John Cho and Kal Penn are the stars of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” the loopy new buddy comedy from Danny Leiner (“Dude, Where’s My Car?”) about two stoned pals who surmount an array of surrealistic obstacles–and grow up a bit–in making their way to a burger joint. In a recent Dallas interview they spoke about their induction into the titular chain’s Hall of Fame in Columbus, Ohio (“Never in my life did I imagine that we’d be in any Hall of Fame whatever,” Cho said, and Penn added, “It was cool”), but they admitted that White Castle wasn’t a place they stopped at much before they made the picture. “I’m actually a vegetarian, so I’m not a big fan of burgers,” Penn, best known for his eye-catching turn as Taj, the Indian sidekick, in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” said. “I like veggie burgers. But I grew up in New Jersey, so I knew White Castle.” Cho, the Korean-American whose cameos as an “MILF Guy” in the “American Pie” movies had gotten him a good deal of attention, said, “I grew up on the West Coast, so I didn’t really know White Castle. I had it once in Chicago. But I’m shocked because everyone has a White Castle story, an epic White Castle tale.” Penn took up the theme: “I think people are also really passionate about how they feel about White Castle. I have never had anybody say the burgers are ‘okay.’ People are always, ‘Those are the best burgers, man!’ or ‘Dude, have you eaten that shit?’ There’s no middle ground there.”
Both Penn and Cho came to “Harold & Kumar” after auditions that followed approaches from the writing team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. Cho met Hurwitz at a screening and learned about the project from him. “He came up to me, introduced himself, and said, ‘I’ve got this project with a role written with you in mind.’ I was skeptical [about] two Asians in a movie,” he recalled. “It was race-specific–it was written that way. I thought to myself, ‘Good luck.’ But the project got green-lit pretty quickly, and it seemed like I was meeting the director soon thereafter.” He continued: “The writers have a friend named Harold Lee, and they wanted to play with the genre a little bit and introduce some protagonists they hadn’t seen before.” Penn added: “They also had a bunch of Indian friends, so they kind of put those characters into Kumar as well.” He met the writers at a friend’s birthday party, and when they approached him about the project, he reacted much as Cho had done: “I thought it was a good idea, but I really didn’t think it was going to get made. Hollywood hasn’t really been putting people of color in lead roles, independent of story or with story. I was like, ‘Yeah, good luck selling it, but I’d love to read it anyway.’ I got the script later that week, and I loved it. It was a teen movie, but there were complexities in it that I liked. Soon after that they sold it, and we went through the whole two or three-month audition process, January to March.” Cho looked back ruefully on that period of uncertainty. “Time flies by when you’re in excruciating pain,” he joked. When they were selected for the roles, they didn’t know one another, but that soon changed. “I heard he was an asshole,” Penn quipped. “We shot in Toronto,” Cho said, “and when we arrived at the hotel the first day, I went upstairs and put my suitcases down and walked up to his room and knocked on his door, and said ‘Let’s start hanging out.’” And they did. “A lot of romantic dinners,” Cho joked. “We quickly defined their relationship. A lot of cuddling,” Penn added. “We became fast friends,” Cho said.
Both actors emphasized that what drew them to the script was the fact that it wasn’t just a buddy comedy. “This story was more,” Penn explained. “You think it’s just going to be just about burgers or just about marijuana, but that’s just what launches their journey…The complications that I liked were how it kind of simultaneously talked about race and society and perceptions that people had. The movie is deconstructing that, finally.”
The question remains, though, whether audiences will come out to see it. “I didn’t feel pressure when we made the movie,” Cho admitted. “But now that it’s testing well and they’re sending us on the road, it’s expected to do well at this point. I just hope that it does well enough so people around Hollywood think, ‘That’s not the worst idea in the world–to cast an Asian guy.’” Penn added: “It is a lot of pressure. If it opens well, there’s going to be a sequel, and it kind of establishes that people can cast films in a non-traditional manner.” Then there’s the additional question: will the audience that does come out for a good time see the complexities in the picture–its sly subversion of the stereotypes it uses to generate laughs–that the stars like so much? “From the reviews that are coming out from people who have gone to screenings, it’s really cool to see how people get it,” Penn said. “I feel absolutely people are going to get it,” Cho agreed. “I feel we just constantly underestimate American audiences–it’s epidemic in Hollywood.” But he covered all bases by adding, “I also feel it works without you understanding it. You know, you get belly laughs, and if you get the other stuff, that’s great, too.”