Consider the "stoner duo," yet another film genre where the white man has bogarted the best roles.
Bill & Ted, Jay & Silent Bob, Wayne & Garth, even "stoners" whose drug of choice was beer such as our own Bob & Doug. You have to go all the way back to the '70s -- to the iconic Cheech & Chong -- to find someone even part-Asian representing stoner culture.
"That's a long time between ethnic guys. People were thirsty for us," laughs John Cho, who with Kal Penn makes up the film duo of Harold & Kumar (2004's Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and the sequel Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, which hits theatres this Friday).
"Funny story about that," Cho says. "I expected a lot of love from the Asian-American community for the role of Harold, just because they appreciate you when you succeed. And sure enough, I remember an Asian-American woman coming up to me excitedly saying 'Omigosh, I love the movie! Thank you for representing us stoners.' "
Stereotypes are stereotypes -- even when they're "good" stereotypes, as expressed by Toronto councillor Rob Ford with his concern that hard-working "Orientals" are taking over. In the original filmed-in-Toronto film, budding stock analyst Harold Lee and pre-med student Kumar Patel were two such children of hard-working immigrants, who said "screw it" in the midst of their workload, rolled a fattie and went looking for a fix of those addictive little steamed burgers from the East Coast/Midwest U.S. chain White Castle. This simple quest led to a series of near-death experiences, sex and scatological adventures that could only happen under the influence.
"I felt that, for a while, Asians in Hollywood have been portrayed as so noble," says the Korean-born Cho, "and we've kind of done it to ourselves as well. We're really fond of portraying ourselves this way. So in Hollywood lately it's, 'Okay, you're the respectable doctor now,' and that's going really safe. Narratively, those characters are not really interesting. And one of the things I like about Harold and Kumar is that we're doing things that are wrong all the time. It's certainly not the single portrayal of Asian-Americans I'd want us to go down with. But I think it's a healthy part of the picture."
Dressed Maxim-casual in a loose-fitting suit and even looser tie, Cho is the more buttoned-down of the two actors in real-life, and he and his wife Kerri Higuchi are reportedly expecting their first baby (now a regular on the series House, Penn's shooting schedule kept him from joining Cho on the promotion tour).
A virtual unknown before the movie, Cho is now embraced by a reality-enhanced fanclub. "I've got a lot of love from stoners, they're very affectionate people for some reason. "As with any interruption, sometimes it's ill-timed. But, generally, it's been overwhelmingly great. My rule of thumb now is, because I realize somebody's going to talk to me about the movie every time I leave the house, I just expect it. If I don't want to talk, I don't leave the house."
Harold & Kumar didn't start out as a phenomenon. Its box office was middling . But the DVD was a surprise hit, and it became a cult with college kids. "The DVD eventually buoyed us into a sequel, a couple of years after the fact," Cho says. "The wait did us good, actually, because if we'd have done the sequel immediately, I think the plan was just to have us go straight to Amsterdam (for the cannabis cafe scene). The time allowed the filmmakers to get some feedback, and the studio actually said, 'Y'know, movies set in Europe don't tend to do well. Eurotrip didn't do well, neither did Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Europe apparently isn't interesting to American audiences. So they came up with this idea, and my reaction was, 'No way are we getting away with this.' "
In Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, our pals are indeed en route to Amsterdam, when Kumar decides to go to the washroom and test his newly developed high-tech "smokeless bong," a gas-filled glass tube that looks like an explosive device to the eye of onboard federal marshalls.
Before you can say Homeland Security, Harold & Kumar are shipped to Guantanamo Bay, there to face sexual predation by psychotic guards while a security official (Rob Corddry) rubs his hands over the prospect of unearthing a Korean-al-Qaida alliance.
They escape (we won't say how) and end up floating with Cuban refugees to Miami, there to begin a cross-country journey through the South (at one point hooking up with a drug-and-booze-fuelled brothel-hunting Neil Patrick Harris). Their destination: Texas, where Harold hopes to get help from a government-connected buddy and Kumar hopes to break up the guy's wedding to his ex-girlfriend.
Among their new toking buddies -- President George Bush (James Adomian), who turns out to be a stoner/party animal in the 1st degree.
"I especially thought the George Bush thing would go away, but in each version of the script it popped back up," Cho says. "There was a period after we'd shot the movie where I thought my phone was tapped. It turned out that I had a cheap phone that didn't have enough cordless range for my house. But I really was nervous.
"But, actually, George Bush is a good guy in our movie. His approval ratings are terrible right now, we might see a little spike in his numbers from the stoner vote."
In fact, Cho might soon get a break from talking Harold & Kumar every time he leaves home. He just wrapped filming of J.J. Abram's prequelized version of Star Trek (featuring young versions of Kirk, Spock, et al), where he's playing Sulu. And stoners could get nudged out fo the way by zealous Trekkers.
"I am under orders not to say anything," Cho says. "I will say it was a childhood fantasy come true. There's nothing to compare it to. I just say being on the bridge of the Enterprise was like being on the bridge of the Enterprise.
"I did meet Jonathan Frakes (Cmdr. Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation), and he is freakishly huge. A hulk of a man. He came by the set and I met him very briefly.
"My Trek experience was reruns," he says. "I remember as a kid I thought it was silly, I was distracted by the velour. But as I got older I realized it was an incredibly intelligent show, daring and thoughtful and meditative.
"I did have lunch with (original Sulu) George Takei. We'd met before because of our association with the East-West Players (the L.A.-based Asian-American theatre troupe), but we hadn't spent any quality time together. I wrote him a letter before we started filming, and asked him to lunch and he was fantastic, just a great guy.
"I got just a lot of general bits of advice. I was very nervous about stepping into his shoes, and in his typically magnanimous fashion, he said, 'In a couple of years, people will call me the old version of you.' "