Interview: John Cho Chats Harold & Kumar, Matthew Perry And… Ban Ki-moon
Posted 03-11-2014 12:02
'I have felt a responsibility, almost a crippling responsibility at times.'
Sometimes you get those appealing actors you know will be an interesting interview, so it was with great joy we got John Cho on the phone from LA.
With A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas coming to DVD and Blu-ray 5th November, Cho reprises his - initially more mature - role as Harold Lee, who has sadly drifted apart from best buddy Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) following the events of 2008's Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. The third film sees Harold and Kumar rekindle their friendship in the riotous and very funny Christmas movie, which sees the pair desperately searching for a replacement Christmas tree to appease Harold's menacing father-in-law (Danny Trejo).
Having popped up as the "MILF" guy in the American Pie franchise, Cho made a name for himself in 2004's subversive and refreshing Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Then came Ugly Betty, the iconic role of Sulu in JJ Abrams' sublime reboot of Star Trek, and a starring role in the TV series FlashForward.
In our interview, we chat about why Harold & Kumar works so well, his most surprising fan, his responsibilty as an Asian-American star, and working opposite his comedy hero Matthew Perry in the new series Go On.
It's pleasantly suprising how good-natured and affectionate the humour is in Harold & Kumar - is that something important to you throughout the films?
Thank you, and yes. We've always been keen on making the humour consistent with the characters, and the characters we always felt were filthy, but loveable and innocent. They don't have a mean bone in their body and they just want to get high and have fun. Particularly with this third one, we were really keen on making a real Christmas movie, and as subversive as it is, we thought that we should obey the conventions of the genre. So to that end we had a musical number in the movie, with Neil Patrick Harris, consistent with the other ones, we had a baby high on cocaine and we shot Santa Claus in the face.
Do you have a particular favourite scene?
I probably liked doing the musical number the most. It was so preposterous and it was old-timey. I don't know if people caught this, but this is probably my favourite bit in the whole movie: watching Neil Patrick Harris do his Neil Patrick Harris voice for the public, and backstage you hear his backstage voice, which is different. He has a 1940s movie star voice that he chose to be Neil Patrick Harris' voice. He's just a brilliant actor, and I love watching him work.
Do you have a surprising celeb fan of the series at all?
Maybe Quentin Tarantino? He's a very vocal fan of Harold & Kumar. I do remember... I don't think he's a Harold & Kumar fan, but this is one of the weirder moments of my life. I was at the White House at a State dinner - which is another crazy story - and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN, saw me and went "This guy!" and started rubbing my shoulders, he was so excited. I was like, this guy knows who I am? Which freaked me out!
A lot of franchises outstay their welcome and lose what made them work in the first place, but Harold & Kumar clearly hasn't. What do you think the secret to its success is?
I really don't know. I've been a part of... even the makers of American Pie would argue they lost their form along the way and got it back for American Reunion. Who knows if Star Trek will retain its original lustre? I think so. With Harold & Kumar we try to do two things: to be consistent with the first one and obey the rules we set up, and while doing that, try to challenge ourselves with new objectives. With the second one, we said, okay, we have to up the level of social humour. So the Guantanemo thing seemed to be the perfect way to make jokes. With the third one, I remember having a discussion after the second one - where are we going to go? We topped out in that department. So let's go back and do a genre picture, and I think it really worked out. It was really shocking that people could see Harold & Kumar doing an innocent genre. We thought that was revolutionary for Harold & Kumar.
There's a nice nod to Kal Penn's political career in the film - how surreal was it for him to pop off to the White House and come back for the third film?
We've always talked politics just as friends, and we talk about the White House. He obviously has stories. But it's really weird when Kal is on the phone with someone from the Democratic National Committee or something, and watching him go into political speak like lightning. It's like something from The West Wing! Kal's a nerd essentially, and I say that very affectionately, and he loves reading data, and if you get deep enough into a political discussion with him, and are like "Hey man, that guy's really messed up!" Three beers in he gets more nerdy and starts throwing out percentages. He's the real deal.
Are you aware of your nickname of The Choverlord within your fanbase?
Choverlord? I had heard that, but I didn't know it was widespread - I thought it was one person doing it. I'm going to have to get my wife to call me that!
With your fanbase, do you ever feel a sense of responsibility as an inspiration, as Asian-Americans aren't widely represented in media and film?
Strangely enough I have felt a responsibility, almost a crippling responsibility at times. I feel like since the beginning of my career... at the beginning it was just a very personal choice - I've never taken a part I felt denegrated Asians. At the beginning it was like, what have I got to lose? Am I really going to take this part, this one line on this shitty soap opera that's going to make me, Asians, look horrible? It's not even worth it. It was a personal choice back then, and then when I became more well-known it became more of a socially conscious choice, and sometimes it's tough, as it limits your choices and it complicates your decision-making process. Overall, I feel privileged to be able to even make a statement. To answer your question, yes I do feel a responsibility to some extent. Maybe we're exiting that era. I'm very glad to see the variety of Asian characters out there.
There's a fair amount of cynicism in trade reports about the trend of casting Asian stars in Hollywood blockbusters, to get the Asian market. How do you feel about that?
I haven't read a lot about that, but I will say I don't care, in the sense that that's the language of Hollywood - whose money are we going to take? [laughs] I think it's a very healthy thing to think of Asians as spenders. That's the first step towards getting recognised as an audience. And really they need to... if I'm an Asian man I want Hollywood to see me as a spender, and I want them working to make products for me, and take my feelings into consideration. Cynical, whatever, I don't care - as long as they see Asians as social revenue, that can only be a good thing.
I know you can't talk about Star Trek 2, but as you had the epic "sky fall" scene in the first, is there something equally epic we can look forward to seeing you do in the sequel?
You can look forward to an epic movie! People should relax - JJ's an amazing filmmaker, and I think he will make people happy again.
Can you tell us a little bit about your character in Go On, and what it's like working with Matthew Perry on the sitcom?
I'm having fun. For me it was a chance to work with Matthew Perry, who - unbeknownst to him - has been my comedy tutor. I play his boss and best friend and I mandate that he goes to this grief therapy group because he lost his wife. It's been fun. I've been learning a lot working alongside Matthew Perry.
Are you ever tempted to do Chandler impressions in front of him?
I have not! You know what, his line readings have become such a part of the way I speak and the way I do I comedy, that sometimes I feel like every once in a while I'm doing a Matthew Perry impression to Matthew Perry. I don't know if he picks up on it, but I sometimes become self-aware of it!
A very Harold and Kumar (3D) Christmas out on November 5th on 3D Blu-ray™ and DVD
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Watch clips and a generic interview with Cho and Penn below: