While we may know Kal Penn as one of the comically titular characters in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, audiences will see a whole new side of him in The Namesake. 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 theatre program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
With a resume full of high school productions and community theatre, 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” and “Spin City” , 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” and turned up on episodes of “ER” “The Agency” and “NYPD Blue” .
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 theatres.
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” . 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 takes. 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” and was cast in a few Hollywood blockbusters, including the decade-late sequel, “Son of the Mask” (2005), with Jamie Kennedy, and the romantic comedy “A Lot Like Love” (2005), both of which failed to spark a modicum of interest with critics and audiences. Meanwhile, Penn was cast to appear in the road comedy “Vegas Baby” (lensed 2005) and Lex Luthor’s genius lackey Stanford in the long-awaited cinematic return of the Man of Steel, “Superman Returns” (2006).
Meanwhile, Penn was set to star in the sequel “Van Wilder Deux: The Rise of Taj” (2006), reviving his character to take centre stage, as Taj goes to Oxford University to study and show the uptight student body how to have a good time. For his next feature, “The Namesake” (2006), Penn went a different direction into drama, playing the son of Indian immigrants whose search for his own unique identity might cause him to lose touch with his heritage.
Question: First of all, given how you started your career, how surprised were you that you were able to land this role?
Kal Penn: Well it’s interesting. It’s actually because of Harold and Kumar that I had the initial audition for this role because I’d read the book and I was a fan of the book for a very long time and when I found out that they were turning it into a movie I had called Mira Nair’s office a bunch of times and obviously there were no return phone calls but I had my managers and agents and all those people call for me also and ultimately what ended up getting me in the room to audition for her was that her son, who was fourteen at the time, Zohran, was a huge, huge fan of Harold and Kumar and every night before he would go to bed Mira would tuck him in and he would say ‘Mum, have you auditioned Kal Penn yet?’ and while that was happening Mira’s agent’s son, who was 15 at the time, would say the same thing to his dad ‘Have you convinced Mira to audition Kal Penn?’ So having been attacked on all fronts I think she succumbed to her children – or her own son and her agent’s son, and agreed to let me audition for the part. So it was surprising in a way because it was Harold & Kumar that resulted in me getting the audition.
Question: What was it about this character that you felt you could identify with, if anything, could you relate to him?
Kal Penn: I could relate to him very much and I’ll tell you, the assumption I think that a lot of people make is that I relate to him because of the same ethnicity – that’s not the case. I mean clearly when you share a similar background with somebody it makes it easier but I would say, you know, especially if you’ve got a diverse group of friends and, you know, I think we know that – if you look at my group of friends they’re from pretty dramatically different walks of life and it’s pretty clear that just because, you know, whether they’re Indian or Jewish or black or whatever, it’s not because of a shared history that we’re friends. And I think that kind of applies to Gogal too, just because we are from the same ethnic background it doesn’t mean that I automatically have some with him but I think what I do find or what I was attracted to in playing the role was that he is so different from me in a lot of ways, you know. He’s a lot quieter than I am, he’s very, very passionate about architecture probably to the same extent that I’m passionate about acting but he’s kind of quiet about that. He doesn’t really share his intimate feelings with people. That’s why the moments that you do see that in the film I thought were really interesting to play, you know, for example on his wedding day he’s got this interesting little dance sequence with his wife and that kind of shows you this playful intimacy that he has with the one that he loves but you don’t see that same playfulness when he’s just walking down the street. He seems very serious or he seems very quiet. He’s also kind of self-absorbed after his college years, especially up until his father passes away. He’s gone away to an Ivy League school and he’s been around a lot of old money and he’s learned things that makes him believe that he knows everything and he might know a lot of things cerebrally but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s capable of feeling something emotionally. So a lot of these things, I suppose the similarities and differences made him an interesting character.
Question: Were those introspective moments the more challenging ones to play having done Kumar and a lot of these, you know a couple of these comedies. Was it nice to kind of play in some ways a much more reflective character?
Kal Penn: Yes, definitely. Because a lot of times in broad comedies you don’t have the opportunity to be as subtle or explore the subtleties within character that you would normally have in real life or that you have the opportunity to explore when you’re playing especially a character that’s based on such a great book.
Question: What do you hope that this will do for you now? Do you think that the perceptions of you are going to change as a result of taking this one?
Kal Penn: I hope so. I mean the goal as an actor was never only to do broad comedies and certainly one of the things that appeals to me about acting is the story telling element and I would like to continue to do some of the smarter broad comedies but also to do something a little more dramatic on the serious side.
Question: But you’re returning to Kumar territory are you not?
Kal Penn: Yeah. I mean, Harold & Kumar in my opinion, the great thing about it that I still love even with the second one is the way it’s written, if you take nothing away from it other than the fact that it’s two days who smoke weed and go on a journey then that’s fine. But in reality it’s written with very particular subtleties in mind, it’s very subversive politically and that’s all done on purpose, unlike a lot of other broad comedies. So the fact that half the audience walks away not understanding that there was a subversive element to it then the other half that walks away realising all of these literary references that are in the film and all these political references that are in the film and that’s kind of cool to me. I really enjoy playing with that kind of stuff.
Question: How different is the second film from the first one?
Kal Penn: Well the plot is different but those themes are definitely very similar.
Question: Now what else are you working on ?
Kal Penn: The Harold & Kumar sequel will probably shoot until the beginning of April and then I’m shooting a pilot for ABC called The Call.
Question: Now why do you want to do television?
Kal Penn: I like compelling roles and I like roles that I think are interesting. And I would argue up until maybe the last month or so I really didn’t have the luxury of being as picky as a lot of people assume you can be when you’re an actor. I was still considered a relatively newer actor. I mean I’ve only had a lot of regular work for maybe the past two or three years and it’s just now that I’m starting to be able to be a lot more choosy with projects and to me whether it’s a film or whether it’s a TV show is if there’s something interesting about the character then it’s something that I would like to be part of.