Since “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” was released in 2004, much has happened to both of its stars, Kal Penn and John Cho, but Penn’s career trajectory in particular took some genuinely unexpected turns. In addition to playing a villainous henchman in “Superman Returns,” a teenage terrorist on “24,” and a sports medicine specialist on “House,” in 2009 he became Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which took him out of Hollywood and put him in a political spotlight. Amazingly, it was another installment of the series that gave him his breakthrough, entitled “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” which prompted his return to acting. But at the Los Angeles press day for the film, Penn told The Playlist he wasn’t worried how playing a mischievous pothead might reflect negatively upon the prestige of his work in Washington, D.C.
“We can’t take ourselves too seriously in these movies,” he observed. “To me, the extracurriculars are always totally different from this world – the two thankfully don’t have anything to do with each other. So I love that we can have fun and be frivolous and make a lighthearted movie like this that hopefully everybody can just laugh at. And I also love using the more cerebral part of your head and doing the public service thing. For me, it’s kind of the privilege of having that yin and yang; what I like about D.C. is that it’s entirely intellectual, and what I love about LA is that it’s almost entirely creative.”
In fact, Penn said that he didn’t hesitate at all to return to the role, because he always connected very personally to Kumar, and was grateful to get to continue their story. “In terms of all of the characters I’ve had the privilege of playing, I probably know Kumar the best because I’ve kind of had the chance to grow with him over the past eight years,” he explained. “John [Cho] often very succinctly summarizes this where he’s like, well, the short answer is that we had a contract to do three of them, and the long answer is that we actually liked the characters. So I love it, and I would love to do a fourth; I mean, playing Kumar, he’s way cooler than I will ever be, and I love that he can be simultaneously the most filthy person on earth, and still have a heart of gold through the whole thing. It’s rare to be able to play with that nuance as an actor, so I enjoy it.”
As Penn noted, the original ‘Harold & Kumar’ was one of the very few movies made in Hollywood that starred two Asian-American actors. But he also said that he was pleased the characters have reached a level of success that allows them, and by extension, the actors playing them, to portray them purely as characters and not ethnic icons. “I think it was almost a rite of passage that the characters had to go through,” Penn said. “There was a lot of reference made to the characters’ ethnicity or race, and this time around, I think they’re able to just sort of be in this world of this Christmas movie, and that is kind of cool. I think that they’ve been able to grow with their audience, in that sense.”
Penn added that the new film’s holiday-themed adventure further allowed himself and Cho to focus on the characters and story rather than playing into or subverting stereotypes. “It’s a lot of fun because oddly this is a traditional Christmas movie,” he said. “Nobody questions whether Santa Claus exists, and once they see him they know that he’s there. It’s about friendship and a present that brings two friends together. So in a lot of those strange ways, yes, it is a traditional Christmas movie and it’s not about their ethnicity.”
In the meantime, however, Penn said he’s pleased to discover that his career has not continued to focus on one sort of role, and more importantly, characters that are defined by their ethnic background. “Things have certainly gotten better over the last eight years. John and I have the privilege of having careers that were launched because of these movies, and that’s been a blessing. [But] there are still hurdles where you can’t read for certain roles because of the way you look, and I think that hopefully that will get better eight years from now just as it was worse eight years ago. But we have been very fortunate, and the roles that I have loved the most over the last few years, ‘Superman Returns,’ ‘The Namesake,’ ‘24,’ ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ and ‘House,’ I got the chance to play roles that were not written for a specific ethnicity as much as they were for a specific plot. And that’s been a beautiful thing as an actor, especially to be able to play challenging roles like that.”
Curiously, Penn said he’s never seen the ‘Harold & Kumar’ movies as part of the same tradition of other stoner comedies. “I never viewed these as stoner movies, which I know will sound ridiculous to the people that think of them only as stoner movies,” he admitted. “When I first read the script, I thought it was a buddy comedy more than anything else. But the reason I never felt like it was a legitimate stoner movie was because the real stoner movies like Cheech & Chong and ‘Pineapple Express,’ compared to those, Harold and Kumar are rarely high in these movies, and when they are, only bad things happen to them, as opposed to in the other stoner movies where incredible things happen to the characters. “
Although the film’s use of 3D seems like a gimmick included to capitalize on the format’s current predominance in Hollywood, Penn admitted he was nervous about it at first, but was relieved to see that the filmmakers wanted to employ it in a particularly self-aware way that didn’t make its inclusion a purely superfluous or crassly commercial decision. “When we saw that it was in 3D, we were kind of like, what does this mean, and then you start reading through the script and it’s like, okay, we’re making fun of the fact that it’s in 3D, which is smart.”
“Most of the gags are almost 1980s-esque in a lot of ways, like when 3D came out and you would see like an egg coming toward the screen,” he continued. “Then as it gets more graphic. We do kind of send the 3D genre up in smoke, I guess pun intended.”
Just as the technology used to make the movies has evolved, Penn said he was grateful to discover that the series has allowed these characters to grow up – and in fact, that’s why he feels it’s endured as a franchise, and could continue to do so in the future. “The movie starts out where he’s clearly smoked too much weed, which is why his girlfriend leaves him and he hasn’t left his apartment in four weeks,” he explained. “He has no motivation and he’s down in the dumps and it’s definitely sad to start out with, because he’s trying to reconcile how does he do what he used to like to do just as a hobby, but it has now overtaken his life in an insane way.”
“That’s sort of the entrance premise, but that’s not what drives the plot of the story,” he said. “And I think as long as the stories are driven by outside factors, there could be a fourth or a fifth as long as it’s done in a nuanced way.”
“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” opens on November 4th.