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.
In this movie, more so than the first two installments, Harold really gets put through the ringer. It seems like all of the bad things happen to him, from shooting Santa Claus in the face to having his junk frozen to a pole. Why do you think Harold has such bad luck this time around?
[Laughs.] Well, I feel like we alternate a little bit. The first movie, Harold was getting beat up pretty hard, and then in the second movie it was Kumar who was getting beat up quite a bit. It’s just swinging back to Harold this time.
The real “Oh shit” moment for Harold is, of course, the aforementioned dick-stuck-to-a-pole scene, which, oddly enough, is a loving homage to A Christmas Story. Did you have any reservations about that scene?
Yeah, I did! [Laughs.] I did have reservations—I had reservations about filming it, I had reservations about my mom watching it. But I had to trust that we could pull that off in the Harold & Kumar universe. I just think that, however crazy we get, and no matter how far out the jokes are, people respond to the essential sweetness of Harold and Kumar. We don’t mean this to be ridiculous.... Well, rather, we don’t do this in a mean-spirited way. It’s all just a funny joke.
And also, what’s even more important, is that, yes, that scene is a legitimate and affectionate homage to A Christmas Story. [Laughs.] I’m sure the filmmakers behind that movie feel proud. For some reason, I’ve never actually seen A Christmas Story; our writers swear by it, though. I think that’s because I was a teenager when it came out. Actually, I’ll amend that by saying I’m sure I’ve seen it all but in pieces. I definitely saw enough to appreciate having my junk frozen to a pole in its honor.
You have some really funny scenes with Danny Trejo, who plays your cold and disapproving father-in-law. We actually shot a video with him earlier this year, where he taught me how to be a badass, and it was funny to see just how nice and warm of a guy he is off camera.
Yeah, and he has, like, a briefcase full of badass mean faces—he can just pull them out whenever he wants to. He has a crazy leather-face. I had actually met him prior to doing this movie; we had done a movie years ago together, though it was just a scene. It was an Anna Faris movie called Smiley Face. I remember being scared of him then. [Laughs.] I was thinking that somebody had let an assassin onto set. But he’s a cool guy, so it was good to work with him again.
I don’t think he remembered me from that movie, though, and I didn’t mention it to him. I didn’t want to do that thing where he says, “Nice to meet you,” and I go, “Oh, well, we’ve actually met before. But don’t worry about it.” I’m sure that would have prompted him to pull out one of those badass mean faces, and I’d prefer to avoid those at all costs.
Good call. There’s also a heavy Wu-Tang Clan element to this movie, from Kumar's various references to them—including his wish to Santa Claus being for “the Wu-Tang to get back together”—and RZA’s cameo appearance. Are you a Wu-Tang head?
I’m a fan, yeah. And, by the way, I have some advice for you: If you ever get the chance to, spend a night with RZA. It will change your outlook on life. He’s a very interesting and deep thinker, and that’s one of my best memories from set—just sitting with RZA and listening to him talk. We just talked about random stuff, like Christmas and his childhood. He’s one of the most thoughtful guys I’ve ever met. A very complex, poetic individual.
Being such a poetic individual, I’m sure RZA was able to see the poetry in a scene where a baby gets high and Kumar calms her down by reciting the chorus of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit.”
[Laughs.] Of course. Who couldn’t?
Was that little girl’s mother on set? I sure hope so.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, they were triplets, actually. We used a baby whisperer to get that performance from the triplets; he turned everything into a game for them. I, for the record, felt bad about giving these children this cinematic memory of abuse. [Laughs.] But I think they had fun—I’m sure that will be their memory of it.
This one definitely goes much, much further with the bad taste than the previous two movies.
Yeah, but I just regret using real drugs on the baby. I felt like we could have faked it, but they were just really adamant about authenticity. I thought it was illegal, for one, and it was immoral on the other hand. [Laughs.] But, like I said, they insisted on using real drugs throughout.
So you’re telling me that the massive blunt that Santa Claus gives you guys is, in fact, the world’s biggest blunt?
[Laughs.] Yes. I want to stress to your readers that all of the drugs in all of our movies are real.
The authenticity is admirable, sir.
[Laughs.] We strive for that. Too many fake it nowadays, don’t you think?
Absolutely. I read a recent interview where you mentioned that playing a stoner like Harold might have closed some doors for you in your career over the years, but that hasn’t stopped you from revisiting the character and totally owning it. Have those possible closed doors weighed in your mind at all?
Well, people have asked me if the typecasting has been bad for me, and if the stoner movie has closed some legitimate doors, and I don’t have the exact answer to that question, to be honest—you’re never really sure what others’ perceptions of you are. It may have closed some doors, but I’m pretty sure that it’s opened a lot more doors than it has closed.
Considering that you have a major role in next year’s Total Recall remake, it seems like you’re right. That’s no small, nondescript project.
Yeah, that one’s a big friggin’ scale movie, and, from what I’ve seen, it looks amazing. It’s pretty true to the original movie. The plot is pretty much the same. There are some surprising re-jiggerings going on, the most interesting one to me is that they’ve removed the Mars component. They’re no longer going to Mars; it’s set on Earth. I don’t know, I think it might be more political than the first one. I play the guy who runs the Total Recall den, who sends Colin Farrell into his trip.
And you also have American Reunion coming out next year, which, interestingly enough, is written and directed by the guys who’ve written all of the Harold & Kumar movies, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg.
That’s right, and I don’t think I would have done another American Pie movie if it weren’t for them—or if anyone would have even wanted me in American Reunion if Jon and Hayden hadn’t written and directed it. There’s a link from American Pie to Harold & Kumar, actually, which is this: Jon and Hayden had wanted to write a script called Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle based on their friend Harold Lee, who’s a real guy. And they weren’t sure if there was anyone who could play him until they watched American Pie and saw me in it, and thought, “Maybe that’s our guy.” And then the real Harold got mistaken for me all the time on the street. [Laughs.] That sealed the deal for them.
So now it all comes full circle with American Reunion.
Yeah, definitely. And they were really keen on expanding the character of “MILF Guy No. 2” in this new movie. [Laughs.]
Is he still being referred to as “MILF Guy No. 2”?
Absolutely. In fact, in the credits of the second and third American Pie movies, I think they started listing me as “John,” but Jon and Jayden are American Pie purists, and they rejected that advancement. They refused to list me as “John,” so they’re calling me “MILF Guy No. 2,” and I will be listed as such in the credits.
And how do you feel about that?
I think it’s awesome. It must be so. [Laughs.]
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)