“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” has become a cult classic in the college world, and now the film’s creators are coming out with a second installment of the baked-buddy-comedy franchise, “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Artsweek recently sat down with the film’s stars, John Cho and Kal Penn, only to discover how truly down to earth they are, despite their sky-high success on both the big and small screens.
Artsweek: Kal you have been in many different films; do you have a favorite?
Kal: I do. “The Namesake” would be my favorite, because I was a huge fan of the novel on which the film was based. And John Cho actually introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri, the woman who wrote the novel, not personally but I mean her works, her short stories and her novel. So, I really fell in love with her writing style and to be able to turn a novel of hers into a film was a big honor for me, and it also was a lot different for me than some of the broader comedies I’d worked on before that, so it was a nice change of pace.
How has your acting evolved since “White Castle?”
K: That’s a good question, I guess. I don’t think that it has. No, I’m just kidding. I think every time you take on a new role and you overcome certain unique challenges and those are definitely welcome challenges. In the case of “Harold and Kumar,” the obvious ones are things like riding a cheetah and the smaller aspects, the hang gliding… I don’t know. But then with other films like “Superman [Returns]],” where it’s based on a comic book, there are additional challenges with that and portraying particular characters, fitting them into the arc of the storyline overall and then finding out you got cut out of the whole movie. I’m not bitter though.
Are you comfortable with doing the borderline gross-out comedies? What do you think about that genre?
(Both laugh) K: No I’m not comfortable doing that sort of stuff at all, which is why you do it as an actor. If you played characters that were similar to you all the time it would be pretty boring, I think.
How do you think Harold and Kumar deal with the typecasting?
K: Typecasting exists no matter what you look like, but certainly there is stereotyping that is more unique to Asian Americans or South Asian Americans, and I really like the way in which Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg [the writers and directors of “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay”], totally deconstruct a lot of those stereotypes just with the use of humor, and I think that’s great. I think it’s certainly a more subversive way of even dealing with stereotypes. I’m not a big fan of people that preach too much or beat you over the head with it. And the thing I really love about Harold and Kumar is that they’re two all-Americans guys who are going on a journey and along that journey you’re able to deconstruct race in a very smart, witty way, but the movie is certainly not about that, it’s just about two guys who you can relate to, which I think is the greatest statement of how far we’ve come with a film like that.
Kal, what do you want to continue to do in your film work? Do you want to continue making National Lampoon films?
K: No, I would like to mix it up. I think it’s been a lot of fun playing a character like Kumar certainly, and I’m really excited to see how the film’s received in a couple weeks. But I also liked working on “Superman Returns” and “The Namesake,” and I’m really enjoying being on the show “House” right now, which is, of course, a drama. So the thing I like about acting is mixing it up whenever I can. So, I would like to move away from some of the teen comedy stuff and into some more, I guess, a little more diversity of the types of roles that I play.
How is this film different than the first one?
John: I was just saying that the first movie was plot-less, and it involved us getting high, getting hungry, looking for a burger place and then a bunch of stuff happened to us on the way to the burger place. And this movie has a very traditional or much more traditional plot with really high stakes. So that is I would say the primary difference, and then in other respects I think we tried to, as a good sequel should, ramp up everything.
How did the plot for the new film, “Escape From Guantanamo Bay” come about? It was a bit of a departure from the first.
J: I think because we didn’t get the green light for a few years really, they had time to sit on it and also time to kind of clock what people were appreciating about the first one and kind of the political, racial and social humor became such an identifying mark of the first movie that the audience kind of forced the hand. And they felt that they had to inject some of that subversive, political humor into the second one as well. And they needed something bigger and better, and at the time the Guantanamo stuff was really in the news as it continues to be. So they felt that that would be a fun way to get that going.
Will this movie be more political and less silly?
K: I don’t think it’s a political film in terms of taking a stance on anything, but it definitely inherently deals with some of the pop culture that surrounds the political sphere right now. I mean we’ve got a caricature of President Bush in the movie, so you can’t deny that you’re playing with the idea of politics, but I don’t think it’s a departure. I think that one of the things that was fun to play with was the fact that the stakes are so much higher. As John just pointed out, with a movie like this where these two guys who you’ve spent the night with getting hamburgers are now running for their lives and trying to secure their freedom. So the type of humor is the same, but the stakes are higher, and there is a little bit of different dichotomy between the two guys and the things they can play with I guess.
J: And I think the political premise is a way to make fart and poo jokes funnier.
Neil Patrick Harris’ career really took off after he appeared in the first film. Do you guys personally take the credit for his resurrection?
K: Yeah, I wanna take credit for it right now. No, I think Neil has talked about how Jon and Hayden’s script and playing the part has opened up some other opportunities for him. What do you think, Cho?
J: Yeah, I think he’s been open about that. I think that “Harold and Kumar,” the first movie, allowed people to see him in a different light, and I believe he has said, “I don’t think I’d be on ‘How I Met Your Mother’ without “Harold and Kumar.”
What college did you guys go to? What did you study there?
J: I went to UC Berkeley, and I studied English lit.
K: I went to UCLA and studied sociology and theater, film & television, and I’m very slowly doing a grad program at Stanford in international security and international studies.
Would you guys do “Harold and Kumar” as a TV show?
K: I feel like if it was done right, and if it preserved the nature of the humor and the nature of the characters, then I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it. I don’t think you can do that on network TV though, I think it would have to be on something like HBO, or you could probably take risks like that with a “Family Guy” type of show where it’s an animated version. But I’m also trying to move away from characters like this, and so I enjoy playing them in films where it’s a little more finite and the arc is a little more clear, instead of perpetually being typecast as a Kumar type of character. So, probably not actually, yeah.
J: I guess I would agree. It would depend on how they did it. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it if it seemed like somebody wanted to make money just replicating the movie experience on a week-to-week basis, even if the person wanting to make the money was me. But it doesn’t seem like it would fit. It would take a special circumstance. They would have to construct something that made sense. That was special.
Will we see any more “Harold and Kumar” sequels?
J: Unknown, I think, and I think it would depend on how people react to this one. Really it just depends on whether people vote with their dollars for this movie, just like the first one.
K: Yeah, I would second that. The reason we have a sequel now is because of the support from fans on the DVD. But we’re also four years older, so if you want to see a third movie would you please go see it opening weekend, then we can make it next year instead of four years from now when we will be considerably older.
John, what’s up next for you?
J: Well I just completed “Star Trek.” And now I’m unemployed (laughs) again so we will see what happens.
What would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
K: That’s a good question. I mean, one of the reasons that I’m pursuing graduate studies in something else is because I do have a bunch of other interests, and I’m not quite sure the direction I want to take that in. I was toying with the idea of something in the nonprofit world, or the teaching world, maybe documentary filmmaking, something like that. But I wanted to go to grad school for international studies so that I could get a better grasp of that, because it’s an interest of mine.
What’s the atmosphere on the set? Is there a lot of joking around or do you save it all for the camera?
K: No, there’s definitely is a lot of joking around, but it’s crazy to think… I know especially when you watch the first one or even the second movie, you know Jon and Hayden have done such a great job at writing a script like this where the audience, it seems, has fun with us. And we did have fun making the film, but you never have as much time as you want with these two movies to shoot. The script was incredibly ambitious, and unfortunately, we didn’t get the funding that we needed to put together the actual schedule that we probably should have had. So that’s the frustration where you’ve got all these scenes packed into one day, sometimes you can only do one take of something and you’ve got to get it right. So, there’s more pressure, but then at the same time John Cho and I had such a great time making the first one and both of us, and Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg – who wrote the first film and the second film, and they’re also directing the second one – the four of us have become good friends since shooting the first film. We shot the film in Shreveport, La., and it was just really a couple of months of just spending time with your friends and shooting a film that everybody loved working on. So it was a lot of fun. We didn’t have as much time to improvise or add things as we would have with a different type of a schedule, but it was absolutely a lot of fun, especially having Neil come down for, I think he was down there for a week or a week and a half that he was able to take off from his show. Having a couple of cameos like Missi Pyle and Rob Corddry, it was a reunion of sorts, but it was also a lot of fun and a great time. And my hope is that the fun that we had translates onto the screen, because it seems like the audience likes relating to the characters of Harold and Kumar, and so if they can have half as much fun as we had making it, then I think we’ve done our jobs.
Everyone wants to know, how much White Castle did you actually eat in that last scene from the first movie?
K: I get this question a lot, and it’s funny because I think fast food is disgusting. I was a vegetarian when we shot the first film, and I generally eat organic as much as possible. I know this is so disappointing to the audience, which is why I don’t talk about it a lot, but I don’t smoke weed, I don’t eat fast food… What else was there that Kumar does, that I don’t do…? And in real life, I don’t know if you guys have heard this before, but probably one of the true things on the Internet about us is that John Cho is more of a Kumar in real life, and I am more of a Harold. So the roles are definitely switched.
How has the chemistry of the Harold and Kumar characters evolved?
K: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. How has the chemistry between Harold and Kumar evolved, or John and I? I guess sometimes when you’re shooting a film where you don’t know the people you’re working with – John and I talked about this before the first film – we didn’t know each other before we were both cast. And we went up to Toronto, Canada where we shot “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and for about the first week we were there we decided, you know, we have to hang out as much as possible, because the characters we’re playing have known each other since college or before college. So we’ve got to get to know each other as much as possible so that the on-screen chemistry is almost second nature. And within that week we realized that we, in real life, have a lot in common completely different from the characters, of course, I think you guys heard this a little bit earlier when we had our dorky banter about books, but that’s the kind of stuff that we would talk about. We would go to a bookstore or something and just talk about literature. So, in real life we have a lot of similar interests also, which definitely, when you’re comfortable with somebody, it makes the experience of working with them a lot easier, too. So, I think having known each other for four years now, going back to shoot the second movie, you know the characters haven’t evolved, but your relationship has evolved. This first film took place over the course of a night, and the second film starts out where the first one left off. So, incidentally Harold and Kumar haven’t evolved very much, but John Cho and Kal Penn have. So, that was then the challenge of putting Harold and Kumar’s relationship back in place.
How did you get into the business? What advice do you have?
K: Oh wow. I didn’t know anybody who was doing anything in the entertainment industry. I went to a public high school in New Jersey, and then applied to a bunch of colleges. Half of them were for political science and the other half were for theater, film, sociology – things like that. I ended up getting into UCLA, so I came out to California and studied film and theater here. I wouldn’t say that the schooling there helped as much as being in L.A. itself and having the chance to go out on auditions. Friends of mine who’ve known me for a while, you know, I spent about four years living in a really crappy apartment behind a mortuary with bars on the windows and no light, trying to save money to pay for gas to go on auditions. Everybody says you go on a hundred auditions for every job that you actually book. So, those are really the odds, but if it’s a passion of yours, go out there and do it, but if it’s just a hobby, by all means don’t be an actor. There are more stable things that you can do. But if it’s a passion for any of your readers, especially if you guys are at UCSB, L.A.’s not that far. I have some friends in Santa Barbara, and they come down midweek to go on auditions and then go back up there. It’s a lot of sacrifice that you have to put in and no guarantee of any sort of payoff. But the payoff should never be financial. You go into something like this because you enjoy the artistic aspects of it.