Spinning Platters Interview: John Cho on “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”

by Jason LeRoy on November 4, 2011


John Cho recently had a fairly perfect San Francisco day. The Berkeley graduate, 39, was in town with his family during fleet week, observing its many air shows. “It was very loud,” he says. “If I lived here, I would have been really annoyed. But I was visiting, so it was fun.” And if Cho lived here, there’s at least one place you’d have a good chance of finding him: “That Embarcadero thing – you guys don’t know how good you have it. The eating there is ridiculous. I found a three-hour parking spot, then we went to Yank Sing, had dim sum, walked to the Embarcadero, got more yummies, watched the planes, then came back. It was kinda perfect.”

So if you were near the Embarcadero during fleet week and saw a familiar-looking man with that suspiciously handsome “actor” look, it may have been Cho. Without fully breaking into matinee-idol status, he has amassed an impressive 67 credits since his first credited appearance, on Boston Common in 1997. He immediately began scoring bit parts in films like American Beauty and Wag the Dog and shows like Charmed and Felicity. Then, in 1999, he had the dubious distinction of becoming the first person to say the word “MILF” in American Pie, which introduced it into the cultural lexicon to which it has stubbornly clung ever since.

He went on to appear in each of the American Pie films, and will reprise his role in the upcoming American Pie: Reunion. Cho has remained active on television, with featured roles on Off Center, Kitchen Confidential, and most recently, FlashForward. After turning heads with a dramatic turn in the critically acclaimed Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Cho found his biggest breakout role yet: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, the instant-classic, gleefully raunchy stoner comedy that immediately turned Cho and costar Kal Penn into college-circuit comedy icons (and played a vital role in the Neil Patrick Harris renaissance). And then there’s the small matter of his work as Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ staggeringly successful Star Trek reboot; he will also appear in the upcoming sequel.

Back to the matter at hand: after the admirably political yet somewhat less well-received Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), the duo have returned with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. And if there’s any concern they might be phoning it in by this third time around, let me assure you: that is not the case. Wildly entertaining, very funny, and dirty as hell, this is an adults-only holiday film for the ages. It also makes very knowing, deliberate, and hilarious use of its 3D technology, which is the best way to do it. Spinning Platters recently sat down with Cho to discuss the balance between racial humor and racist gags, the jokes that he worried may have gone too far, and supervising his own prosthetic penis.

I was surprised by the topicality of your first scene in this film, in which Harold is working on Wall Street and finds himself being targeted by a furious mob. Was that a late reshoot, or was it always in the script?

That was just a stroke of horrible, great luck. The country’s misfortune added to our joke. But the economy was not great a year ago when we shot it, so it was topical then and it’s extra-topical now, I guess.

Where was this filmed?

Detroit. It was filmed in summer. We were just sweltering. I’m sure I lost ten pounds from sweating. It’s very weird, because people would come out of their houses to watch and they’re in their shorts and flip-flops I’m in this winter overcoat, hungering to strip. [laughs]

Did it feel like a family reunion to get everyone back together a third time?

It really did. I really treasured this opportunity to do that, because an actor’s life is pretty nomadic, you know, there are very few constants. It’s probably a psychological failing on our part that we need to move so often from gig to gig and create intimate relationships, and then move onto another intimate relationship, and so on and so forth. But I’ve been lucky to have been involved in a few franchises, and I feel very fortunate to be able to hug people hello every few years.

Did the environment on the set feel different from when you all first started on White Castle?

Sure. We were getting to know one another. We were kinda figuring out our comic identities in the first one, and there was much more push-and-pull while we were making that and editing it. There were a lot of chefs in the kitchen, and there were differing opinions on what that style of humor was. But eventually it shook out right, so by the time we got to the third one – we know what this is.

Has there been much improv in the films?

I wish there was more. The reason we can’t improv more is that we’re very modestly budgeted, and this one doubly so. I’m sure we had more money because it’s 3D, but we had about the same number of days to shoot, and it takes longer to light and shoot with 3D cameras. So we had even less time for acting in this third one. It’s always a rush, so what you do is try to prepare before you shoot and try to make sure that all the little script bumps are flattened.

What is it like bringing new actors, such as Rob Corddry in Guantanamo Bay or Danny Trejo in the new one, into the mix?

I love the combination of the reunion and the meeting new people. These cameos… They’re very particular about who they cast, and I remember on the first one they were throwing out all these stunt names, like…I won’t say who they were, but I was like, “Okay, I get it, but that person is not right for this kind of humor.” It’s got to be a particular kind of actor, and so I’m always very pleased about the casting. It’s serious actors and big comic actors, but it all kinda makes sense in the end. Again, that’s a point of pride. They’re very choosy about who they ask.

There are two artificial representations of you in this film: the claymation sequence, and the frozen penis in the Christmas Story homage. Did they ask for any input from you on either of those things? Did you have approval over how they looked?

I remember with the claymation I was asked whether it was close enough at some point, and I said, “Yeah, uh…Asian.” [laughs] With the penis, what they asked for my input on was, um, the coloring. They presented a couple of shades and said, “What’s your recommendation?”

They gave you cock swatches?

Obviously I would have preferred a boa constrictor. But actually they came up with a penis and they said, “Listen, we think this seems like a realistic penis.” And I said, “Alright, it looks like a realistic penis.” It’s pretty convincing when you look down and see it. It’s a penis! And what’s crazy is you start believing it’s your penis because it’s hanging at your crotch. And then three guys grab it and nail it to a pole. That’s a terrible feeling. It was screwed to the pole because there had to be tugging and glue wouldn’t have held the prosthetic.

Some friends of mine were arguing over whether or not it was real.

Well, the argument with me would have been short, because I’m not nailing my penis to a pole. Sorry, but I’m just not doing it. I have some standards. That was the part I was the most worried about my mother seeing. I read that in the script and was like, “Someday my mother is going to see this. Someday my kids are going to see this.”

How did you approach finding a balance between paying homage to Christmas classics while also satirizing them?

We’re both paying homage to and perverting Christmas tradition, and I always feel like the key to doing a Harold & Kumar movie is you make it earnest. Primarily what we do is make Harold and Kumar’s friendship/relationship believable, and we don’t actually work on being funny that much. Because the writing is funny and the circumstances are funny, and if Harold and Kumar are real and set up as they always are – as a romance, as a tale of love between two guys – then almost anything goes from there. So I feel like that’s the key. You just do that. This is a Christmas romance between two men, so you do that and have everything else happen around them. I feel like that’s the formula, if there is one.

What delighted you the most about the third script when you got it?

The song and dance number. And it was the most delightful thing to film. Because, first, I was up close and personal watching the triple-threat Neil Patrick Harris – the triple-named triple-threat Neil Patrick Harris. It was just delightful, because it was so preposterous to me that in a Harold & Kumar movie I would be doing this old Hollywood dance number. And that’s the absurdity of that world, and to me there’s no better example of that absurdity than us in toy soldier costumes. [laughs]

As an addendum: through some oversight, we almost did the scene following that, where we accost Neil Patrick Harris in his dressing room and are caught behind the screen – I went in for the fitting and we were dressed back in our street clothes for that scene! And I said, “I think we should still be in our toy soldier costumes, because that’s funny! More time with red dots on our faces!”


Yeah, duh, right? There was a big scramble because we were filming that scene that day, and they had laid out our street clothes, and I said, “We gotta do it in the toy soldier outfits,” and they said, “They’re not ready,” and I said, “It has to be the toy soldier outfits.” So they had to get them ready. There was some panic that day. [laughs]

Is it weird being a stoner god? Because I read that you’re not really into that culture yourself, so is it weird when every college kid you meet is like, “Hey man, wanna toke up with me later?” Does that happen a lot?

It happens a lot. [laughs] Weed is fine, I just can’t do it much.

Probably not every time you’re asked.

It’s a seasonal pleasure. You know, what always strikes me and Kal as funny is that we’re known as stoners – and although I love being affectionate with stoners, they’re the most affectionate people on earth – it’s weird to us because ever since the first one, we just haven’t spent that much time on screen smoking weed. There’s a couple of scenes, but we’re not high for the majority of the films. Obviously they’re stoners, but my memory of it as an actor is all about rushing to something, or choking Kumar, or all of these other things. And there’s just, like, two days where we pretended to be high. It’s funny to me that you become known as stoners when it’s such a small part of the movie.

I think of the Harold & Kumar movies as being in the same school as In Living Color, in terms of having a lot of racially provocative humor, but mostly which seems to come from a thoughtful place. You’ve worked with other comedians that play with race and ethnicity, like Margaret Cho in Bam Bam and Celeste. How do you find that balance between racially provocative humor and just racist gags?

I don’t write it, but what I feel like works about it is the attitude. First, the humor assumes, the writers assume, and the movies assume that you’re not a racist, and we all think it’s as silly as these guys do. That’s step one, and that’s why it works. Secondly I feel like, with the characters, we talk about race, but for the characters it isn’t what their lives or personalities are about. And therefore, it feels commensurate with people’s identities and the audience’s identities and how they feel about themselves. Race is a part of life. It comes in and out of focus, it come to prominence and then recedes, and that’s how we treat race in these movies. Sometimes it pops up, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. So there’s something about it that feels – although it’s heightened, it proportionally feels correct.

Do you ever get any flack from the feminist perspective? This film contains a fairly unambiguous sexual assault against a woman, even though it’s played for comedy.

I’ve been made aware of that on occasion. I’m no pollster, but I haven’t gotten a lot of flack myself, and I feel like I might have. And I feel like there’s a lot of female fans out there, so I don’t know that it’s widespread. I would suggest that it’s because Harold and Kumar, as well as the movies, are pretty well-meaning. There’s a lot that we couldn’t get away with if there wasn’t that core of innocence at the center of the movies. This movie is a perversion of Christmas movies, but it’s also very traditional and it affirms family values. It’s about the love between the two guys, and it’s about love between their significant others. And at their heart, that’s what they’re about, strangely enough. The movies have a rather childlike, innocent attitude about them.

Speaking of which, there’s a toddler girl in this movie who does some wildly inappropriate things. Was anyone worried about going too far?

I worried about it! The child, to be fair…is a degenerate. [laughs] We had to do something, you gotta find a way to raise the stakes. I thought about that scene in The Untouchables where that baby carriage was going down the stairs, and it was like the gunfight becomes really high stakes at that point. This goofy romp through New York with a bunch of stoners, the stakes are raised when there’s a baby in the mix. [pause] I just compared our film to one of the great movies in the canon of American cinema.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas opens in theaters nationwide today.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Justin November 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm

AHHH!! Loved this movie!! John Cho is going to be on the Adam Carolla podcast friday. Sooo looking forward to it


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