Penn plays Kumar, the Indian-American, more daring half of the comic duo (Asian-American actor John Cho plays Harold, the more pensive and anal retentive of the two). The characters get high one Friday night and pledge to gorge on White Castle burgers (an East Coast thing) before the night is through, no matter what obstacles get in their way.
"I actually think this is an anti-stoner movie, because when Harold and Kumar are high, very bad things happen to them," says Penn.
Penn lived in New Jersey until he was 18, so he knows of the White Castle mythos. He's also a strict vegetarian who doesn't smoke weed. "It's not that I think there's anything wrong with it," he asserts. "I'm just a control freak."
So how did a vegetarian, pot-avoiding control freak end up in a movie that makes Cheech and Chong look like Jesus and John the Baptist?
"When I read the script, I didn't really register the marijuana or the burgers," he concedes. "I noticed the camaraderie of the two guys. They have a nice camaraderie, like the ones shared in The Goonies." He admits that he "never saw a Cheech and Chong movie" and doesn't feel that drugs are the driving force of the film. "The film doesn't glamorize marijuana, and it doesn't demonize it. It's just something these guys do, like drinking a beer."
As for the film's willingness to acknowledge and then demolish racial and character stereotypes, Penn enthuses: "Indian guys and Asian guys are usually the sidekicks with the funny accents and the karate stuff. Harold and Kumar are smart characters that defy the usual racial and character stereotypes. We're not the stoners who wake up at three in the afternoon, hit the bong and order a pizza. We are educated, Ivy League stoners, something that you never see. That was a cool part of it for both John and I."
Being a vegetarian, Penn couldn't truly partake in the film's final White Castle feast. "They took veggie burgers and cut them into little squares to fit into the White Castle buns" Penn reveals. "They were actually quite delicious. I ate, like, 50 of them in one day." Cho ate the real thing, but didn't experience any of the legendary intestinal distress caused by White Castle "Belly Bombers."
"John was OK after eating all those burgers ... maybe a little lethargic. In fact, I remember John saying a lot of stuff like, 'Mmmm ... these are really good.'"
As for why the critically praised film underperformed on its opening weekend, Penn is a bit puzzled. "It's struggling a bit. It sucks, because we've heard that the exit polls were some of the most positive ones that anyone's ever heard of. The Village opened big and had a lot of hype surrounding it."
When Penn is informed that The Village, the film that soundly kicked Harold and Kumar's ass last weekend, is positively dreadful, he sounds deflated.
"Oh, no ... I love Shyamalan."