think that we were kind of part of that as well, as opening a couple of doors and changing a couple of minds. It seems better to me.
There was a point at which I knew everybody in town. Every Asian-American. “You know that one writer?” “Oh yeah, I know that one.” But now, they’re everywhere, you know? And I don’t know them. So, it’s a great feeling because you don’t want one person to change it. You want a movement. You want a plurality of representation. One movie shouldn’t have the onus of representing Asians. What you want is so many different kinds of representation that no one can point to one and call it a stereotype. We [actors] just shouldn’t have that weight on our backs. We should just be able to do what the impulse is: it’s not fair to put that [pressure] on artists, I think. That’s for other people. That’s for politicians.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas: Choice flicks. Food comas. Prudent parenting.
[Die Hard is] a great Christmas movie. It’s Bruce Willis at his finest. Nakatomi Plaza blowing up. It’s great. The one special I always end up—I just always feel like it’s bad luck to miss it—is It’s a Wonderful Life. Like, if you reach December 25th, and you haven’t seen it, your life is going to go awry. [I’m] staying at home and eating. It’s different now. It’s not about me; it’s about the kid now. We’ll wait six months [before showing him A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas]. We’ll wait till Easter. We’ll show him [then].
All images Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.