Interview: John Cho

Four years ago, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle served up a slightly subversive skewering of racial politics in America wrapped in the guise of a teen-aged stoner sex comedy. A critical success but a box-office disappointment, Harold and Kumar became a cult favorite on DVD, rapidly gaining in popularity until the studio caved in and ordered a sequel.

See our review of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

The original Harold and Kumar was the first major studio comedy to feature Asian leads exclusively, and it made leading-men stars out of reliable second bananas Kal Penn and John Cho. Badmouth recently sat down with Cho in San Francisco for an exclusive interview (If you don’t count the other four reporters taking part in the round-table. We don’t.)

Badmouth: How much tougher was it to make a second movie? With the first movie I don’t think there were expectations, but now you’re making a sequel to an established hit.

John Cho: Yeah, I kinda thought we got the benefit of the doubt with the first one. Both audiences and critics were kind. We had the element of surprise. And I felt like the movie was so refreshing because of the casting and stuff. I think that went a long way towards endearing ourselves to the audience. I was and continue to be worried that maybe we won’t get that free pass [on the sequel], but indications are, “So far, so good.”

Badmouth: How are audiences reacting to the new movie?

John Cho: I’ve seen it with one audience at South by Southwest in Austin, and it was absolutely insane. You couldn’t hear anything. They lost a good 25-percent of the dialogue. There was so much raucousness I was shocked. How big it was playing there. So hopefully, that is an indication and not an anomaly.

Badmouth: Your father’s a minister. How has he reacted to films like American Pie and Harold & Kumar which have some risqué humor?

John Cho: There must be some level of denial involved. I’m just surmising that it’s got to be part of the equation. He’s been pretty accepting of it. I think maybe it has to do with the fact that the American Pie movies and this one there’s a certain sweetness that comes from an adolescent view point. The view of sex and drugs seems to be from as innocent a place as is possible. Even the perviness isn’t really creepy. It’s a boy looking through a keyhole kind of thing and I think there’s no way other people respond well if they felt like the filmmakers and/or the actors and/or the characters were Lotharios you know what I mean?

Badmouth: Neil Patrick Harris — and I mean no disrespect — stole some scenes in the first movie. And he did play a Lothario. But in between the first film and the second, he came out. Was there any consideration given to the idea of addressing that in the film?

John Cho: I think people would have been really angry if he came back as gay. They want Neil Patrick Harris from the first movie. This is a sequel and he was awesome in that role and I’m sure Neil wouldn’t have come back if we changed the role just because of a personal life. It’s separate and this is a role that he’s playing. He’s not playing himself. I’m glad that nobody in our camp [tried to change the role] and the audience hasn’t tripped about it.

Badmouth: Do people confuse you with the character you play? Do they expect you to be Harold Lee?

John Cho: Yeah pretty much everyone expects me to be Harold Lee. Then there are people who have seen other things. It’s funny because Kal [Penn] is more the straight and conservative one, and I’m the jokester. So if we get together, it is weird for them.

Badmouth: Have you ever spent any time hanging out with the real Harold Lee?

John Cho: We do now and we’ve become friends. He’s a great guy. He’s maybe the smartest guy I know and also he is the life of the party. He’s really witty and is the first guy at the bar and maybe the last one, sometimes. He’s great. We’re real friends. It’s so odd because we’ll be walking down the street and people will go “Harold” and he’ll turn around and people won’t be looking at him.

Badmouth: Do you think there is a limit on how far you can take these characters or would want to?

John Cho: There must be. I don’t know what the next step would be. Theoretically, [Harold] seems to be at the limit. I mean, maybe we would have to switch drugs — go harder. Especially with the political and social humor — how much more can we do? I don’t know. I would be as interested as anyone else to see what the writers come up with next.

Badmouth: Were you surprised when they came to you with such a political script?

John Cho: I was a little bit. I thought it was brilliant, but I was really surprised. To be honest, by the time I got to the end of the script I was scared. I thought there would be an FBI file for sure on us. As a matter of fact — I can’t remember when this was”¦sometime after filming — I got a new cordless phone in the house. As it turned out the range was not enough. As a result I was hearing a clicking. I think it was the phone trying switch channels automatically to find a signal. But I kept hearing this clicking, and I thought, “They got me, and they tapped my phone.”

Badmouth: Like the first Harold & Kumar, this movie again explores racial stereotypes and even drifts into political humor. How important was it to have that balance between straight comedy and the racial and political stuff?

John Cho: I will say that all political stuff in the movie — I mean “the plot,” because the first one was plotless — all the plot that they devised was just a way to get laughs. We decided we’ll amp up the stakes, and it will be funnier because their lives are in danger — and that’s funny. People without civil liberties? Big laughs. But this was always intended to be a franchise. They wrote the first one intending to do a sequel. Had the first one been a hit right out of the gate, they probably would have written a different movie for the second one. But as time went on — to our surprise — the racial and political stuff was a bigger factor to people enjoying the movie than we thought it would have been. It was really important to them, and it became sort of our calling card. So when the opportunity eventually came around to do the sequel, we thought that had to be a real part of the second movie. For a lot of people the story would have gone to Europe and Amsterdam and have them get into trouble in Europe, but [the studio] felt like that wasn’t funny enough. So they devised a way to get [Harold and Kumar] off track.

Badmouth: As an Asian actor, how do you approach roles that play on stereotypes?

John Cho: I always have tried to avoid doing a stereotypical role for my personal happiness. I just never thought it would be worth it for me to do a stereotypical role — monetarily or otherwise. So even when I was starting out, I would decline to go on auditions that were displeasing to me. I think it’s important to say “no” to things that don’t feel right to you as an actor. The reason is that if you continue to take those roles there is a consequence for everyone, for the community. As an actor, you’re viewed as a peer by producers and directors. If you agree to do something you’re tacitly saying, “Write more of these roles.” It doesn’t matter that there are editorials, and there are protesters and that people write in. Those people can be easily regarded as radicals and opinions that are really left of center and don’t matter. But as an actor, you’re on set with these people — the writers, the directors — if you say “no” to something, it really affects them. I’ve been on shows where someone has written a line, and I’ve had an objection. If I come talk to them earnestly and say, “This struck me the wrong way.” I’ll explain, and they’ll go “Oh, I didn’t realize that. Let’s change it. And let me know if that happens again.” I’ve found as a rule that people are really open to it.

Badmouth: Obviously, Harold & Kumar had a lot of racial jokes. Did you ever have to talk to the writers or the directors about how they were portraying Asian culture?

John Cho: You know it’s funny, oddly enough, even though the writers of these movies aren’t Asian, I felt like they really got it right. I think in the first movie, there were even more specific culture references. The reason they did that was a defensive maneuver, because there was a fear that the studio would try to change the ethnicities of the characters. So they wrote a couple of scenes that were cut from the movie eventually where they talked much more pointedly about their race, ethnicity and cultural experience — I mean in a funny way — but there was some stuff that was taken out but they were doing that to make sure that people reading the script knew that this was supposed to be a great Asian American character and that was not negotiable.

Badmouth: The past few roles you have done — like Sulu and Harold and some of the indie work you have done — have been great work, interesting roles, but are you getting to a point in your career where you are getting offered roles that don’t say “Asian American” or “Korean American” in the character description?

John Cho: Yeah I think that’s been happening more in television. If you go down my résumé at this point there are probably more roles that are not written for an Asian. Sometimes they change a name to Asian and sometimes they don’t, but more and more … yeah.

Badmouth: Do you see that happening in movies as well?

John Cho: I’m not sure that I’m in a position to comment on the industry but I think there’s some movement. I’m convinced that it’s not where it should be. I have noticed that there have been better Asian American male roles. I don’t see as much progress for women, but it’s been a little bit better for Asian American men. One thing I have seen is that there seems to be more Asians in television commercials, and I think that’s a good indication because I think if they are trying to sell us soap or cars eventually they’ll try to sell us entertainment. I remember talking to Justin Lynn when we were promoting Better Luck Tomorrow and he said it’s difficult to convince anyone to get money for the film because these studio guys would show them data that says “Listen the problem is African Americans will buy African American specific products, they buy differently than white Americans. Their clothing, movies, cars, what have you. We can create products for African Americans and have them purchase it the problem is the Asian American purchase precisely like white Americans and so there is no need for us to take a risk and make Asian specific products.” So if the television commercial is telling us that maybe they are discovering that it’s profitable to sell something, anything to Asian Americans, I think that’s probably a good start.

Badmouth: What are your ambitions moving forward as an actor? Do you ever think you might move into writing or directing or do you want to do more stage work?

John Cho: Sure. All of the above. Writing and directing, I’ll wait for. It’s not until I have a real great a story that I must tell because directing and writing movies is a crazy long experience. As an actor I get to jump from one project to another and enjoy my time on set and move on to the next one. With pre-production and production and post and then promoting it is just the commitment to a film from that side is enormous. I just don’t want to look for vanity projects is what I am saying. I just want to look for a story that I have to tell before I go to the grave, and that’s what will probably lead me to fall on my face directing.

Badmouth: You’ve done some pilots in the past and I wonder if you feel kind of burned on the TV experience or if the right show came along you might settle into a run?

John Cho: Yeah, I mean that was a tough gambling, and sometimes it doesn’t go. But if the right show came along, I guess you have to go where your heart takes you. If the script is good, you have to go for it.

Badmouth: Do you think you’re going do more Ugly Bettys?

John Cho: We’ll see. It’s a good show and it’s a really great cast. I enjoyed going down there. So we’ll see. It’s scheduling at this point more than anything else.

Badmouth: Have you lined up what your next project might be on film or TV?

John Cho: No, I’ve got to take a little break. I need to get some sleep.

Badmouth: What’s going on with your band [Left of Zed]?

John Cho: We are probably changing our name and we’re releasing a new album and that’s been great. It’s funny because we just recorded on our own for the first time like with a laptop and that was so refreshing even though it was harder. Studios were so expensive you tended to hurry up and do things incorrectly because you were just trying to get out of the studio before they kicked you out”¦before you ran out of money. It’s great and I can’t believe with music we are at a place where the revolution has come, you can record at home and with the Internet you can sell it and we are just at a brand new place. Hopefully that day comes soon with movies. I’m not sure that’s possible because it just seems to be a bigger enterprise you know making a movie, distributing a movie and getting people to see it. But who knows. Maybe the day is close. Music is an entirely different thing. I remember watching Heart of Darkness and I think it’s in that movie there’s an interview with Francis Ford Coppola where he’s saying he’s looking forward to the day when an 8 year old from Iowa wins Best Picture and hopefully video cameras make this possible.You know we’re not quite there yet but I think we’re almost there with music. You’re going to see an 11 year old at the Grammys who recorded something on Garage Band. It’s crazy.

Badmouth: At this point in your career how do you decide what roles you’re going to take? What is your deciding factor?

John Cho: Money. (laughter) No…

You know there is not really a rhyme or reason except interest. With Star Trek I just had a lot of personal reasons for wanting to be involved in it. I wanted to be in something that kids would like after having been in the Harold & Kumar movie — although so many kids watched that movie. But I wanted to be in a family movie. I wanted to be in some franchise that I enjoyed as a kid. [I had] all kinds of reasons to do it.

Really by page five of the script you always know. I can’t really explain why. I’ve had to teach myself also to not be convinced into auditioning for a role that I don’t like, because I always do poorly. If there’s no interest, then you can’t do it. I’m incapable of getting a role that I’m not interested in so for whatever reason you know I can probably.

Badmouth: You recently were in town for Wondercon and got to meet some fans. Could you characterize a little bit what your interaction with the fans has been like relative to Harold and maybe fans also looking forward to Star Trek?

John Cho: I’m not sure I have met enough to be able to characterize the Star Trek fans. They do have more wardrobe then Harold & Kumar fans. They are more committed to the look. Although I’ve seen some of these things on the Internet where people dressed like Harold & Kumar too. I don’t know – seeing as how the movie hasn’t come out yet, I sense a bit of trepidation, just the slightest twinge – they’re basically saying “Don’t do us wrong.” Hopefully that will change when the movie comes out.

Badmouth: Over the years, you’ve become associated with marijuana via Harold, and the “MILF” thing with American Pie. Do fans expect you to be a smoker?

John Cho: I don’t think they expect – I think they just assume it, and I’m not. The funny thing with American Pie is I think people thought I was king of a vast Internet porn empire. You just have to roll with that.

Badmouth: In 2006 you were named the 11th sexiest man alive, and I was wondering what kid of training or prep work you’ve been doing to crack the top 10 in 2008?

John Cho: Lunges. (laughs) It was crazy. (laughs) I don’t know where else to go with that. I can’t think of anything funny enough, so we’ll leave it at that.

Badmouth: I haven’t seen the film yet, but it looks like you have a scene with a deer. Did you actually film with a deer or is it CGI?

John Cho: Both, yeah both, and in the first one I just want to clarify some of that [in the first movie] was a real cheetah which was scary.

Badmouth: Well they say never work with kids and animals, but you came out OK right?

John Cho: Barely. I was really scared that day. I don’t mind telling you, because: it’s a cheetah- No. 1. Nut animal wranglers always say, “Don’t worry.” But to be able to make the cheetah growl, they had to keep him a little hungry or a little irritated or something. They don’t growl because you can’t really train them that way, so that made me nervous. The trainer was holding the cheetah by a chain — not a post, a chain with a hand, and [the cheetah] was like a few feet from my feet. It growled at us, and I was thinking the cheetah could easily break free from this or drag the trainer the few feet to where we were. It was really scary.

Badmouth: Regarding Star Trek: What kind of background work did you do to approach the role of Sulu?

John Cho: Well I can’t really answer that question fully, but I’ll just say in general what I did and what everyone else is doing is trying to pay homage to the series. But also do something with a new twist on it. Doing something younger, a little more athletic. I think you’ll see that in all aspects.

Badmouth: I swear I’m not looking for a spoiler here, but you said that you did some fight training for Star Trek, which is an action movie. I notice you have a bandage on your wrist. Is that an on-set injury?

John Cho: (evasive) Kraft services. I was going for the almond dispenser and there was an awkward spill”¦ (laughter)

Badmouth: So, no spoilers there. Can you talk a little bit about doing an action movie in general? What was the training like?

John Cho: Well, I will say this: the training was great. I really appreciated a preparation time as far as fight training and stuff because it was sort of like simulating the Star Fleet Academy, we’ve gone through something together. It was exhausting and that kind of put me in a military mind set.

Badmouth: Did other cast members participate in the fight training?

John Cho: Geez, you are really cornering me. Maybe, maybe not.

Badmouth: One of the things George Takei said is “John will be really tested in his acting, because he’s older now starting than I was when I started.” Do you have any personal concerns about the franchise might go for another decade keeping in shape for the role or anything like that?

John Cho: Yes I’ve made a deal with the devil (laughs) Yeah, I do have some concerns, and we’ll see; but maybe my Asian genes will come into play and I’ll be alright.

Badmouth: Are you expecting something as crazy as the South by Southwest screening tonight?

John Cho: I hope so. I hope San Francisco will like this movie. I guess on a personal level the Bay Area’s opinion of my work matters a lot to me and they’ve been very supportive in the past. I’ve had several movies play at this festival so I just hope San Francisco likes it. I’m not sure if they’ll be as raucous, but that would be a pleasant surprise.

Badmouth: They do allow beer at the theater.

John Cho: They do? That’s frickin’ brilliant!