Anyone who’s watched a “Harold & Kumar” movie knows the two dope-smoking characters are not model minorities. But in real life, Kal Penn (Kumar) is a former White House staffer and John Cho (Harold), a father. And, both have brains as corroborated by our interview below.
Q: Kal, as the breakthrough actor for Indian Americans on the silver screen, what do you see for South Asians in Hollywood?
Penn: Indians were considered squeaky clean, and I’m never a fan of playing characters that are one-dimensional. Every community has flaws. You’re finally seeing well-rounded characters.
We’ve seen a big shift in the last few years, and not just for the sake of ‘checking the box.’ Before, you didn’t see studio movies with two Asian Americans in the leads. I’m really honored to play this character, but we didn’t write the film. The credit should go to the writers, producers, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema.
Also, John and I are deeply indebted to the community for supporting our movies.
Q: Regarding your White House gig, does art influence politics or vice versa?
Penn: L.A. and D.C. are like yin and yang—creative versus cerebral. They’re two very separate entities.
A lot of kids fighting in Iraq wrote us about our movies. A guy running for president wanted to bring our kids home. So, I volunteered to campaign as a way to serve my country. I’m interested in public service, not politics. My grandparents told me about marching with Ghandi, and made us socially-conscious.
Q: Any advice for struggling actors?
Penn: I studied film in college and worked odd jobs to pay the rent. I was a production assistant and held random office jobs. I also chose to take roles I didn’t necessarily like that were stereotypical just to have something on my resume. We all audition for things we don’t like—whether you’re Asian American or not. You hope that they launch bigger things.
Q: John, are you guys the “Cheech and Chong” of your generation?
Cho: We consider that a high compliment, we’ll take it.
Q: You once criticized the lack of Asian Americans in mainstream movies.
Cho: I was not optimistic where everyone was 10 to 15 years ago. This feeling—that we were about to break the glass ceiling—I wasn’t convinced of that. It didn’t feel like we had critical mass yet. In the late 1990’s, there were several films that were supposed to change the whole scene, but the revolution wasn’t right yet. I’ve been encouraged the last two years. There’s a lot of comic talent of different colors, and I feel this time maybe society has changed a little bit. There are more Asian American executives, and so many Asians in the vanguard behind advertising are a testament to Asian American buying power. The recognition of that fact is the key to changing everything.
Q: Is politics in your future?
Cho: I’m not sure it’s right for me to do what Kal did, yet I retain my political views. I’m a politically opinionated American. I campaigned for someone I believed in and, if asked, I’ll campaign for the president again for re-election.
Q: Does being a father affect your choice of roles?
Cho: As I’ve gotten older, I’m less interested in looking for micro stories and more for meatier roles with higher stakes. Families, father-son relationships, and mother-daughter relationships—that’s the kind of material I’m attracted to more.
As far as consciously, would I want my kid to see this or not? I don’t care although I want to be on Sesame Street more than anything. I want to do one of the counting bits, talking letters. That would be awesome. I don’t necessarily want my kid to see me. He doesn’t know what I do anyway. It would freak him out.
Q: Arriving in the U.S. at 6 makes you a 1.5er. How would life be if you’d stayed in Seoul?
Cho: I think that cultural confusion defined me the first half of my life. The younger kids I meet, they have so much less baggage than we did. They don’t even say, “I’m Asian American.” They say, “I’m Korean.” They don’t have to define where they’re from. They’re so easy with it.
As for staying in Korea, I certainly don’t think I’d be an actor. I’m sure I would’ve picked something safer.
“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” opened November 3.