Q+A: John Cho

Our favorite half of ‘Harold & Kumar’ tells all about the sequel four years in the making

By Jiyeon Yoo
John Cho

Some movies are so successful that sequels are rushed into production to cash in as fast as possible. That was most definitely not the case with “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

The stoner comedy earned a measly $18 million when it was released in 2004—hardly the kind of numbers that give studio executives contact highs. But the reviews were good and word of mouth was even better, and slowly but surely “Harold & Kumar” built a loyal following on DVD.

Now the pothead buddies, embodied so inimitably by John Cho and Kal Penn, are back to prove their box office prowess with “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” The sequel, written and directed by the original film’s writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, finds H&K at the mercy of Federal agents who believe the happy-go-lucky duo are terrorists after they’re caught trying to smuggle a bong onto a plane.

The years between films have been especially kind to Cho, whose resume now includes a supporting turn on Fox’s well-reviewed yet short-lived “Kitchen Confidential” and a recurring role on “Ugly Betty.” He’s currently filling the iconic shoes of “Star Trek’s” Sulu for director J.J. Abrams, but he can’t spill any details on that hotly anticipated project. (Understandable—it’s never a good career move to make J.J. Abrams mad.)

Metromix did get Cho to open up about playing politics for laughs, working with Neil Patrick Harris (again) and what it’s like to be in the middle of a…well…just read on…

Since you were coming back with most of the original team, did you have much input in the direction of the sequel?
Literally after every day of filming, we were all living at the same place. We’d gather in my apartment in Shreveport where we were shooting, we’d have a beer and we’d talk about what happened that day, good things and bad things. That’s kind of unheard of, you know. I felt more invested in this than anything I’ve ever done.

Did you or Kal have a particular stake in the script?
I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t like the script. But I thought it was ballsy and funny. We went with it and were excited about it.

It’s interesting that a movie considered by many to be a refreshing take on Asian American experience was created by two Jewish writers. How did that happen?
[Jon and Hayden] actually have a friend Harold Lee. I think they always [thought] it was a bummer that people who looked like Harold never were on television or in the movies. [They said] “Well we should a movie about Harold, he’s hilarious.” And Harold, the real one, was mistaken for me a lot. So they thought, well, there’s an actor out there who could play Harold.

In the first script they were worried that the studio would want to change the ethnicity of the characters. So they worked to put in specific cultural things that would dissuade them from that.

Movies about 9/11 and the current state of the government haven’t fared well in the box office. Do you think “Harold & Kumar” may change that?
I hope so.

Why do you think that’s been the case? Is it that the public just doesn’t have a taste for political or war-driven movies?
Maybe…I don’t know if you want to go to the movies and see the news. Maybe the subject is so uncomfortable that we need a different way of addressing it. I have to point out our movie isn’t politically bent one way or the other. [The writers] used the Guantanamo Bay situation as a way to make jokes. It heightened the danger, therefore it’d be funnier.

Because you’re always in peril?
That’s right. Our lives are in danger. The first movie was plotless, really: We just got hungry and wanted to go to White Castle and a bunch of things happened along the way. This movie is much more traditional in terms of plot. The stakes are very, very high. Our lives are at risk. When there’s danger, you can laugh harder.

Some of the jokes seem to lean towards one side of the fence, don’t you think?
I guess you can say that. I’m not sure whether Republicans are going to laugh as hard. But I think we do a great service to the Republicans because we portray George Bush as a pretty likable dude.

I was surprised that the President had such a significant role in the movie. I actually didn’t think that the audience would see his face.
You know, a lot of people were against it. There was a discussion about the whole thing being cut, that it wouldn’t play. My sense of it is, it’s a comedy and we can’t have this brooding silhouette of a man. The way the script is written—he’s a cool dude, so we got to see him.

Did you feel it was an imperative for the sequel to address even more social and political issues?
Well, yeah. I’m not sure it would have been much of an imperative if [the original] was an immediate box office success and the guys wrote the sequel immediately. But it wasn’t. We had a few years to see what people were digging about the movie. And it turned out that the social and racial jokes played really well. It’s obviously something that people really find significant about the first one, so we had to top ourselves because it’s a sequel. It felt like Guantanamo Bay was a big bang, and they just piled it on.

Uh, “cockmeat sandwich”? Who came up with that term?
I have no idea. I believe [the writers] invented it. I don’t know what to say about that except it was unpleasant to film.

Do you still have nightmares?
I’ve blocked it out successfully.

What did you think of the “WWNPHD” campaign? Many say that the first movie reinvigorated Neil Patrick Harris’ career.
I’d say resurrected.

So does he have a diva complex now?
Neil is, as in the movie, very sharp tongued and hilarious but much more subdued than the character he plays on “How I Met Your Mother” or in our movie. I love acting with him, he’s a very generous actor, very considerate, a very kind fellow.

Why is Harold always driving?
I didn’t notice that but I guess that’s true. I guess Harold’s the responsible one. Which actually is probably faulty thinking because Harold should be navigating.

I was hoping that Harold would have more opportunity to get his groove on. You couldn’t swing that?
I felt like there was a lot at the end.

But, it wasn’t like a three-way or anything.
Well, it is Harold.

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