‘Harold & Kumar’: Affirmative Action With A Goofy Grin

Film is first major Hollywood release to feature Asian-Americans in lead roles.

“They asked me where my turban was,” says actor Kal Penn, recalling his first Hollywood audition. Despite Penn’s protests that although he is Indian, he didn’t own a turban, he was asked to go home and put a bedsheet on his head to fit the casting director’s idea of what an Indian looks like. “This wasn’t ignorance,” Penn says, “this was active racism.”

The New Jersey native has come a long way since that first audition: The upcoming comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” is the first major Hollywood release to feature Asian-Americans — Penn and co-star John Cho, a Korean — in the leading roles. But is this development a breakthrough or a passing fad?

Screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg knew they were taking a chance in casting minorities as leads in their movie. But it was a challenge they were willing to take. “[Growing up, our minority friends] were the same as us in terms of attitude, dialogue and issues,” says Schlossberg. “Yet whenever we saw these characters on screen, they were usually portrayed as nerdy or downright dumb, with thick accents and usually seen delivering food.”

Viewers will be surprised to find that neither Penn nor Cho sport accents that make either character a caricature. In fact, Penn’s character — who is trying haplessly to get into a career in medicine like his father — and Cho’s character — an investment banker — are bucking the stereotypes usually associated with Asian kids.

The ’70s, ’80s and the tech boom of the ’90s saw a huge influx of Asians into the U.S., particularly in white-collar and hi-tech jobs. Asians are projected to be the fastest-growing major population category over the next half century, outpacing blacks, whites and Hispanics: According to recent census-bureau projections, the Asian population could grow by a third — to 14 million — by 2010.

Gil Asakawa, author of the book “Being Japanese American,” applauds “Harold & Kumar” for breaking Hollywood and TV stereotypes, which typically portray Asians as academics. “It’s cool that we don’t have to play that A-student anymore,” he says. “It’s nice to have a slacker Asian.”

Los Angeles-based casting director Melissa Aberesa credits television shows from the 1970s and ’80s with beginning this trend. ” ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘The Cosby Show’ broke down barriers and made it OK for minorities to play lead roles,” she says, adding that the success of Lindsay Lohan’s recent “Mean Girls” broke down barriers for other groups: Jewish and homosexual characters. “Moviegoers identify with the characters: ‘That’s me. That’s you. That’s my neighbor. That’s my best friend. That’s who I sleep with,’ ” she says.

However, some suspect that casting Asians in lead roles may be a passing fad, including Clara Rodriguez, sociology professor at Fordham University and author of the book “Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood.” The book chronicles the fluctuations in the demand for and portrayals of Latinos in film. “[Casting of Asians in lead roles] is still a new movement,” she says. “We’ll see how ['Howard and Kumar'] sells. It’s a departure from the past and there are some very good reasons why it should pay off. If it doesn’t, it’s a shot in the dark.”

“When we get to the point where we’re casting an Asian because he or she is a good actor and not because they’re Asian, that’s when there will be a breakthrough,” says Asakawa, making a parallel with Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, both black actors playing roles in movies that could be played by a white person.

Tom Inegno, founder of the Omnipop Talent Agency, which primarily casts comedic actors, feels that we’ve already reached that point. “People come to me and ask, ‘Who’s funny?’ It’s never ‘I need an Asian or an Indian.’ ” he says. “When they come to me, all a club or a client wants to know is, ‘Who’s the best?’ ”

Jack Foley, president of distribution for Focus Features, shares Inegno’s optimism. “What do all kids have in common?” he asks. “They wanna see young kids having a good time. I’ve read the script [for 'Harold & Kumar']. It achieves that.” Foley is currently working with Indian director Mira Nair on her next movie, the Reese Witherspoon flick “Vanity Fair.” He says he’s happy to see a “democratization” of entertainment. “Younger kids — they’re color blind. They don’t have the sensibilities of the ’70s and ’80s.”

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