Interview | John Cho and Kal Penn wax idiotic on ‘Harold & Kumar’ sequel

Now that they’ve had their fill of White Castle hamburgers, what’s next for Harold and Kumar? Unsurprisingly, it is an even more absurd plotline that brings this duo back to the big screen. Anticipating the upcoming release of “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” stars Kal Penn and John Cho spoke to the Daily about stereotypes, sequels and Indiana Jones.

Question: Were you surprised at the cult-like following that the first movie garnered?

John Cho: Yes and no. We were hoping it would be a box-office success, and it really wasn’t. So we were disappointed initially, but we hoped it would be a hit on DVD, and it was, slowly but surely. And it took a long time for it to get there, but better late then never. We always felt the movie would find its audience somehow at some point.

Q: Kal, you have been in many different films lately, ranging from “Harold & Kumar”(2004) to “Superman Returns” (2006) and, of course, “The Namesake” (2006); do you have a favorite of those and why?

Kal Penn: I do. “The Namesake” would be my favorite because I was a huge fan of the novel on which the film was based. And John Cho actually introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri, the woman who wrote the novel – not personally, but I mean her works, her short stories and her novel. So I really fell in love with her writing style, and to be able to turn a novel of hers into [a movie] was a big honor for me … It also was a lot different for me than some of the broader comedies I’d worked on before that, so it was a nice change of pace.

Q: Are you comfortable with doing the sort of borderline gross-out comedies, and what do you think about that genre overall?

KP: No, I’m not comfortable doing that sort of stuff at all, which is why you do it as an actor. If you played characters that were similar to you all the time, it would be pretty boring, I think. And I think the genre is fun. You know, I like movies overall. I wouldn’t say I like one particular genre over another. I don’t watch a lot of comedies, and I don’t watch a lot of gross-out comedies, but then you’ll have anomalies like “Knocked Up” (2007), which I think is a great movie.

Q: [To Penn] You said [in a previous interview] that the American media is guilty of stereotyping Indian characters with shows like “The Simpsons.” How do you feel that “Harold & Kumar” films deal with the issue of racial stereotypes?

KP: I definitely don’t think I put it that way. I wouldn’t say that anyone was guilty of anything. I think I was probably talking about the trends that every actor, people from every background, would face. Typecasting exists no matter what you look like, but certainly there is stereotyping that is more unique to Asian-Americans or South Asian-Americans, and I really like the way in which Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg [the writers and directors of “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”] totally deconstruct a lot of those stereotypes just with the use of humor, and I think that’s great. I think it’s certainly a more subversive way of even dealing with stereotype. I’m not a big fan of people that preach too much or beat you over the head with it. And the thing I really love about “Harold and Kumar” is that they’re two all-Americans guys who are going on a journey, and along that journey, you’re able to deconstruct race in a very smart, witty way, but the movie is certainly not about that. It’s just about two guys who you can relate to, which I think is the greatest statement of how far we’ve come with a film like that.

Q: How is “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” different from “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004)?

JC: The first movie was plotless, and it involved us getting high, getting hungry, looking for a burger place, and then a bunch of stuff happened to us on the way to the burger place. And this movie has a very traditional or much more traditional plot with really high stakes. So that, I would say, is the primary difference. And then in other respects, I think we tried to, as a good sequel should, ramp up everything.

Q: How will this film differ from the other comedies that will be coming out this summer?

KP: Several times throughout making this movie, much like with the first one, but because the stakes are so much higher, you realize the absurdity of what these two guys are going through. I mean, the fact that they are mistaken for terrorists, sent to Guantanamo Bay, they have to escape, they end up in Miami, they have to go through the entire South and then get their names cleared by President Bush … I don’t think you’re going to see that in any other comedy this summer, which I think means the audience will have a lot of fun with ours. At least I hope they do.

JC: I also think that we mix a lot of genres. I mean, we have kind of gross-out humor. We have political themes, I guess, and it’s a bit of an action movie too. I mean, they’re chasing us, and it gets a little nuts, and it’s also a love story. So we got something for everybody, I guess.

Q: These films base a lot of their comedy on the issue of stereotypes, and I was just wondering if there was anything that stood out from when you were kids where you were stereotyped by peers, and what happened, and how did you react?

JC: I grew up in the South. I moved to the United States at the age of six to Houston, Texas, and it wasn’t a terrible upbringing. It just was an environment where there weren’t many Asians, and I’m trying to think of a specific story, but, I mean, there’s kind of a lot. It was just an environment where people were suspicious of the new people and didn’t really consider us one of them, you know? I don’t know what else to say about it.

KP: I have one. I hate the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), even to this day. I think it’s well-made, certainly. But I hate it, because when it came out, when I was in elementary school, I guess, there’s this absurd scene that it seems they insisted on putting in the movie, where it’s fictitious but for some reason they made this place India. And these people are eating like snakes and monkey brains and weird stuff like that. And I remember going into lunch the weekend after this movie came out in elementary school, and nobody would sit next to me. It was like, “Ahh, you got monkey brains in your sandwich.” And I’m like, “You guys are retarded.” But people, especially kids, when they see movies like that, they can’t necessarily associate fact from fiction. I mean, I was raised in New Jersey, and you just realize the pervasiveness of some of those images, especially in a great, well-written story like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” It would have been very easy for them, whoever the producers or directors were, to maintain that as a fictitious place. But instead, they seemingly purposely decided to make it a particular country, which was unfortunate, I think.

Q: Will we see any future “Harold & Kumar” spin-offs or sequels, or is that unknown at this point?

JC: Unknown, I think, and I think it would depend on how people react to this one. Really, it just depends on whether people vote with their dollars for this movie, just like the first one.

KC: Yeah, I would second that. The reason we have a sequel now is because of the support from fans on the DVD. But we’re also four years older, so if you want to see a third movie would you please go see it opening weekend, then we can make it next year instead of four years from now when we will be considerably older.