Kal Penn Interview

08 January 2009

Actors recognized for stereotype roles talk about starring in their own comedy, 'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle'

Actors recognized for stereotype roles talk about starring in their own comedy, 'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle'

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

John Cho and Kal Penn are currently the envy of every "token minority" movie actor in Hollywood. After years of putting on thick accents and having stereotypically ethnic music escort them into a scene here and a scene there, mostly in bawdy teen comedies, these two are headlining in their very own lowbrow laffer -- "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle."

Starring as a pair of all-American sons of immigrants, and recent college grads, who get stoned one Friday evening and go on an epic slapstick quest for their favorite fast food, Cho and Penn are thrilled to be breaking the gross-out comedy glass ceiling, and even more pleased to be doing it in a movie that's smarter than it looks.

While never shying away from the boob flash or the fart joke, some of the humor in "Harold and Kumar" comes from exploding the very stereotypes its stars have been subjected to for the length of their budding careers -- a fact the film's marketing has played into by announcing in the trailers that it stars "that Asian guy from 'American Pie' and that Indian guy from 'Van Wilder'."

What do they think of those labels? That was the first question I asked when meeting them in San Francisco earlier this month.

Q: How did you two feel about the ads that market you as "That Asian guy from 'American Pie' and that Indian guy from 'Van Wilder'"? Did you think it was funny?

PENN: You know, at first I didn't. I was like, Man, the movie is so not about that! Why did they have to bring it back to that? Then we realized that most people that are watching this trailer...recognize us as the Indian guy from "Van Wilder" and the Asian guy from "American Pie"!

CHO: The trailer is funny because it says exactly what people are thinking. It also kind of dissipates -- I think there is some unspoken measure of tension, like this is so unusual seeing Asian-Americans headlining a movie. So we kind of poke fun at that right off the bat -- it's sort of an icebreaker.

Q: I love the idea of embracing the "that guy" status as a launching pad for the movie.

CHO: That was sort of the story of the whole project too.

PENN: Yeah, we're "that guy."

CHO: The story of the movie is two underdogs overcoming certain obstacles on a journey to White Castle, and the story of the project, to a certain degree, is two underdog actors getting their shot at playing the leads in a movie.

Q: Plus, the movie is, on one level just the typical, silly, gross-out dope comedy, but at the same time you're constantly bringing up the issue of ethnic stereotypes, racial stereotypes through just the assumptions that people make about your characters.

PENN: Yes, yes!

CHO: [Nodding in agreement] It's an aspect we were trying to include early on. It was written that way. I just want to give props to the writers.

PENN: Yeah, the writers were really awesome about this. It's really rare -- independent of our ethnicity -- when you read a script (that has) all those layers in it; especially to have something so broad, and then have all those little layers of racism or social commentary, but done in a way that makes it fun to watch, and not something that's shoved down your throat. So that's what appealed to me about the script, as an actor.

Q: Were the characters called Harold and Kumar when you got the script?

PENN: [Enthusiastically] Yeah, yeah. The story is that the writers grew up in New Jersey, and they were really sick of seeing teen movies that were one-dimensional and that had characters which didn't look like any of their friends. They were two white guys from Jersey, but they had a pretty diverse group of friends. So they were like, You know what? Let's write a film that's both a) smart and funny, and b) cast two guys that look like our best friends.

CHO: There is a real Harold Lee. [Cho's character in the film.]

PENN: There is a real Harold Lee. He now lives in L.A. and we hang out with him.

CHO: I call him The Real Harold Lee, and I call myself The Fake Harold Lee when we're around him.

PENN: [to Cho] I'm going surfing with the real Harold Lee.

CHO: [Surprised] Are you really? He surfs?

PENN: We have both taken one or two surfing lessons each, and we're gonna go together.

CHO: That's so Hollywood!

PENN: No it's not!

Q: It's so L.A.

PENN: [Resigned] It's very L.A., yeah...

Q: You know, if this does a good opening weekend, you're golden for a few months in Hollywood...

PENN: We're going to Amsterdam if this has a good opening weekend! [A reference to the movie's open-ended finale.] And all of you will be coming with us, figuratively.

Q: Not that you'd want to make any presumptions or put the curse of irony on any success, but do you have anything you'd want to parlay this career boost into while you have a relatively high profile?

PENN: Yeah, you know, I would love to keep doing interesting films...

CHO: I think he's hinting at the babes, man!

PENN: [Laughs]

CHO: There's a membrane that we've broken by playing lead characters in a movie, by carrying a movie. I hope we've carried it! [Chuckles] I hope the box office reflects that we've carried it! But you hope that once you cross the membrane, you're there for good. So I would just like to continue doing good work, and really just playing characters that are three-dimensional. I hope that the streak continues.

Q: How is your relationship with hamburgers after this movie? I'm sure you'd had your fill after the finale scene in which you scarf all those burgers.

PENN: Um...I'm a vegetarian. I don't partake in the hamburgers. But I'm a big fan of the veggie burgers!

Q: So when you were scarfing the burgers...?

PENN: The producers actually went out of their way to...make little soy burgers that looked like White Castle burgers. So I could just focus on the moment and not have to worry about all that. I probably ate about 30 of them.

Q: And what does it feel like to be an agent in the corruption of Doogie Howser? [Neil Patrick Harris, best known as TV's teenage surgeon in "Doogie Howser, M.D.," sends up his own image in a cameo as a stoned, stripper-addicted version of himself.]

PENN: He was definitely corrupt before we got there! [Laughs.] Neil Patrick Harris (is) a really diverse, really good actor with a lot or range, and I think it was a lot of fun for him to come in and murder Doogie Howser on screen.

CHO: It was an epic site to watch it happen. [Writing in the air] "Dear Diary, I was there..."


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