Though John Cho and Kal Penn went on to take bigger roles—Cho as Hikaru Sulu in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Penn as a real-life associate director in the White House Office Of Public Engagement And Intergovernmental Affairs—it’s likely that the two actors will be forever associated with the overachieving stoners they originated in 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. That film was the first entry in an unlikely cinematic series, now a trilogy thanks to the forthcoming A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. Through all the self-aware Neil Patrick Harris cameos and tokes with jungle animals andpresidents, the crackling comedic chemistry and honest, brotherly affection between Cho and Penn has always been the heart of the franchise—but as the series’ 3-D holiday extravaganza opens, that bond has been strained by time and lifestyle changes like (gasp!) Harold’s decision to quit smoking pot. A series of unfortunate Yuletide events nonetheless reunites the duo, sending them on yet another “into the night” adventure which, naturally, also makes room for a run-in with NPH’s drug-crazed, horndog alter ego. When The A.V. Club met with Cho and Penn during their press tour for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, they discussed how the changes in their characters’ lives reflected changes in their own, while also touching on one of the film’s most unexpected 3-D gags and the other holiday adventures that could be in Harold and Kumar’s future.
The A.V. Club: As much as A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is a holiday movie, a lot of the film also deals with the passage of time. Was there a feeling of reunion on the set?
John Cho: Absolutely. I think it’d been a few years. How many years?
Kal Penn: Four-ish?
JC: I think the feeling was enhanced by the things that had happened in our personal lives. [Kal] left the business to go work at the White House. I had a baby. Jon Hurwitz, one of the writers, had a child. Neil had come out. There was all this stuff happening in Neil’s career. It felt like we had gone to another chapter and had to address the passage of time in the movie.
AVC: A third movie was already locked in when you took the job at the White House, correct?
AVC: So there wasn’t, when that news came out, any sense of “Oh no, there goes the Harold & Kumar franchise.”
KP: Oh, no, no, no. And I’m glad you actually did the research, because it’s always weird to answer that. We had a three-picture deal, at the studio’s discretion, obviously, when I signed on. When I was taking a sabbatical, I said, “I’m taking a two-year sabbatical.” After the first year they said, “We’re doing this movie,” and I obviously had an obligation, so I went off—and luckily had the chance to finish my two years after that, which was of course a blast. I love everything he just said about the passage of time and being able to play a ridiculous character like this.
JC: I became a cobbler.
KP: [Laughs.]That would have been so tight.
JC: And then I got a degree studying James Franco.
KP: Wow, that’s crazy what you just said, because James Franco is getting a degree.
JC: What? He is?
KP: Yes, a Ph.D.
AVC: So what felt different this time?
KP: Well, a couple of things. What I thought was really cool, and I think all of us did, was that the first two movies take place about a minute apart from each other, and this one is six years later in the lives of the characters. The characters’ lives, just like ours, have changed a little bit. And that was really fun to play, because this is probably the character I know best from having to play him over seven years. And he’s changed quite a bit. That was just a cool experience.
JC: It was different in the sense that, content-wise, we were doing a very traditional story. I know it doesn’t seem traditional. [Laughs.] But we were making a satire, like we did in the second one. The first one was about a really small goal, and this one felt bigger and therefore more cinematically traditional. It felt like we were more closely adhering to cinematic convention, oddly enough.
KP: I loved shooting this thing in Detroit and having the chance to live in Detroit for three months. There’s so much art and culture, and people were super-nice. A lot of our crewmembers were guys who used to be autoworkers and were able to get hired due to tax breaks for the film industry. It was just a really nice, friendly, fun vibe. The first two movies were fun to shoot also, but there’s a certain camaraderie on our set that I felt was a lot of fun to have.
JC: It was a lot of fun to witness from my gold trailer.
KP: That’s so weird that you had a gold trailer.
JC: I witnessed camaraderie.
KP: I’ve been meaning to ask you why it was gold.
AVC: Have you seen a cut with the 3-D effects in yet?
JC: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Did you see it in 3-D? Did you enjoy the 3-D semen?
AVC: [Laughs.] I did.
JC: There was 3-D semen?
AVC: Yeah, Danny Trejo’s.
JC: Oh, yeah. That was tough for even me.
KP: This is probably one of the outlets where we can actually ask the question of the audience, “Did you enjoy the 3-D semen?”
JC: Online poll! Reader poll!
KP: The reason I say that is that this is obviously not a big-budget action movie, so the stuff you see in 3-D is not stuff you’ll see in 3-D anywhere else. I also felt like it heightened the audience’s connection to the characters, so hopefully you feel like you’re in the movie, maybe without—
AVC: Without getting splashed in the face by Danny Trejo?
KP: Right, thank you. Hopefully it heightens the experience for the audience.
JC: [Laughs.] The 3-D is cool because the first two movies were real DVD favorites, and I hope that people, as a result, enjoy this movie in the theater. Drink what you want, smoke what you want, and go to the movie and enjoy it with other people, in the dark, as it’s meant to be seen. Money had to be invested in generating the semen, because that’s not real semen.
KP: What do you mean?
JC: He didn’t really masturbate on set.
KP: But it’s in the movie.
JC: But it’s not real. Just because it’s in a movie doesn’t mean it’s real.
JC: I said, just because it’s in the movie doesn’t mean it’s real.
KP: But what do you mean?
JC: Some things are fiction.
KP: But I thought—Harold, come on!
AVC: Why do you think other comedies haven’t invested in over-the-top 3-D effects since the revival of 3-D? This movie and the Piranha remake are the only ones that come to mind.
JC: Because it doesn’t make sense! [Laughs.]It’s expensive. It costs extra money. I would actually think it’s probably hard to—it’s a bit of trick to keep people laughing and aware of the effects. You never lose complete sight of the fact that you’re watching a movie with another dimension.
KP: I think it’s also the type of—these guys, they get into crazy situations, there’s a lot of insanity in there, but the humor is rarely cynical. There’s always a heart or a good-naturedness to it. I think having that in 3-D as opposed to gags where people are sort of being put down is a very different experience to feel connected to. Wouldn’t you say?
JC: Yeah, I agree. I think to maximize the 3-D effect you have to have boobies.
KP: Well, yeah. We do.
JC: And we do. [The Harold & Kumar movies] always have boobs. We don’t have breasts, we have boobies. Do you know what I mean? There’s a difference.
KP: Yeah. This is a flick, it’s not a film. [Laughs.]
JC: Yeah, right. And you’re an “actor.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Returning to Danny Trejo, how do you feel his character, Harold’s father-in-law, measures up to the franchise’s previous antagonists in terms of intimidation? They’ve come up against some pretty bad dudes before.
KP: Kumar, in this movie, doesn’t interact with Danny Trejo as much, and that’s actually a cause of tension between the characters, because I don’t have the ability to understand Harold’s relationship with Maria and Maria’s dad—because Kumar’s not married.The way that Harold is intimidated by Danny Trejo, who is an intimating man, Kumar doesn’t experience that.
JC: Well, there was Big Bob in the second one.
KP: Yeah, nothing compares to Big Bob.
JC: Big Bob is pretty big.
KP: Pretty big?!
JC: Well, he was about to stuff our faces with his genitalia. Trejo’s pretty threatening. I feel like anyone who’s able to endure that much needle on his skin just has a pain threshold that’s way higher than yours, so that’s scary. He has gorgeous hair, though. Let it be known.
AVC: And every single thread of the hair is rendered in beautiful, digital 3-D.
JC: [Laughs.] So let it be clear, if you want to see a beautiful mane in all three glorious dimensions, go see our movie.
AVC: So there’s a scene, late in the movie, where you guys are captured by—are they Ukrainian mobsters, or Russian mobsters?
KP: I think they’re Ukrainian, right?
JC: [Sighs.] Is there a difference? I think they’re Ukrainian.
AVC: Okay. Then you get to do a little riff on the flagpole scene in A Christmas Story. Are there any other classic Christmas movies that you wish you could have inserted John’s dick into?
KP: My two favorites are A Christmas Story and a lot of the claymation stuff we would watch as kids. That psyched me up the most.
JC: Die Hard. Walking across glass in your bare feet could have been cool. I’m going to throw The Godfather in as a good Christmas movie. ’Cause there’s shopping.
KP: Home Alone.
JC: Never saw that one.
JC: I never saw Home Alone.
KP: Yeah, you did.
JC: [Firmly.] I never saw Home Alone!
KP: Dude! Let’s watch Home Alone tonight!
JC: What else is a good Christmas movie?
AVC: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vaction.
KP: Of course.
AVC: Scrooged, with Bill Murray.
JC: Yeah, I liked that.
KP: A Muppet Christmas Carol.
JC: Yeah, good, good, good.
KP: We have very different tastes.
AVC: It’s A Wonderful Life.
JC: Tree Of Life.
AVC: It does cover Christmas, because it covers the entire span of the earth’s existence.
JC: Yeah! [Laughs.] Ummmm… Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down?
AVC: In the movie, Harris suggests that there’s going to be a fourth Harold & Kumar. It’s a tossed-off joke, but what other holiday do you think is worthy of the Harold & Kumar twist?
KP: A holiday? Thanksgiving would be awesome, but they probably wouldn’t do it because it’s too close to Christmas.
JC: Labor Day.
KP: Diwali would be huge, but that’s too fringe. Ramadan would just mean that Harold and Kumar would hate each other again, because they’d be cranky because they haven’t eaten. No fasting holidays, is my point. I’ve always wanted to play an astronaut, so I hope they make Harold & Kumar Go To Outer Space, which I think people who are reading this would hate.
AVC: But there’s potential crossover with Star Trek.
KP: Right. [Sarcastically.] Some of us have already been to outer space.
JC: You almost went English.
KP: [In an English accent.] Some of us have already been to outer space. I was in Star Trek, the movie, going to do another one now. I don’t even need the astronaut costume.
AVC: [To Cho.] He’s doing Simon Pegg, right?
JC: I don’t know. Simon, George Harrison—
KP: [With accent.] Don’t know, don’t care.