Interview: John Cho talks ‘Harold and Kumar’, Bad Auditions and Stumbling into Franchises

John: "You can never be too good at what you do"

John Cho
is back in familiar territory as Harold in the hilarious A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. Set six years after Guantanamo Bay, we find that Harold and Kumar are no longer friends. Harold is working on Wall Street and married to his dream girl, Maria (Paula Garces) while Kumar (Kal Penn) has dropped out of Medical School and has just been told that his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa, is pregnant.

When a mysterious package addressed to Harold arrives at Kumar’s door, the two are reluctantly reunited and unknowingly, begin yet another adventure.

I was laughing non-stop the whole time and with the 3D, you’ll have things hurtling towards you that you’ll thank yourself is only on the screen. You’ll see Harold and Kumar in Claymation and even better, NPH himself. That’s right, Neil Patrick Harris is back and this time he’s doing an appropriately crude dance number. You’ll love every minute of it.

The past couple of years, John has been on a roll. He played Sulu in Star Trek reboot (and its upcoming sequel), headlined ABC’s Flash Forward and will next be seen in American Reunion (back again as MILF Guy #2) and Total Recall.

John in person is absolutely funny and doesn’t seem at all like what he usually plays on screen – ok, maybe with the exception of MILF Guy #2. I got a chance to talk to him about the film, NPH, his worst audition and how he “stumbled into multiple franchises.”

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Because you’re so invested in these characters, now, do you have input like in the script or like what you think you’re character should do?  How does that work?

John Cho: I remember discussing just throwing the ball around.  I might be misremembering this but…

You can make it up, that’s fine. 

John Cho: [laughs] I might have mentioned to the writers something like, “Where do we go after Guantanamo Bay? What is the next step?” And we were all not sure whether we could keep doing that particular thing and so I was glad when the Christmas concept came through because it seemed in a way a radical move.  It was a departure and a good one, and a lot of things had happened between the second and the third one, in other people’s lives and in our lives, and so it seemed appropriate to advance the ages of the characters and alter their life situations.

Can you see yourself as a 60-year-old doing Harold and Kumar 14?

John Cho: Yes. Well, why not.  I think that might be fun.

We could take, the alternative, we could take 20 years off Eagles style and return for an awful tour. Sorry, Don Henley. Sorry, but yeah, why not.

I think it’s fun.  I don’t know what it is about these guys but there is something elastic about the situation, about the setup of Harold and Kumar that it doesn’t feel like an arc in the way that, not to compare us to them but like for instance Star Wars.  You can already tell where in the first one there is this arc coming, and we’re very loose and unstructured.  It just feels episodic and just as long as the situation is interesting and people are into it, I think really, as long as it was funny, why not? It’s just basically an odd couple movie so we get an interesting situation and it’s truthful, why not?

And it didn’t fall into The Hangover 2 trap where it was the exact same story.

John Cho: Yeah, I think the trick also with this one was to start with them separate. That was very interesting to me. That was a real departure from the first two and it adds some tension to the film.

Not real tension, we’re a comedy but you know.

I think I read an interview where you said something like Harold and Kumar, they have a relationship like they are a married couple.

John Cho: Yeah, I mean I see it as a romantic comedy and Harold and Kumar are the lovers that need to come together at the end of the movie. When we were making the movie, I always try to identify what  the kiss scene and just make sure that we hit that the right way. [laughs]

Neil Patrick Harris’ scenes are always crazy and over the top. Are those a highlight to film?

John Cho: Yeah, Neil brings, he’s always like the guest in the middle of filming, like you clean up your house and you get excited and we always love having Neil on the set.  It’s just a break from each other because we’re always in our best behaviour for Neil.  He’s a lot of fun plus the sequences are always the most absurd. Also, we don’t have to worry about being funny.  He’s carrying that so yeah, I love having Neil around.  He is a terrific actor.

How long did the dance the sequence to take to film?

John Cho: A few days. It was fast but we rehearsed in a legit dance studio. Which was bizarre.  They had motivational, lots of motivational signs around the dance studio like “Work it if you don’t sweat it,” you know? Like that kind of stuff. And it was a place where they sold leggings and dance shoes.  We worked it out there and then came to the studio.

Although, I think originally, Harold and Kumar weren’t really dancing and I’m going to show off to you, the original choreography was that Harold and Kumar were destroying the set, kind of, and we were trying to go through the number but we were bumbling through and ruining everything. And then Kal and I started to get the moves and they said, “Well, they know the moves, it doesn’t really make sense that they know the moves.” Because it doesn’t make any sense at all that they would know are but we started to pick it up so they just said “Get in there.” And so they took a leap of faith and the audience, no one has really picked this up but Harold and Kumar shouldn’t know the dance number.

I know you’ve done a lot of theatre, have you done any musicals before?

John Cho: Never have.  No, never have.  I never danced onstage.  It was fun.

Any desire go to Broadway? Even a straight play?

John Cho: Maybe, yeah, well, definitely straight play.  I don’t about, that’s tough, but yeah I have interest in all of the above, absolutely.

Have you got any offers?

John Cho: Straight play, on Broadway?  No, do you know anyone?

I’ll put in some calls.

John Cho: Okay.

Give me half an hour.

John Cho: I’ve been trying to mount an Asian Rasin in the Sun for quite some time. Surprisingly, no interest. It’s really weird. Investors walk out of the room.

Shooting a 3D movie, is there anything hugely different in that and not, I guess, like the camera angles.

John Cho: Well oddly yes.  There are a few things. Lighting setups take longer.  The rig, our rig, I don’t know if it’s all rigs but our camera rig was very large so when they were shooting over the shoulder shots, the actor who would typically stand right next to the lens so that we could look into each other’s eyes could not stand there. So you have to act to a piece of tape right next to the lens.  That was very, very difficult.

Also, I’d say you can’t move the camera around very easily so there were no steady cam shots or anything like that that have become a very common place in today’s cinema. So as a result, I feel like we have a much more, we have a throwback film visually. The camera is very static for most of the movie and we don’t go in for as much coverage as most modern movies.

So you got this, you’ve got Total Recall coming out, American Reunion, you’ve got this versatile career.  Is that sort of planning or just kind of luck, maybe?

John Cho: Maybe a little bit of both.

It’s definitely weird luck that I’ve stumbled into multiple franchises. That’s bizarre, you know? It’s just weird. But yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, I look to mix it up just because I’m a baby and I want to be interested from job to job. But it’s also luck, yeah.

Do you go still for things that hugely challenge?

John Cho: Sure, I don’t really think about it all that much.  It’s really a gut thing.  If something comes to me and if it’s interesting, I try not to question it and go for it. And if it doesn’t interest me, even if it’s supposed to be hot or if I should theoretically be interested in it, I don’t pursue it if there isn’t something, if I don’t feel an attraction.  It’s just sort of like a woman.  You either are interested or you’re not.

Do you still get nervous your first couple days on set?

John Cho: Yeah, I mean, I do and it’s a dysfunction of mine that I picked a career that’s one that’s just a long series of being the new kid at school, but that’s essentially what it is. I sometimes think, I mean I moved around a lot as a kid and was always the new kid in school and sometimes I think I chose this profession, you know, I’m perversely attracted to that sense of discomfort like a rape victim who becomes a stripper. I need to revisit the site of the trauma.

A lot of actors are like that.

John Cho: Hold, on I’ve got to cry.  I got over it.

Do you still have to audition?

John Cho: Sometimes, like yeah, less auditioning, less auditioning.  I don’t mind auditioning. The only time I don’t like auditioning is when you know when the material isn’t auditioning material.  There’s stuff that plays in a room. There’s stuff that plays on camera, and there is stuff that will work in a situation like this, like a scene that will work well while sitting across the table from someone, and that’s good audition material. And there’s stuff that works on camera but it doesn’t work in the room.  I just don’t like it when you have to audition a scene that doesn’t work well in a room.

What’s the worse audition you’ve ever had?

John Cho: I bombed a few, my friend. But the one I remember that came to mind was years ago, I was auditioning for, well early on, I was auditioning for a TV show that Henry Winkler was directing.  He played the character called ‘The Fonz.’

I’ve heard of him.

John Cho: But the audition was like 9 in the morning, which was early for an audition.  Typically, they are in the afternoon. I don’t remember why it was 9. But I like to get up, you know, I can’t wake up at 8 and roll in so I must have woken up at 6, which was early for me then and went over my lines, had coffee, ate, you know, all that stuff. So I rolled for the audition and he said, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Good, how are you doing?”  I’m just making small talk because it’s The Fonz and I’m nervous. And I said, “Its’ early, huh?” and he goes, “John?”  He looked at my resume and said, “John, you’ve ever done a movie?” and I said, “Yeah” and he said, “Been called early, like 5, 6 a.m.?”  “Yeah, I have.” “So this isn’t early, is it John?” and then I had to audition.  I didn’t get it, Lance.  I did not get the job at all so that was a bummer.

Have there been any other big-time actors you’ve gotten nervous around?

John Cho: Oh, I get nervous around small time actors. I have been nervous around them all. The biggest star early on that I had to work with and get through my nervousness in a hurry was Willem Dafoe.  He is a sweet guy but also like you’re kind of frightened based on his performances.

And he looks intimidating, yeah.

John Cho: He looks intimidating. He’s got a scary face though sexy. I had to get over it in a hurry though but yeah, I was all knotted up.

What’s your advice to actors?

John Cho: Oh boy. I don’t know. The game today seems to be so much more complicated even compared to 15 years ago when I started. The marketplace seems different. The needs seem different.  I don’t know whether any advice I could give would be pertinent anymore.

I guess there’s one thing is they can never take away, you can never be too good at what you do.  I can give all kinds of other advice about external things but I wouldn’t even say, I don’t even like to say things like keep pursuing in the face of adversity because it’s your life. If you’re tired of it, if you don’t want to keep hearing “no” then maybe that’s your choice. I mean that’s a piece of advice I hear a lot. But it can only do you good and do everyone else good if you’re better. If you work on your craft, it’s something that for some reason it gets overlooked.

Did you always want to be an actor?

John Cho: No, I felt into it in college, yeah.

Yeah, cute girl?

John Cho: No, almost. I was in a writing group with this dude who was directing a school play and one day he asked me what my height and weight were.  I guess, as it turned out, some guy in his play was sick.  He had a small part and I fit the costume. So, that kind of started it.

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