MoviesOnline sat down with Cho and Penn at a roundtable interview to talk about the pot-smoking duo’s latest adventure and what it was like to blow Christmas Eve sky high. They told us how their characters have evolved over the past three films, why slackerhood and incompetence continue to give the films their edge, and what makes this the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
They also shared what they have coming up next including Cho’s involvement in three franchises: “Total Recall,” “Star Trek” and “American Reunion” and Penn’s work on Neil Patrick Harris’s show “How I Met Your Mother” and developing a sitcom for NBC. Penn also discussed his pursuit of two dreams: acting and politics and how he enjoyed having the opportunity to work in both worlds.
Q: Why is this the greatest Christmas movie of all time?
Penn: We’re diving right into it. Honestly, what I love about this movie is that we get away with so much bizarre, graphic, sometimes vulgar humor and still retain the true Christmas spirit of friendship and family and love and Santa Claus. I love that we got to do both of those things in one movie.
Cho: It is the greatest Christmas movie of all times –
Penn: I love that we’re not rejecting the premise.
Cho: Because that morbidly obese, white man home invader finally gets his due.
Penn: No! You cannot refer to Santa Claus in that manner. I won’t allow it.
Q: Do you like how your characters have evolved over the last three movies?
Penn: I do now. I was a little trepidatious when we got the first draft of this script. I thought, Kumar is known for being gregarious and he’s a little bit of a slacker, but at this point he’s down in the dumps, depressed. His girlfriend left him. He hasn’t left his house for four weeks and he’s a bigger stoner than we’ve ever seen. Why? Talking to Jon [Hurwitz] and Hayden [Schlossberg] about that and realizing that six years have passed and much like a lot of people who saw our first movies when they were twenty two, as were the characters, and now they’re twenty eight.
Cho: They’re not immortal. They age as well.
Penn: Yes, but just to play with what happens in life, that’s where it starts out and then they come back together was cool.
Q: The original appeal of the film was claiming slackerhood and incompetence, taking that from a white Anglo Saxon frat boy and giving that to guys from not often represented communities. Is that edge something that you want to maintain?
Cho: I think so, and I thought the first movie was radical in the sense of how it approached race and the kinds of jokes that it made about race. Then the second movie was radical in the sense that to put a Harold & Kumar treatment on essentially a political satire, that was radical. I was worried about where you go after that, whether we could keep that particular thing going. I thought that it was unsustainable. So, what I thought was equally radical about this movie was just to make a very traditional Christmas movie. Yes, it has naked nuns, and yes, it has a degenerate baby in it that does cocaine, but at its heart I think it’s a sweet picture really.
Q: The movies have that fun element of going too far sometimes, but isn’t it the friendship that holds the stories together?
Cho: I think that’s how we get away with it.
Penn: When we were going through any of these three movies, I don’t think that we thought, especially early on, that it was stoner movie. I just always viewed it as a buddy comedy.
Cho: I thought those were cigarettes.
Penn: You’re really dumb, but the first one came out and it didn’t do well in the box office. It did really well on DVD after that, and you could see that stoners said, “This is a stoner movie. We’re going to go out and buy it and support it.” The Asian American community said, “We think this is an Asian American movie.” Frat guys thought that it was a great frat house movie. So, you have all these people that took ownership of it in their own way which was so cool to see.
Cho: I’ve had people be like, “Dude, I’m an investment banker and I appreciate the character of Harold so much.” People approach it from different ways. It’s weird.
Penn: I’m curious to see how that guy feels about the opening scene.
Q: Kumar is kind of the fun-abler and Harold is kind of the emergency break. Do you ever think you’d want to flip the script on that, have Harold be in free fall in the fourth film and Kumar restore the status of incompetence?
Cho: I like this pitch.
Penn: I think what I like is there is always a moment in the movies where they do flip. So, in the second movie it’s when Harold decides to take the pepper spray to the guard on the way to Guantanamo and we end up parachuting into George Bush’s house because Kumar doesn’t have the guts to do it.
Cho: They always switch. In the first movie, it was when he told off the two guys in the White Castle. In this movie, he shot Santa Claus in the face.
Penn: Which I cleaned up the mess for, mind you.
Q: Do you feel that these characters are now adaptable into just about any genre format?
Cho: I think it’s a bit of a trick. The trick is that they called the movie “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” and so it reminds you of the other buddy comedies that have preceded us and the road pictures. So, then a serial nature is kind of implicit in that title. I think that’s the trick. I don’t think we would’ve gotten to two or three if it hadn’t had that particular title.
Q: How do you deal with friends who might attract disaster and it’s not as funny or fun in real life?
Penn: I don’t hangout with them as often. You gotta do group settings with those friends.
Q: Have you guys ever had any quality time with Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong?
Cho: We haven’t met them.
Penn: Yeah. We haven’t met them.
Q: How do we make this happen?
Penn: We would love to. Whenever people bring that up…we should invite them to the premiere at the least.
Cho: Yeah, right.
Q: When Neil Patrick Harris shows up on set for two days to sing and dance, does he actually glow with talent or is it not immediately visible?
Cho: It’s more of a scent.
Penn: You sense it as the plane approaches the airport nearest to where you’re shooting. You just know that there’s something in the air and that Neil is on his way.
Cho: Birds flock away.
Penn: The sky opens up.
Q: Comedy bad dancing is tougher than actually skilled dancing, but he does it all as the centerpiece of this Busby Berkeley number. Do you wish you could show us some moves like NPH does or is it all about him?
Penn: I don’t have the capacity either as Kumar or as Kal Penn.
Cho: Wait a second, I’m going to toot the horn for a second.
Penn: This was his favorite scene by the way.
Cho: We were not supposed to be, because I take umbrage with your description of our talent, in that much of the dance number. It was supposed to be that we knock down some scenery and then we go into the background and then we got into the studio and started doing it and we were kind of picking it up to the extent that they thought it would be fun to have them in the rest of the number. So, we are in every number. Shebang.
Q: What about the falling in the end?
Penn: It wasn’t even that high.
Cho: That’s right. That’s the easiest bit, falling.
Penn: Going into it I thought that I was this badass who gets to fall off of maybe a five foot, eight foot high building that we’d built. They’ve got professional stunt guys. I really want to do a big budget action movie one day and so this was my little, mini moment of that. We get up there and I just could not trust to fall backwards straight. I had to turn around. I got it eventually.
Cho: It’s hard. That was a small space. The lights were right there. You had to fall just so.
Penn: But still I should’ve just trusted.
Q: Are these characters that you’d always want to revisit or is there a point where it wouldn’t be cute anymore?
Penn: I think we could even do it when we’re dead like “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Q: Todd Strauss-Schulson said the scene with the triplets was hard. Can you talk about that?
Penn: I only had one scene.
Cho: We only had a little bit with the baby, but that was hard. They were first just working with the parents which you would think makes sense, that the parents would calm the kid down. But, being a father, I assure you that’s not necessarily the case, and then they got a professional baby whisperer who introduced herself as the baby whisperer. She said, “Hi. I’m the baby whisperer.” But what she did was turn everything into a game. That’s how she got the kids to work. So, you can’t just calm them down and expect them to perform a task. You have to eliminate the task part of it entirely.
Q: Did your director use any similar tricks to get performances out of you?
Cho: There was cooing and tickling, some nipples.
Q: Do you guys have a favorite 3-D moment in the movie that you thought was the coolest effect?
Penn: Yes, and I thought that it was…I have two. I think the opening sequence was just awesome. We spent a lot of time, and this is going to sound silly, but we spent a lot of time on the smoke when Patton Oswalt’s character, the fake Santa, and Kumar are smoking in the mall parking lot. It took a long time to get that right. He describes it really well. What do you say?
Cho: The smoke is very elegant.
Penn: Yeah, and it is. The graphics guys really enhanced it.
Cho: It’s almost erotic.
Penn: It comes out over the audience, then it turns into the logo, and then just Santa Claus. Anything and everything with Santa Claus in 3-D, him flying through New York City. In the 3-D glasses, the audience feels like they’re over New York City with Harold and Santa and Kumar.
Cho: We tried to do a bit which would’ve been funny in 3-D which was the reindeer pooping into Harold’s face.
Penn: Did that not make it?
Cho: It did not make it. Todd, our director, loves to throw things in people’s faces. That’s his thing.
Q: Kal, you’ve been able to pursue two dreams, acting and politics. Do you have a preference of one over the other?
Penn: I feel very blessed that I’ve had the chance to do both. I always remember my guidance counselor in my senior year in high school. Politically I’m an independent. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but I told her that I wanted to go to college and study film and that I also wanted to work in public service. She said, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” very cranky. I was like, “Well, that’s not great advice to give to a seventeen year old.”
Cho: That’s weird. High school guidance counselors have a great track record.
Penn: “I don’t know what to do here.” So, I do feel very blessed that I have had the chance to work in both worlds. To me they’re completely different. They’re like the yin and the yang. What I love about making frivolous, fun movies like this is working one part of my brain and then being serious and doing something more cerebral is the other part. So, I like that they’re separate worlds and I really feel blessed that I’ve had the chance to do both.
Q: Do you like one more than the other?
Penn: Well, my first love is always being creative. So, I would say that, but they’re just so different that you can’t really compare the two.
Q: There might have been some worry that your involvement in “Harold & Kumar” would reflect badly on the Obama administration. Is there any worry that the Obama administration might reflect badly on “Harold & Kumar”?
Penn: I think that both are completely separate. It’s never been a concern going from “Harold & Kumar” to the White House. I think that everyone understands fact versus fiction. On the flipside, I’m actually very proud of all of the President’s accomplishments. I’m not a fan of all the cable news spin. I get that it makes for titillating ways to sell ad space. You sell a Ford commercial by telling you who’s up and who’s down, but my reality of having worked there is that I worked on youth issues in a relatively non-partisan way. I worked on the ways that the president increased financial aide and gave tax breaks to kids going to college and brought our friends home from Iraq and also managed to find a way to oversee a team of people that took care of Osama Bin Laden.
Cho: He’s dead.
Penn: And saving the economy from complete collapse. So, my experience has been all of those things which is not to say that there isn’t still work to be done, but it also seems like most young people don’t get their news from FOX or MSNBC or CNN which is a good thing because for them it’s based on what they need. They’re graduating and they might not have a job. It’s harder for them to find it. Knowing that they can stay on their parent’s health insurance until they’re 26 is a big help, knowing that now their student loans are going to be deferred or income based for a payment of ten percent of what they’re making. All of these things are what they talk about from my experiences. So, hopefully one doesn’t affect the other just like it hasn’t when I left.
Q: How do you feel, John, when you hear Kal talking like this? Do you feel you can jump in there?
Cho: I breathe deep.
Q: Does it intimidate you, Mr. One Job?
Cho: Those are fighting words. This is a hostile room. It was aggressive, an act of aggression. I will not tolerate this.
Q: How do you manage your three franchises, even “American Pie” is back now?
Cho: It’s tough. I have a big accountant. No. I don’t know what there is to balance, except scheduling. It’s really weird to be in more than one franchise because an actor’s life is so nomadic, and so it’s a real privilege to get back together with people.
Penn: Aren’t you one of the very few actors that are in three franchises?
Cho: Oh, well, Kal –
Penn: Isn’t it true? I mean, seriously, isn’t it? There’s like very few people.
Cho: Actually, I think that list has grown because there are more franchises, because they’re making more sequels than they used to.
Q: Do you know when you’re going to start shooting “Trek” again?
Cho: I don’t know when I’m going to be shooting “Trek” again, but I think soon would be fair to describe it.
Q: What’s next for you guys?
Cho: I’ve got a couple of movies coming out: “Total Recall,” the remake of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie and “American Reunion,” another franchise movie. Then we’ll get back into “Star Trek” at some point.
Penn: I’m working on eight episodes of Neil’s show, “How I Met Your Mother” and developing a workplace sitcom for NBC. So, it’s a TV pilot script at this point, just in development and hopefully they decide to shoot it and put it on the air. That’s a long shot always, but we’re hoping for good news there.
Q: Are you a new character in “Total Recall” or someone who was in the original?
Cho: It’ll be a composite of a couple of characters in that movie.
Q: Have you guys seen any Harold & Kumar’s out on Halloween and what are your plans for Halloween?
Penn: Last night a friend of mine texted me saying, “Have you done a Twitter search on how many people are going as Harold & Kumar?” I said, “No. I don’t typically search Harold & Kumar on Twitter. That’s a little narcissistic.” He sent me two links and I re-tweeted these two kids, one that was going as Harold and one that was going as Kumar. There are apparently a lot of people doing it. I thought that it was kind of cool.
Cho: We were having dinner in D.C. and we had – I just love this – these two guys send over –
Penn: By the way, this was…
Cho: …a very nice restaurant. We only eat the finest food. I don’t think this was on their menu. I think they convinced the chef to make a little slider for us. They sent it over and wrote a very lovely note on a cocktail napkin. It was two very well dressed –
Penn: They were basically Hill staffers, I think.
Cho: I think that’s what it was, but they were so excited. We love seeing Harold & Kumars out in the world. It’s our favorite thing because we’re megalomaniacs.
“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” opens in theaters on November 4th.