DETROIT - Kal Penn's break from acting to work for the Obama administration garnered a lot of media attention. But the other half of the "Harold & Kumar" franchise, John Cho, has a cool White House connection, too.
The Korean-American actor took his father to the recent state dinner for the South Korean president. His dad was seated right next to the podium where President Barack Obama made a toast and even clinked glasses with the leader of the free world.
For Cho, the evening was pretty much the ultimate in making a parent proud. "It would be tough to top that one," he says.
The same could be said for "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," which opens Friday. The third movie in the stoner-buddy franchise takes on the holiday movie genre and aims for new levels of comedic outrageousness. On a Spinal Tap scale, the R-rated humor sometimes reaches an 11 out of 10.
This time, the pot-smoking buddies last seen in 2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" have grown apart. Harold has a nice corporate office, a nice home in the suburbs and a nice, gorgeous wife, while Kumar is unemployed, discouraged and living alone without his girlfriend.
But their estrangement is interrupted when Kumar receives a mysterious package meant for Harold and ventures to his house, where their reunion soon leads to the destruction of a Christmas tree brought by Harold's terrifying father-in-law (Danny Trejo). Will their mission to replace the tree before the morning succeed? And how much trouble can two guys get into in one winter's night in New York City?
Plenty. Only this holly jolly on the outside, subversive on the inside comedy was made in the summer of 2010 in metro Detroit, with the Motor City doubling for Manhattan and the cast and crew clad for December weather in July.
"You guys have a humid, hot summer," says Cho, speaking from Washington, D.C., with Harold-ish understatement.
First-time feature director Todd Strauss-Schulson says he kept leaving meetings because he wanted to play in the fake snow. Recalling filming at a house in Bloomfield Township, Mich., that served as Harold's home, he says, "Every time we yelled cut, Danny Trejo would whip his Christmas sweater off." Neighbors were left to wonder what the imposing, shirtless man with the tattoos was doing.
"Harold & Kumar" filmed at several locations in and around Detroit. The Detroit Opera House was used for several scenes, from an elaborate Christmas stage show to a vision of heaven as a groovy nightclub. The nearby Ford Building was the location for Harold's office (you can see the Guardian Building's distinctive art-deco tiles from a window). Sets for Kumar's apartment and a penthouse where a party is under way were constructed at the H.B. Stubbs facility in Warren. And when Kumar visits a mall Santa early in the movie, it's fairly easy to tell that he's at the Somerset Collection in Troy.
Strauss-Schulson said he had a great time working in Michigan, but, as a longtime "Harold & Kumar" fan, he was already excited about the assignment. "One of the big things I said to the people that hired me was I saw the first one with friends on DVD in college, I saw the second one in the theater, and I wanted to make the third one to make sure they didn't screw it up."
Working with a script by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote the other two films, and producer Greg Shapiro, who's overseen all three installments, Strauss-Schulson used himself as something of a laugh barometer. "I just wanted to make sure I wouldn't be bored Friday night in a theater watching this," he explains.
Besides Cho, Penn and Trejo, the cast features returning favorite Neil Patrick Harris, who's reliably hilarious playing a comic version of himself, and newcomers to the franchise Tom Lennon, who plays Harold's uptight new friend, and Elias Koteas, who appears as an Eastern European mob boss.
While some of the comedy is admittedly "insane," according to Strauss-Schulson, he feels the vignette nature of the movie offers a little something for everyone. There's smart humor, silly humor, singing and dancing with Busby Berkley-style choreography, a Wafflebot robot toy that talks and dispenses waffles and syrup, car crashes, Clay mation mayhem, beer pong and more.
And this is probably the first movie to have its 3-D cake and eat it, too, by making fun of the cinematic gimmick while utilizing it in over-the-top, oh-no-they-didn't ways.
Cho sounds philosophical about the raunchier aspects of the comedy. "When you sign up for a Harold and Kumar movie, you've got to prepare for the consequences," he says. "I didn't go in innocent."
But no matter how gross the laughs may get, there's something about Harold and Kumar's likability and their enduring friendship that has made them pop-culture icons for the 40-and-under crowd.
Cho isn't sure about the icon title. "I don't necessarily think of Harold in those terms," he says. "I just have a lot of affection for him. He's like people I know. They wrote that script afraid that the studio would change the race of those characters. In the first draft, they wrote in scenes that would indicate that these guys cannot be played by anyone other than an Indian actor and a Korean actor, so there were all these scenes about them talking about their family background and their culture. Partly because of that, I just developed an affinity for Harold, because he seemed like friends I knew. He mirrored some of my background."
Cho's career has ranged far beyond "Harold & Kumar." He played Sulu in the J.J. Abrams reboot of "Star Trek" and tackled a juicy role as an FBI agent plagued by premonitions of his own death in ABC's canceled sci-fi drama "FlashForward."
Cho says he liked that project for its ambitious effort to tell a story with extraordinary stakes. "I find that to be what attracts me most to a role now - big stakes - and that show certainly had that."
But there will always be a place in his heart - and perhaps his schedule - for his best-known role. Asked about future sequels, Cho indicates he might be interested one day in playing a "Grumpy Old Harold & Kumar," so to speak.
"It's possible. I actually think it might be really funny to make a Harold and Kumar movie when they're 60. Why not? I'm up for it. Ask Kal. I won't do it without him. If he's on board, I'm on board."