Kal Penn and John Cho aren't all that much like their stoner characters in the “Harold & Kumar” franchise, but you wouldn't know it by the way the two co-stars bantered back and forth about their favorite Christmas songs at the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel last month.
Penn, who plays the immature and irresponsible Kumar in the upcoming “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” chose “Funky Funky Xmas” by boy band New Kids on the Block. The 34-year-old actor even belted out a portion of the song, much to the delight of everyone looking on in the hotel suite. Well, everyone other than Cho.
“Have a funky, funky Christmas,” sang Penn, before cutting himself off. “You (Cho) don't know what I'm talking about.”
As his character, Harold — the more serious and career-oriented of the two protagonists, a counterbalance to Kumar — might do, Cho opted for a classic holiday tune: “‘Baby Please Come Home' by The Ronettes or U2,” said Cho, 39. After Penn responded, “Who is Ronettes?” Cho let out an exaggerated sigh. “I'm looking so much cooler than you,” Cho said.
(The song, it should be noted, is actually called “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and was written for The Ronettes' Ronnie Spector but recorded by Darlene Love.)
In “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” — the third film in the series, which hits theaters Friday — Penn and Cho search for the perfect Christmas tree for Harold's father-in-law (Kumar accidentally burned down the one he had). And, as usual, Neil Patrick Harris makes a cameo, playing the over-the-top, sex- and drug-fiend version of himself.
“In my view, (Neil is) the Act 2 genie that gets released from the bottle and pulls off something miraculous and then disappears,” Cho said. “I think the first ‘Harold & Kumar' is what opened the ‘How I Met Your Mother' door for him.”
The series opened doors for Penn and Cho, as well. Since the original film in the franchise, 2004's “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” Penn joined the cast of Fox's “House” (he then left the medical drama for a two-year stint as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement). Cho played Hikaru Sulu in the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, which made more than $385 million worldwide.
“I think the movies have broadened our landscape of possibilities,” said Cho, who was born in South Korea. He added that the increase in diverse roles in Hollywood also has helped their careers. “When I first came to town 15 years ago, I was pessimistic about the way things were going. In the last five years, the ground is shifting. We're not where we need to be, but I'm happy to see so many actors of color come up.”
Penn, who was born in New Jersey to Indian immigrants, echoed those sentiments: “I would agree, having both accepted and rejected roles that I thought were stereotypical at different points in my career. But in the last five years, the scripts and characters are totally different. Look at shows like ‘Friends' and ‘Seinfeld.' They never interacted with anyone that didn't look like them. But now you have ‘Modern Family' and ‘Desperate Housewives.'”
“Harold & Kumar” could have suffered the same fate as “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” The movie's co-writer, Jon Hurwitz, used to joke that if he hadn't stuck to his guns, the original film easily could have been called “David & Jason Go to McDonald's.”
“As a defense maneuver, they wrote scenes where the guys talk about their families and cultural backgrounds because they knew the move was coming: ‘David & Jason Go to McDonalds,’ ” Cho said.
What does having two ethnic characters as the leads add to the “Harold & Kumar” films?
“It allows us to make jokes about race from an angle that other movies don't,” Cho said. “We're not black and we're not white. Those perspectives have been seen before. The other thing that it does is, it heightens the audience's connection with them as underdogs. They're like, ‘We never see these guys. We know these actors don't typically work in Hollywood,' and they're immediately on board. It's part of the franchise's charm.”
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