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Celebrity interviews can be a crapshoot. Some people are reticent to say anything that might constitute actually speaking their mind, fearing offending some segment of their fanbase. Some celebs are surly, resentful that they have to go through the motions of courting the press. And some are like Kal Penn and John Cho: as personable and charming at a roundtable as they are on film. The stars of the HAROLD AND KUMAR series (as well as many other films) attended this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and I had the chance to chat with them for CWR.

One of the things that first came out of the conversation was the sense of wonderment the guys felt at the Con itself. The duo had been spotted by the crowd at the top of the New Line booth, and kids began lining up solely in the hope of seeing them and perhaps snapping a distant photo, cramming the aisle. Penn’s eyes were wide at the fuss being made, admitting “I tend to be a little freaked out in crowds,” but acknowledging “it’s a pretty festive group of people.” Cho agreed, pondering the changes in the con itself and the way Hollywood markets its product. “Studios are sending everyone down here these days. It seems like the boundaries of Comic-Con have gotten a lot broader.”

“It’s strange,” Cho continued, The first movie, New Line threw a big screening for Harry Knowles in Austin, and I thought ‘this is so unusual, so strange that the studio has reached out to someone with a website in Austin and threw a giant party to curry his favor’. We’re living in a different time. Washington Post? Phooey! Toronto Star? Phooey!”

The second film, HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY recently hit DVD, and between the theatrical run and anticipation for the home version, news of a third in the series leaked out into the open prior to San Diego (“We don’t know much about it,” Penn noted). Both actors are no strangers to Hollywood franchises; Penn appeared in Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS and headlined his own sequel in the VAN WILDER series, and Cho appeared in all three AMERICAN PIE efforts and has joined the STAR TREK crew, but both expressed surprise that HAROLD AND KUMAR have taken the franchise route. Cho summed it up, saying, “I will now be associated with three franchises, and that’s very strange. (But) I will wear a t-shirt of me (which he was doing at the time, actually, as a form of self-effacing humor) and play with my action figure."

I knew he meant his (eventual) Sulu figure, but I found myself wanting a set of Harold and Kumar figures, complete with a Neil Patrick Harris and Malin Ackerman. With tiny bales of marijuana as accessories, of course.

On the subject of marijuana, both men had strong feelings about how the leaf played its role in their films. “We spend a lot less time being stoned than in most pot movies,” Cho pointed out. “It’s a launching point, especially in the second one. There’s so much action going on for a ‘pot’ movie.” I then noted that I felt like the films fell more into the category of social satire (on the subject of race and racism), which brought Penn’s assent. “I would probably agree with that. I think in the last five or so years there have been a large number of diverse entertainments like THE OFFICE and LOST and that opens the playing field for HAROLD AND KUMAR.”

Cho continued, “We made the first one and didn’t really think people were going to notice. We didn’t make a big fuss about race; it was that we believed in the movie. But it became such an outstanding part of the movie… Looking back, I’m glad we waited four years to do the second one because we had such an interesting topic, and that was partially driven by the racial jokes. And in the interim between the movies, the comic fodder of Guantanamo Bay came up.”

Following up on that, the pair was asked out their status as role models to Asian-American kids. “I actually think the movie is great in that it allows us to be irresponsible,” Cho said. Because the pair refuses to bow to stereotypes, it shows something more real to kids watching the films. He added, “For our characters to be engaged in a lot of illegal activity and to be crass and vulgar I feel like the Asian kids really appreciate that.”

On the subject of how Asian-Americans are portrayed in film, I was eager to ask Penn about his recent stint as a college professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught a class titled “Asian-Americans in the Media.” Penn seemed very pleased. “I enjoyed it! It was fun, it was a lot of work, it was a challenge! It was something I had definitely been planning for a while, and I’d love to do it again.” I asked Cho if he was interested in following in Penn’s footsteps, but it turned out he had tried the education route earlier in his life and didn’t feel compelled to return. “No, actually I was a teacher when I first graduated college I taught at a private school in Los Angeles for a year and that was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my entire life and I wouldn’t want to go back. It was a stretch- a heavy, heavy job and I would just go home and be worried. I don’t know how people do it. God bless them.”

The duo definitely has a rare on-screen chemistry, something that anyone watching the film notices right away. Cho noted that, “We did know each other before the first movie started filming. But, we had to work at getting to know each other.” Penn agreed, and Cho turned to him to discuss their acting styles. “I’m really happy to have worked with you. I tend to go too ‘big’.”

Penn was incredulous. “Bigger than me???”

Cho shook his head. “No, really… I have to tone it down!”

That led to the inevitable question of how much each man resembled his character, but the truth might surprise people. “I’m more like Kumar,” said Cho, “and Kal is more like Harold.”

But as professionals, that presents the pair no problems, due in no small part to co-conspirators like writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. Penn praised the scripts, telling the group “They did a god job writing it. The characters so there. They created a lot of backstory; Jon Hurwitz knew where they went to college, how they met… he gave me this whole backstory off the top of his head, so all of those details are in the script and are well thought out. We really only added a little bit here and there (ourselves).”

One thing the pair will not do, however, is kill the golden goose. Asked if they would work together on a non-HAROLD AND KUMAR project, both seemed reluctant. “I love working with Kal,” Cho said, “but I’m sure he and I would both have reservations about limiting our careers by doing that. But ideally…”

Penn had a moment of inspiration. “It would be good to do a drama,” which brought a nod from Cho.

Both also expressed a desire to do a comic book movie, with Cho expressing enthusiasm when a reporter suggested he play Marvel’s Shang-Chi (“I’m in, I’m in!”) and Penn expressing respect and interest in Virgin Comics’ Shakti line, which covers Indian myths and legends. But for now, Penn and Cho are focused on carving out their own legend and riding the wave of popularity and enthusiasm that HAROLD AND KUMAR have brought into their lives and careers. Given the final word, Cho discussed lunching with George Takei after he took on the role of Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot, and the advice he was given. “I asked him what it was like to have this kind of fanbase, and he had said you can either get suffocated by it or you can use it for good. He used it as a platform in a socially responsible way, and he told me to find out how I could use it in a positive way.”

Whether it’s by educating the next generation or by destroying negative stereotypes in the media, Penn and Cho are well on their way to doing just that.

Marc Mason


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