Published on TimesSquare.com.
by Christina M. Hinke and Brad Balfour
April 9, 2007
Though Kal Penn has a flashback moment when he's smoking something other than tobacco during a scene in "The Namesake," his lead role in director Mira Nair 's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel is vastly different from his part in the hit comedy "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle." But that's what makes this young actor someone to keep on the radar--for both his wacky sensibilities and his general sensitivities.
Penn has been establishing himself as someone to take seriously beyond his ability to parody Americans of South Asian descent. As the American-born Gogol, Penn plays a character much like himself who wants to fit in as an American despite an Indian family who cling to their traditional past.
Known for his role as the pot-smoking med student, Kumar, Penn has rounded a corner into unexpected places, jettisoning his comedic roles for such in-depth dramatic work as "The Namesake." In this season of Fox TV's hit show "24," he played a terrorist, and also had a secondary part in "Superman Returns." That's not to say that the New Jersey-born actor is abandoning comedy--hardly, for he's just finishing up the sequel to "Harold and Kumar."
Q: You wrote director Mira Nair a letter asking to play the role of Gogol. What was in the letter that had her come to a decision to choose you for the role?
Kal Penn: When you're in the zone and writing something like that you retain very little knowledge of it but I believe Mira still has the letter. So you know, I should ask her exactly what was in it. I remember telling her that this film adaptation was the reason I'm an actor. The reason being a role like this comes once in a lifetime. She was an inspiration to me personally in deciding to pursue acting and so, I responded to the book in the same way I responded to "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was in 8th or 9th grade when I read it. There was just something about Salinger's writing that really draws you in. I felt the same with the book "The Namesake" and that's the reason we tell stories. That's the reason that when you feel an emotion so strongly that you need to play that part, so I think I told her all about that.
But it was Mira's son Oren who really allowed me to get the audition because he would bug her every night before bed when she would tug him in and say "Mom can you audition Kal Penn from "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle?" Same thing with Mira's agent's son, this kid named Sam. So, they would berate their parents regularly. I have a feeling that, that complimented the letter, just a little bit.
Q: One point of "The Namesake" is about staying true to your name. Do you have a specific reason why you changed it from your given name, Kalpen Modi, to Kal Penn?
KP: I haven't changed it legally. It's just a stage name similar to Winona Ryder and Whoopi Goldberg and a whole number of other actors. The reason behind the change was when I moved to L.A. a couple of producer friends suggested coming up with a catchier name and half of them suggested that if you come up with a more Western sounding name it would help you get more work. I really don't believe that's a barrier to getting jobs, so to prove them wrong I split my first name on my resume/headshot into two and my auditions actually went up.
Q: When you saw the finished cut of the film, did it give you new revelations on the book?
KP: I think the non-verbal is just as important as the verbal and I think Mira does that beautifully. There are emotions that are played out not through dialogue but through something visual or even just unspoken. There is a scene where Gogol claims his father's body and originally there was dialogue in that scene that we shot, but now it's a completely mute scene. I think it's just as effective, if not more effective, as the scene that we shot with dialogue. The cities of New York and Calcutta are characters in the film, as much as the family, so it was interesting to see that because it's never talked about or explained. You just see and experience these cities through Mira's direction.
Q: Did you have any input into the movie?
KP: I suggested strongly using Pearl Jam because I'm a huge Pearl Jam fan. I think kids of every race, gender and ethnicity at that age listen to Pearl Jam. I also figured if the movie is taking place in this time period he would probably be passionate about Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam won't let you use a song unless they've see the film. They own all of their licensing rights, which is rare for a band. We shot that scene twice [where Gogol rocks out to a Pearl Jam tune in his bedroom]. Thanks to Eddie Vedder and the guys they let us use the music.
Q: Would you like to do a movie where you can have more input?
KP: I'd like to find any project that I can have legitimate creative input. I find that stories that dwell on ethnicity are rather boring for me acting-wise. It's pretty one dimensional.
Q: Did you read Gogol's story "The Overcoat" prior to filming?
KP: Not before because Gogol doesn't read any of Nikolai Gogol's stuff until the end of the film. I made an effort to resist the temptation to read it.
Q: Did you ever have to restrain yourself from adding comedic elements to the character of Gogol?
KP: I think it was really nice to be able to play a character like this, especially in contrast to all the other stuff. When you start to pursue acting, the goal, at least for me, was not to do a particular genre. If you're a young actor or a pretty boy from Iowa, you get on TV and if not you do comedies. I guess those are the youth opportunities that I think are out there, though I think it's nice to be able to expand beyond that.
Q: Were there any insights you discovered about yourself?
KP: I don't think from playing the character. The first time I read the book, which was a couple of years ago, it's the kind of book that makes you want to call your parents when you're done reading it. So that probably brought me closer to my parents.
Q: Have your parents seen the film?
KP: They enjoyed it. We haven't talked about specific scenes yet. But I think they enjoyed it.
Q: Have they seen the "Van Wilder" movies?
KP: Yes, they've seen all my stuff. I can say definitely that they were more proud of this than the "Van Wilder-esque" things.
Q: What's going on with "Harold and Kumar 2"; is it still filming?
KP: Yes, it's very similar in that it's a very low budget film just like the first one, really bare bones, not a lot of resources provided. You just kind of go out there and cram as much as you can in, in a day, which could be a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing in that the energy stays fresh, but a bad thing in the sense that if you screw up one take you don't have another chance to do it. But on the flip side, we're really excited to revisit those characters. Neil's (Patrick Harris) is coming back, Chris Meloni is coming back. Eddie Kaye Thomas and Dave Krumholtz and a bunch of new people...
Q: You've doing a wide range of roles, especially on TV with parts on "24" and "Law and Order." Is that what you want to do more of in your career?
KP: Yes. I would like to have the privilege of doing both, drama and comedy.
Q: How about doing theater?
KP: I'd like to do more theater. My theater background is limited to college and post-college.
Q: Have you considered moving to New York to get theater work?
KP: I would love to live in New York City, but there is no work if you want to do film. I spent the last year here to get in to the theater world. In order to do theater well you really have to spend a chunk of time and not do anything else. I would like to attempt to come back in a year or two and give it a try.
Copyright 2007 Christina M. Hinke. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.