Breaking into Hollywood as a leading actor has always been difficult, but for Asians it has been next to impossible. Though there has been plenty of opportunity for Indian actors to play cab drivers, 7-11 clerks or medical students with incoherent accents, the standard leading man has been – for the most part – out of reach.
Kal Penn has experienced firsthand the latent racism that still pervades the Hollywood system, though he did manage to break through with a leading role in the raucously funny teen comedy, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004). Prior to his breakout, Penn was relegated to minor stereotypical roles, most notably in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” (2002), in which he played a geeky exchange student from India, complete with high-pitched lilting accent.
Born first generation Indian-American in New Jersey – his parents emigrated with little money – Penn yearned to perform since he was a kid. Though his parents hoped it was a passing phase and he would eventually become a doctor or lawyer, he continued to pursue his dream, attending the Freehold Regional High School for Performing Arts in Englishtown. His interest held when joined the theater program at the University of California, Los Angeles. With a resume full of high school productions and community theater, he began the arduous process of submitting head shots and going on auditions. The response to his efforts, however, was tepid. Recognizing the problem, his agent persuaded him to Anglicize his name – originally Kalpen Modi – which Penn thought wouldn’t make a difference. For the hell of it, he split his first name in two, added an ‘N’ to the second part and resubmitted his headshots. Auditions went up by 50 percent.
Opportunities began to trickle in. After appearing in episodes of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” (ABC-WB, 1996-2003) and “Spin City” (ABC, 1996-2002), he made his first movie, “American Desi” (2001), in which he played the hip-hop-obsessed roommate of a college student (Deep Katdare) from a traditional Indian family. Meantime, his profile on television increased: he played a young man wearing a Fez in an episode of “Angel” (WB, 1999-2004) and turned up on episodes of “ER” (NBC, 1994- ), “The Agency” (CBS, 2001-2003) and “NYPD Blue” (ABC, 1993- ). Penn then made the disparaging choice of playing the Indian exchange student, Taj Mahal, in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” Originally uninterested in the part because of the character’s name and thick Indian accent, Penn was convinced by his agent to take the part. But despite the promises of rampant sex, ample gross-outs and the star power of Ryan Reynolds and Tara Reid, “Van Wilder” received a critical drubbing and soon whimpered out of theaters.
In 2003, Penn saw himself in three theatrically released movies. He appeared in the Indian-made comedy, “Where’s the Party Yaar?”, playing a brash first generation Indian-American whose cousin arrives from India to attend his college, putting a crimp in his hard-partying style. After playing an Arab who shows off a rocket-powered grenade launcher that he received as a Christmas gift in “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” he appeared in the mediocre and ultimately forgettable romantic comedy, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” On television, he played a medical student renting a room from the parents of a struggling actor (Anthony Anderson) who returns home to raise his eight year-old son in “All About the Andersons” (WB, 2003-2004). Originally replacing actor Paul Bartholomew after the pilot episode, Penn was later replaced by Aimee Garcia.
Penn’s big break was “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” a teen comedy with plenty of sex and gross-out jokes, but also possessing three-dimensional main characters who long for more than just tiny burgers after a few bong tokes. Penn and his co-star John Cho (“Better Luck Tomorrow”) played Ivy League-educated roommates who, after indulging in some Cannabis sativa, suddenly crave White Castle hamburgers. The quest for the mythical sandwiches becomes a wild journey of self-discovery, as the two underdogs learn more in one night than they ever did in college. Though perfect for the part, Penn had to earn his spot despite meeting the screenwriters at a party. Producers scoured the country and beyond for the right Harold and Kumar in an extensive audition process. After several auditions over the course of three months, Penn got the part and was thrilled to finally play a character devoid of the stereotypical trappings that plagued earlier roles. The film ultimately garnered a widespread cult fan base.
The exposure from “Harold and Kumar” allowed Penn to play more diverse roles in larger projects. He appeared in an episode of “Six Feet Under” (HBO, 2001-2005) and was cast in a few Hollywood blockbusters, including the decade-late sequel, “Son of the Mask” (2005), with Jamie Kennedy, and the lame romantic comedy “A Lot Like Love” (2005), both of which failed to spark a modicum of interest with critics and audiences. (biography courtesy of Yahoo.com)
Now, Penn plays Stanford, the computer geek lackey of the villainous Lex Luthor in director Bryan Singer’s revival of the original comic book film franchise, “Superman Returns”. Penn, who’s been friends with Routh long before he landed the Superman gig, sat down with us to talk about working on the film:
Question: So are you shooting a “Harold and Kumar” sequel?
Penn: You came all the way to Sydney to ask me that? (laughter). I don’t know. I hope so. John and I would both love to do one, as would the writers, the director, and everyone involved in it. It’s a question of finances, and when the guys with the money decide to give us some.
Question: White Castle could sponsor you…
Penn: Well, it’s not going to be… It’s going to be “Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam.”
Question: They could still sponsor you…
Penn: They could. They got enough money off the first movie.
Question: Who do you play in this film?
Penn: I play a guy named Stanford, who’s one of Lex’s henchmen. I’m a bad guy.
Question: Does he have a surname?
Penn: I think we’re just calling him Stanford for now. You guys should have the writers in with me so that they can answer all of the… (to Joe Everett) Does Stanford… No, I don’t think… not in the script.
Question: Are you comic relief? That’s the big concern when you use a term like “henchman.” That it’s going to be an Otis-type character.
Penn: Everybody asks me if it’s an Otis-type character. I would say it’s… different… from the Otis character.
Question: Do you have a theme, any kind of theme you think of?
Penn: For me? The exact opposite of whatever Superman likes.
Question: Are you a guy on the computer, or a guy with a ray gun?
Penn: Well, there are four or five of the henchman, and I’m sort of the brains behind it. I’m the smarter one.
Question: How have you found working with Kevin Spacey? Has that been a thrill, something you’ve wanted to do?
Penn: Yeah, absolutely. It’s awesome. Especially because he’s a very versatile actor in terms of doing a lot of really great ground-breaking theater, as well as his immense body of film work. It’s very inspiring to work with somebody like that. I’d say almost everybody involved with this project is very layered that way. It’s nice for a young actor, like myself, who aspires to be like a lot of these guy, to be able to work with them all.
Question: What are the character dynamics with you, Lex and the other henchmen?
Penn: With five of them, it’s sort of a unit. There are inner workings here and there, but I wouldn’t say I’m either of those.
Question: How do you dress? Do you have a white lab coat, do you have…
Penn: I have a white lab coat with pin stripes, and glasses, and a funny hat with a big “X” on it that looks like I work for the Red Cross. No… (laughter). This is part of what I wear. This is what I’m wearing in the scene we’re doing now.
Question: Is it your own, or does it belong to wardrobe?
Penn: Well, I’m going to steal it at the end. I like it. I like the jeans and the shoes. It’s probably the most comfortable costume I’ve ever worn for any show.
Question: Talk about what it’s like for you to be in a movie this huge, and to be in the next Superman event.
Penn: It’s awesome. It’s definitely… as an American kid growing up, or a kid growing up anywhere, I guess, it’s the quintessential American story, if not at this point – with globalization – the quintessentially universal story about a superhuman, and good versus evil. Obviously in society those definitions are always fluid and changing, yet a story like Superman remains completely universal. For a dorky kid from New Jersey who grew up watching Superman, it’s amazing to actually be in the movie.
Question: Which Superman did you watch, exactly?
Penn: All of them.
Question: The movies…
Penn: The movies. As far as comics go, I was probably more of a Spider-Man comics fan. For films, it’s was definitely Superman. I never really got into the Spider-Man movie. The Superman cartoons, also, were really good.
Question: How is it working with Brandon? I understand you’ve been friends for a time?
Penn: Yeah, it’s cool. I’ve known Brandon for a couple of years. It was awesome. We had a big party for him when he booked it.
Question: Is it purely coincidental, you being friends with Brandon?
Penn: Well, I’m sure he picked up the phone and put in a good word with Bryan. A couple of things were happening simultaneously. He was up for the role of Superman, and my manager was talking to somebody at Warner Brothers about getting me in for a part. The casting director had put me in some stuff prior, so those two things were happening simultaneously. I mentioned casually to Brandon, “Hey, I’m up for something in Superman. Wouldn’t that be insane if we both actually got it?” He definitely booked the part before I found out if I got it or not.
Question: How did you know him?
Penn: Just random…
Question: Did you grow up together or anything?
Penn: No, just through friends. There’s a group of 5 or 7 of us that hang out, just actors in L.A.
Question: So, when you say cartoons, which cartoons? Superfriends, or….
Penn: I haven’t watched them in a long, long time. I just remember watching Superman cartoons when I was little. I honestly couldn’t tell you which ones. It could have been part of Superfriends, or… I feel like it was a Saturday morning thing.
Question: Was Krypto in it?
Penn: I don’t know. I remember more Scooby-Doo stuff than I do Superman, cartoon-wise.
Question: He teamed up with Superman.
Penn: Did he really?
Question: Yeah, Scooby’s teamed up with Superman.
Penn: With like a cape?
Question: When Brandon got the job as Superman, what did you say to him? What did he say to you?
Penn: He got the job before… let’s see. He had already left for Sydney before I found out whether or not I’d got the job. There was a lot of yelling over the phone, “Oh my god!” “I know!” “Oh my god!” “I know, right?!”
Penn: I think the feeling was – with friends in general – it’s always nice to be able to work with people that you know, especially if you know them from something that’s not “Hollywoody” or not film related. We obviously would have loved to do a student film or a short together, so to be able to do a 200 million dollar movie that’s such a part of the human psyche is amazing.
Question: Knowing him as your friend Brandon before he became Superman, what do you see in him as an actor that people saw that he could BE Superman?
Penn: The actor that plays Superman has to be extremely versatile. Not just in the more generic sense you usually describe in interviews, “Oh, you have to be able to do a wide range of things.” Even physically and also supernaturally. You’re playing a guy who’s a dorky human being on one hand, and saving the whole planet on the other. To be able to make that jump requires a really strong actor, and he’s absolutely a very talented actor.
Question: Is there a back story to your character? How is it you became involved with Lex?
Penn: There IS a back story that I discussed with the writers. I’m not sure if I’m at liberty to… are you guys talking to the writers?
Question: We already did.
Penn: What did they say? (laughter)
Question: They told us everything about your character.
Penn: Oh, cool. Well, in that case! In 1981, when…. no. (laughter)
Question: What can we know?
Penn: Well, there is a back story, but I don’t think we even mention it in the script.
Question: Well, what is it Lex wants you to do?
Penn: He summarizes it really well, for me. The only back story… (long pause)
Question: Did Luthor Enterprises call you and that’s how you got the job, or… Is it anything to do with when Luthor was in prison?
Penn: That may have had something to do with it. I don’t know. I’ll tell you honestly. The deal is: Lex Luthor and Kitty were both huge, huge Harold and Kumar fans, so he decided to bring me on as part of his team.
Question: How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor working on this movie? What do you feel you’ve learned that you didn’t know before you came in?
Penn: That’s a good question. What have I learned? I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing.
Question: Well, are there areas where you feel more confident, where you have a greater breadth of understanding having worked with these people, and worked on a film like this?
Penn: Yeah, without a doubt. I’m trying to figure out the best way to articulate it because I’ve never worked on a film of this caliber. Obviously, I know Bryan’s work and Kevin’s work, but having not worked with them prior to this I wasn’t really sure what to expect. They’re both so smart and intelligent. I was really happy to hear in their descriptions of where the characters are going, and where the story’s going. I feel like it’s so easy. A lot of directors take these huge budget films and just make it about explosions and special effects, and it’s over. You call it a date movie, or a movie for kids, or whatever it is. You’ve got a group of writers, director, and cast who are really committed to making this a story, first and foremost. Then you also have these incredible special effects and all of this action stuff going on. I felt like that was something that was really refreshing, knowing that a lot of big budget films just tend to go for a gimmicky thing, which is easy to do. It’s cool to see people actually focused on the layers. There’s a lot of green screen stuff, just in terms of technical things, so it’s not unlike theater where you have to picture a fourth wall so that you don’t see the audience there. Selective sight, or whatever you want to call it. So, there’s a lot of that. It’s similar to theater, in that sense, because you’re picturing…. Yesterday we shot a scene that was almost entirely green around you, which is very different from actually being at a museum, or wherever you’re supposed to be.
Question: Any other challenges in the filming, aside from the green screen?
Penn: Yeah. I have a really bad attitude problem. (laughter)
Question: What do you mean?
Penn: Just something you’ve come up against interesting, something that has been new to you, or just something unknown in the filming process. Sure. I’d say it was the special effects work. I haven’t had…
Question: Is your character involved in special effects sequences?
Penn: I think every character is. Yeah. A lot.
Question: How long have you actually been shooting, and how long do you have to go?
Penn: I got here in the beginning of June. It’s a total of about 2 months. I leave… I’ve got a week and a half left.
Question: What’s it like watching Kevin get into the character of Lex? It is one second he’s “Hey Kevin” and then “action” and he turns into Lex?
Penn: I think it depends on the scene that we’re shooting, but yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Working with an actor who’s so experienced and is so on point with everything is amazing to watch for somebody who’s relatively just starting out compared to these guys. To see the overall process that actors take, depending on what they’re working on and what’s being shot, it’s very inspiring.
Question: Are you evil?
Penn: Am I evil? Yeah.
Question: In the movie you’re evil?
Penn: In the movie! In the movie, yeah! (laughter) I’m a nice guy.
Question: Is this character something new for you? There’s a comical element to your character, I’m guessing, but is the whole “evil” aspect something new?
Penn: Yeah. It’s nice to play a character that I haven’t had the opportunity to play before. A lot of the teen movies that I first started doing, you’re playing a college student. You’re playing it up for the likeability, to be attached to the audience for specific reasons, knowing who your market is for that. This is the exact opposite, in terms of knowing the audience isn’t going to like you.
Question: Which is easier?
Penn: They’re completely different.
Question: Any improvising of jokes or dialogue?
Penn: No. I’d say that if anything was…. I know what you’re saying.
Question: Was there not really much room in the script for that?
Penn: I hesitate saying it that way. The scenes are so specific and concrete that, rather than improvising any type of dialogue, you kind of discover these unspoken moments of action in a scene. That’s been happening. But that tends to happen when you’ve got a great director. As far as the Christopher Guest type of ad-libbing, no.
Question: How is it working with Bryan? Is that something you’ve wanted to do?
Penn: Yeah. It’s cliché, but ever since “Usual Suspects” came out, watching it in high school. It was just amazing. “I wanna work with this guy.” I didn’t think that I would have this type of an opportunity for a long time.
Question: You were over here shooting… was it “Son of Mask?”
Question: Okay, an art-house movie in Sydney, then.
Penn: I came down to scope out the city because I knew I’d be coming here for Superman.
Question: You just happened to shoot another movie on the way.
Question: Was it cool because you were already familiar with the city, and with Fox studios. Did you feel like you had a little edge?
Penn: Yeah, I enjoyed it. I’ve been traveling for about a year and a half, so I haven’t been in L.A. for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time. So it was nice to come to a city that I’m familiar with so that it doesn’t seem so foreign.
Question: Did you always think that Brandon would get his break?
Penn: Yeah. Definitely. I think that goes for actors that you meet, do a play with or a commercial with, that you’re friends with, that you know, that have a specific talent.
Question: I know you’re working closely with Kevin, and he’s doing a lot of work in London at the moment, at the Old Vic. Is that something you’d like to do? Come to London and act on stage?
Penn: Yeah. Definitely. In fact, next year I’m trying to split my time between L.A. and New York. I’d like to do some more theater, and eventually do some stuff in London, as well.
Question: Can you tell us about some of the other henchmen or characters you’re associated with in the movie?
Penn: Yeah. The actors?
Question: I know you already talked about the actors, I’m just wondering about their dynamics and such.
Penn: Well, I don’t want to speak for other actors. Are you guys talking to them?
Question: We don’t know. Are they wearing black knit caps, and…
Penn: What I will say is this: I think the audience will enjoy the group dynamic, as well as the individual characters that make it up. It’s not just something that’s being thrown away.
Question: And where does your character hang out? Where’s his computer that he works on, if you’re allowed to say?
Penn: It’s in… I got nothing. I was going to try to come up with something… (laughter)
Question: How about sequels? If the film goes on to do sequels, would Stanford be involved? Will Stanford go to Amsterdam? (laughter)
Penn: I don’t know. We’ll see. I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
Question: You mentioned Spider-Man. Do you follow comics? Are you a comics fan?
Penn: No, not now. When I was younger it’s something that I… I wouldn’t say I lost interest in it all. It just, sort of….
Question: Acting got in the way?
Penn: Yeah. I used to collect comics when I was younger, and I still read them, but I wouldn’t say as vociferously as some people I know.
Question: Did you flip through them looking for inspiration for Stanford?
Question: Did you find any?
Question: Where did you find it?
Penn: That has nothing to do with any of the back story or any of the stuff anyone told me about it. I got really excited because I was like “Oh, man! I’m going to be in Superman!” and I started reading all of these Superman comics. That’s as far as the inspiration. That’s what I meant by getting really psyched up.
Question: Which ones? Did DC send you over a bunch of new ones, or?
Penn: No, but if you guys know anyone there, I’d love some. I just kind of looked in the comic book shop. I looked… there are a lot of DC comics online now. They’re scanned on different websites. I read them online.
Question: So you’re ripping them off, pretty much?
Penn: I wouldn’t say I based any of my stuff on these characters, but what I took from your question was inspiration for it, like getting psyched up. Going back to what I said about it being such a quintessential American story, a universal story. I was looking at comic books in general. I was also reading a book called “The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay” that quickly became my favorite book ever. It’s that type of – for those of you who know the story – how relevant comic books are to human history. So I was getting psyched up more about that aspect of it.
Question: Are you and Brandon on screen together at the same time?
Question: While he’s wearing the Superman costume?
Penn: That’s a good question. (laughter)
Question: Do you get an action figure?
Penn: (yelling) I want to know the answer to that question! I want to know if I get an action figure. (stops yelling) I want to know if I’m going to be in the video game, and when Brandon gets a ride at Disneyland, am I going to be the back of the seat? You know, you sit on. . . never-mind. I don’t know. I want to know the answer to that question.
Question: Do you ever go online and check out what people are saying about your being cast?
Penn: Well there’s the site BlueTights, which has all of Bryan’s blogs. I was working on a film called “Namesake” in New York before this, and one of the guys who was in the film with me came in and said “Oh my god, dude. There’s this site, BlueTights. Have you seen it?” He explained to me what it was, and said that Bryan had to go and save “King Kong” from falling apart. I was like, “What are you talking about?” So he explained this whole thing to me, and without having seen it I’m like “You know that’s a joke, right?” He’s like, “No. I’m telling you. Go and see it.” I was like “Come on!” I went home and I watched it, and I came back to work the next day and was like “You’re kidding, right? You think it’s real?” He goes “I’m telling you, it’s real.” So that, I think, piqued my fascination with what people are saying on the internet about different things. It’s fun to hear speculation about different things, and how wrong most of it is, but how determined everyone is to believe it. It was also cool to see the response from Comic-Con.
Question: Were you at Comic-Con?
Penn: No, I was here.
Question: You were there last year.
Penn: I was there last year, that’s right. It was fun. I liked Comic-Con.
Question: A lot of comic book movies have their characters pulled from the comics, so it’s tied to a lot of continuity. It’s difficult to do something new, like with Stanford, a totally new character. Was that a good thing for you? You could sort of put your own spin on it?
Penn: Yeah. I enjoyed, especially, being able to work with the writers in the direction of the character and how they saw Stanford play into the story.
Question: What was the audition process?
Penn: I met Bryan, and the writers, and the casting director back in the beginning of October – maybe end of September – at Warner Brothers, and that was it. Everything was based off of that meeting. I forget if it was on tape or not. That was my interaction with it. I know there was a huge team of agents and managers and other casting directors and directors who would call in to kind of be a support team. “You should really cast this kid, he’s really good” or “He sucks, don’t cast him.” I don’t know who called in what.
Question: Did you eventually do a scene with Kevin, or something like that as a final audition?
Penn: No. All of the whole “bad crew” came from different places. Kevin lives in London right now, Parker lives in New York, I was in LA and New York. A lot of these guys are from here. [Sydney]
Question: Do you have a name for yourselves as a group?
Penn: No. We should come up with one.
Question: The “bad crew” was pretty good.
Penn: The bad crew.
Question: How about The X-Men?
Penn: We’ve got to come up with something.
Question: Hollywood is coming around to Asian cinema. Films are getting major releases. Do you think it’s a good time for Asian actors?
Penn: Well, I hope so. I kind of hesitate answering that question because the fear is that it’s always going to be some type of Madonna/Gwen Stefani-esque “exoticization” of Asian-ness, and it’ll fade in a couple of years. (laughter)
Penn: I hope that Hollywood, overall, is becoming more diverse. I think that it is. I hope it’s not a trend, and I hope it’s something that is an actual realization… that you can tell very compelling stories and cast it realistically, which I think people are doing.
Question: What’s it like working with Parker Posey?
Penn: Awesome. She’s so cool.
Question: She’s kind of crazy, isn’t she?
Penn: She’s awesome! She’s another example of a very versatile actress. I just saw her in “Hurly Burly” in New York before I left for here. That’s another great example of an amazing actress who does film and theater. I aspire to be like everybody that I’m working with.