The last three years have been quite positive for John Cho. Following the success of the unlikely comedy sequel Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008), the South Korea-born actor landed a plum role in the mega-sized, J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek reboot, which pulled in $258 million worth of domestic box office receipts in the summer of 2009. And then, looking to make his mark on television, Cho headlined ABC’s ambitious and critically divisive FlashForward, in which he played a more serious role of an FBI agent living on borrowed time.
With that role and his work as Abrams’ Sulu, Cho showed range beyond his hilarious turns as Harold Lee and the American Pie franchise’s “MILF Guy.” But, fortunately, he’s not about to leave his sophomoric past behind. This weekend, Cho reunites with Kal Penn for yet another weed-filled adventure in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, the third installment of the stoner franchise kicked off by 2004’s cult hit Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
Set six years after Guantanamo Bay, 3D Christmas finds Harold married to his dreamgirl, Maria (Paula Garces), making heavy bank on Wall Street, and no longer close with the aimless Kumar; Kumar, meanwhile, buys marijuana from a mall Santa Claus (Patton Oswalt) in order to forget about having dropped out of medical school, and the fact that his ex-girl Vanessa (Danneel Harris) is, much to his shock, pregnant. A series of unfortunately funny events reconnects the old friends, who head out on a mission to find the perfect Christmas tree for Maria’s holiday-obsessed pops, played by Danny Trejo.
Playfully taking advantage of both its 3D format and yuletide themes, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas proves that not all comedy sequels have to feel repetitive or just flat-out uninspired. Certainly funnier than Guantanamo Bay, the fellas’ latest misadventure is arguably on par with their White Castle run—it’s definitely the year’s best comedy not called Bridesmaids, at least.
Complex recently spoke with Cho to discuss his early reservations about making a third Harold & Kumar flick, why co-star RZA is the world’s most fascinating individual, the importance of using real drugs on set, and having your Johnson frozen onto a pole for the sake of Christmas spirit.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
When you got the call that they were ready to make a third Harold & Kumar movie, was there any hesitation on your end?
My hesitation was that the second one took place a minute after the first one, so I see the first two as really linked, and much more similar. The first one was a lot of race satire, and the second was a political satire, and I didn’t know whether we could make another one in that vein. I also didn’t know if we could do another movie where they were the same age as the first two. So when I heard that they were older, and that it was going to be a Christmas movie, that really turned me around. I thought that could work, doing a traditional Christmas movie and putting a Harold & Kumar spin on it, and have them be older and have them be separated. When I heard that pitch, I was really optimistic.
At this point, do you have any say in things such as where the plot can go, or do those decisions all take place behind closed doors without your input?
No, I think it’s really casual. They’re just like, “What do you think?” And I give my thoughts. Unless it was a very extreme circumstance, I wouldn’t want to interfere. I’m not a writer, I didn’t create that universe, so I would tread lightly on the script.
Since the second movie came out, both your career and Kal Penn’s have really taken off in unique ways, from your work on Star Trek to his stint inside the White House. When you guys got back to work as Harold and Kumar, was there a different vibe than before?
Not working-wise—in fact, the pleasure of it was that it felt like we’d just gone back to the routine. It’s just a reunion with old friends, getting together, and doing more of the funny stuff we did so well in the past. But at first, yeah, I wondered whether we’d have the same rhythm; it’s been a bit longer than the gap between the first two.
The first week of rehearsal that we were in, it felt a little bumpy to me. I can’t really put my finger on exactly what it was, but I wasn't super confident after that first week of rehearsal. I was a little worried. And I actually think I was worried up until the first week of shooting, because I was doing stuff without Kumar, and I wasn’t sure whether Harold and Kumar had their groove back yet. But then Kal and I shot our stuff and it felt like, OK, yes, I now know that we’re making a Harold & Kumar movie.
So the bumpy first days weren’t with Kal, then?
Kal was there, and we were all sitting around a table trying to, like, figure it out. For some reason, my memory is that the first week didn’t go all that well; there were a lot of bumps in that week.
This movie introduced a bunch of new prominent characters. Do you think those new faces played into that initial bumpiness?
Maybe, and that’s probably a good thing that we were feeling awkward about that. They were really great, but I didn’t know whether it was working or not, and maybe that was because I was making a Harold & Kumar movie with other people, and new best friends. Kumar wasn’t my best friend again yet, so it was a little strange.
In Star Trek and FlashForward, your characters didn’t get to do much with humor, which is a big change of pace from Harold. Did you feel any rust when it came to comedic timing and handling the jokes?
Maybe, that could have been it. I think, though, that it was primarily.... It wasn’t so much the discomfort of making another comedy movie, because I’ve always felt really comfortable with comedy. I think it was more the discomfort of making a Harold & Kumar movie without Kumar and Harold being together and doing our thing. So it didn’t feel right until we were doing our thing together again.
Even though you didn’t mess with the script or plot too much, did you get to have any say on where Harold has gone during the six years between Guantanamo Bay and 3D Christmas?
I’m sure they would listen to me if I had anything to say. [Laughs.] But I have this memory of talking about the prospect of a third movie with the writers. And, you know, I think we were all in agreement that we didn’t want to do something right after the second movie. We wanted to make Harold and Kumar older—that was definitely my memory of it. We didn’t want to stay in that same time period; we wanted to deal with new things in their lives.
I was wholeheartedly in favor of having him be married and deal with more adult issues. I thought to be comedically useful, as juxtaposed to Kumar, who’s kind of lost in life at this point, with no real direction or motivation.
At the start of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Harold is killing it on Wall Street, and there’s a group of pissed-off protesters picketing in front of his office and tossing eggs at him as he leaves. Seems like the timing is pretty uncanny with what’s happening in real life today.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess we got lucky with the complete collapse of our economy. I know people are losing money right now, but at least the joke in our movie lands a little better.