RT Interview: Harold and Kumar's John Cho

We talk to the actor about life between MILF and Sulu.

by | April 24, 2008 | Comments

a small subset, John Cho will forever be remembered as “the MILF guy from
American Pie
and come May 2009, Cho will expand beyond that, possibly becoming a household
name as Sulu from
Star Trek
. But at this moment, he’s widely recognized and admired as the
first-half of the Harold and Kumar duo, whose fabled journey to

White Castle
in 2004 has become the stuff of stoner comedy legend.

Harold and Kumar
Escape from Guantanamo Bay
reunites Cho and
Kal Penn as the
hapless BFFs, starting right where the original left off. Their trip to
Amsterdam is sidetracked when Kumar is caught with a bong on their plane and
what follows is a weeklong freak-out across a country filled with boobs,
unicorns, and smoke haze. The movie opens this Friday, and Rotten Tomatoes spoke
to Cho in San Francisco about life as an English major, Star Trek, and what
would’ve happened if Kal Penn sucked.

When did you find out New Line was making a Harold
and Kumar

JC: We always intended to do a sequel. We just
didn’t know when it would happen. And it took a while because the box office
receipts on the first one were tepid. It was DVDs that saved us. So we didn’t
know until very recently we were making a sequel. And if [writers
] had written the sequel right after White Castle I’m sure
it wouldn’t be this movie. Partially because of the socio-political humor…the
fact that people really took to that was a bit of a surprise to us. And so they
probably would’ve written a movie where we went to Amsterdam and then got into
trouble there. By the time we made the sequel, people were really needing [the
socio-political] aspect from the sequel so that’s where the Guantanamo Bay idea
came from.

This was the first movie Hurwitz and Schlossberg
directed. Was there a learning curve for them?

JC: There probably was, [though] I [think] they were
pretty well-equipped. They were on the set of the first one the entire time.
But, you know, you gather a team who are specialists at what they do. You get a
director of photography [and] he brings his team — lighters, whatever. You hire
key people who know what they’re doing and at the end of the day a director is
someone who makes decisions and someone who is very passionate about the story.
And [Hurwitz and Schlossberg] are so passionate about the Harold and Kumar
world, you can’t believe [it]. They’re the biggest Harold and Kumar fans, these
directors. They just sort of thought about it 24/7, so every hole in their
knowledge got sealed up.

You and Kal hung out a lot in preparation for the first
one. Do you usually find that rapport necessary?

JC: I think it’s not necessary. But I was a little
worried because we’re supposed to be best friends. It’s easy to be friendly
to someone in a movie. [But] it being a buddy comedy you had to feel like there
was some history to those guys. So we were concerned of faking that because we
had just met each other — and we liked each other — but I didn’t know whether
it would feel like an old friendship or a new friendship. So we tried hanging
out as much as possible to approximate it. That was cool about the second one:
we didn’t have to sweat that at all.

Would you have done the first movie if Kal turned out to
be an a–hole?

JC: At that point in casting, I would’ve had to do
the movie. But, God, that would’ve sucked. I’ve done it, thankfully, very few
times in my life where I had to share scenes with people I disliked. It’s really
hard to do your job when you dislike somebody. Even in a scene where you’re
supposed to dislike them, you prefer to like them. [Laughs.]

So what’s the real Harold Lee like?

JC: Apparently, the real Harold Lee has become less
inhibited over the years. Harold today is the life of the party. I look forward
to him coming up. He’s the first guy at the bar. And sometimes the last guy. The
real Harold Lee is [also] maybe the smartest guy I know.

You were an English major at UC Berkeley. Did you ever
envision a future in academics or writing?

JC: I don’t know what I was going to do. The reason
I majored in English in the first place was that I didn’t know what else to do
and I thought it’d be a good excuse to keep on reading books. It seemed as
convenient a plan as any. And then I sort of had a loose plan to continue
schooling because I really didn’t know what else to do. I was graduating and
thought might as well keep on studying English.

Were you an early reader?

JC: I was. My first language is Korean and my
parents said I taught myself how to read. Not sure if that’s possible. Suffice
to say, I was a bibliophile and I probably take that from my father. Books are
his most treasured possession.

So you grew up in an encouraging environment.

JC: Yeah. You know how Asian kids have that one year
birthday where you’re supposed to pick something?

Oh, yeah. I took the comb.

JC: You took the comb. [Laughs.] What does that

I don’t think it’s good to take the comb. I think the
family wants you to take the money.

My brother picked the money. I picked a pencil. So books and pencils and pens
were my thing.

When did you know acting was going to be your thing?

JC: I never really came into a realization about
it. I fell into a play in college. I just gave it a shot because I was trying
things out and I just like being with other actors. Like so many other kids in
college, I was just trying to figure out who I was. I never felt like I really
fit in anywhere. And the theater was just filled with people who didn’t fit in
anywhere. [Laughs.] We were rehearsing in a room that was called Room 7 and the
walls were painted black and it was really fun to rehearse. I liked that more
than anything else. So I liked the feeling of being in rehearsal and I liked the
feeling of being around people who felt as unsure about themselves as I did.

So I did a play, a professional play. Maybe the thing I was
most impressed with, the thing I always remember about doing that first play is
[that there were] a lot of Asian-American actors in it. I thought, “Wow, look at
them. They’re not really famous, but they’re working. They’re working at their
craft and they’re making a living.” And there were a lot of older actors still
very interested in what they were doing. So, anyway, that piqued my interest and
I decided to give it a try.

People say that there aren’t enough roles written for
Asian-Americans, but is there even enough of a work force to fill them?

JC: There’d be a line around the block for each
role. For each tiny two-line role that you see, they’ve seen 50 people. It’s

Do you get the feeling that when other Asian actors see
you at auditions, they’re thinking, “Well, I’m probably not going to get the
part now?”

JC: [Laughs.] That probably doesn’t happen because
I’ve gone into a phase, and have been [in this phase] for a number of years now,
where I’m not really being seen for Asian roles, which is a blessing and a
curse. It’s liberating in a sense because the writing is going to be better. For
some reason a lot of writers in Hollywood have a hard time writing for Asian
characters. As soon as they attach that name to it, they go, “Now he’s Asian!
This is going to be tough!” I find it better to go for a role with a Caucasian
surname if they haven’t put any specific attributes into it.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s ideal either. I
rather play an Asian-specific character that’s written really well. Which I
think Harold and Kumar is, which I thought
Better Luck

So what do you get more of now: people yelling “MILF” or
people inviting you back to their dorm to smoke a bowl?

JC: Probably the latter. For a while there, I was
unsure whether anything would dethrone MILF. Harold has. It’s unbelievable. I
was tired of MILF. It was time for it to go away. As a cultural concept, I think
it’s going away.

What catchphrase is
Star Trek
to cultivate?

JC: Probably, [George Takei impression] “Sulu.”