Although Kal Penn often plays stereotypical Indo-American characters in comedies like Malibu’s Most Wanted, Van Wilder and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, he’s shifted gears to take on the plum role of Gogol Ganguli in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake. In the movie, he plays a successful young architect who’s turned his back on his Indian immigrant family and their traditions until a family tragedy which forces him to rediscover himself and his culture.
ComingSoon.net spoke to the young star during a recent visit to New York City.
ComingSoon.net: When I talked to Mira, she mentioned that you were a big fan of hers and her movies inspired you to get into acting?
Kal Penn: Yes, I was a huge fan of her stuff. I saw one of her films, “Mississippi Masala” in 7th or 8th grade, and that kind of motivated me to be an actor. I loved the film, and she was a role model of mine ever since then. I was following her career and how she got into it and all that stuff.
CS: How did you find out about the project? Had you read the book and knew she was adapting it?
Penn: No, I read the book. John Cho, who plays Harold in “Harold & Kumar,” recommended the book, and we were both big fans of Jhumpa’s first book. John kind of ridiculed me for not having heard about “The Namesake,” because somehow I missed its release entirely. So he insisted I go out and buy it, so I bought it and read it almost in one sitting, and bawled my eyes out. It was this very moving book, and we tried to get the rights to turn it into a film, and found out that Mira had already gotten the rights, which was perfect, because we couldn’t think of anybody better to direct such an intimate story anyway. Then I began this really aggressive campaign of trying to get the audition and the reason I got the audition ultimately was because of Mira’s son Zoran and Mira’s agent’s son Sam, both who berated their parents until they agreed to audition me.
CS: What did you have to do to convince her you were right to play Gogol besides showing her that you play the character at different ages?
Penn: I went in to audition thanks to Zoran and Sam and then I guess the audition went well and it went on from there.
CS: I’m surprised she didn’t think of you first, since there doesn’t seem to be that many Indo-American actors floating around who could play such a role.
Penn: Well, there are a lot actually, but there are just so few opportunities that you don’t see them a lot. But there are a lot of Indo-American actors in New York, L.A., Chicago, it’s just that there aren’t as many opportunities.
CS: At least none that could carry a movie like you have to do with this.
Penn: But that experience comes with the opportunity. Even on TV right now, you’ve got Parminder Nagra on “E.R.”, you have Sendhil on “Heroes” and Maulik on “30 Rock.”
CS: Do you know any of them or keep in touch as they move through their careers?
Penn: I actually know all three of them, because I met Parminder in L.A. through mutual friends. I met Sendhil and Maulik both a couple years ago, because we were all at the same auditions.
CS: I was wondering if you ever end up competing with those guys for some of those roles. I’d assume you have a bit more weight at this point, having made a name for yourself.
Penn: I think it’s just different. I’ve been doing films, but they’re on hit TV shows. More people know about those guys than me, ’cause people watch a lot of TV.
CS: Being one of the better known Indo-American actor, do you try to find roles that aren’t specifically Indian characters?
Penn: Yeah, of course, and the more interesting roles are the ones that could be played by anybody. Even “The Namesake” falls into that category, because it could have been a family from anywhere, you know, ’cause the themes are universal. And “Harold & Kumar” also falls into that category. These could have been two white guys, two black guys, whatever.
CS: As far as this character Gogol, when you read the book, was there something from your own background you were able to bring to the character? Are your own parents first generation?
Penn: Similar to Ashoke and Ashima, my parents moved to the States, so in that sense, there’s similar background that way.
CS: Did you ever have his dilemma where you had to decide whether to keep in touch with their culture and traditions or do your own thing?
Penn: Actually, I don’t think that Gogol has that dilemma; I think Ashima has that dilemma. In my opinion, Gogol is really comfortable being this American guy of Indian descent and he’s always doing his own thing. It’s other people in his life who take issue with him being so comfortable, like Maxine for example, they’re laying in bed and she says, “Don’t your parents want you to marry a nice Indian girl?” and he says “I don’t care what they want. This is what I want.” At the party when she graduates, her Mom introduces Gogol as “the Indian architect that Maxine’s with” and Gogol gets bugged with stuff like that, because he’s like, “Why can’t I just be an architect? Why does everybody take issue with race like this?” So Gogol’s actually the one who’s comfortable with his ethnicity and his identity. It’s other people. And as far as his attachment to his family, that’s something everybody goes through. He’s in these post-college years where he’s not in touch with his parents and he should be until something brings him back into it.
CS: When that change happens, he seems to overcompensate by hooking up with an Indian girl who ends up being completely wrong for him.
Penn: Yeah, but I don’t see that culturally. I just see that as him getting back in touch with his family. And as far as that girl being Indian, that’s not why he falls in love with her. He falls in love with her because she’s this really strong, creative woman who studied French literature and has this PhD and he thinks that’s kind of cool.
CS: As far as shooting in India, was this the first time you actually filmed a movie there? Can you talk about that experience and playing different ages while there?
Penn: Yeah, it was incredible. India is a really interesting place to shoot, because the city of Calcutta, just like the city of New York in this movie, each of those cities is a character, just like Ashima, Ashoke and Gogol. It’s great to be in a city that’s that vibrant, you’re just dropped in the middle and you go from there. And playing the different age ranges was great, too. I relied a lot on Jhumpa’s book and the description of the characters at different ages to play those.
CS: And you had to shave your head for the movie. Did you realize that ahead of time when you took the part and you were ready to do that?
Penn: Yes, absolutely.
CS: I know you’ve done a lot of movies, but what was the breakthrough that allowed you to go on and become a leading man in films like this?
Penn: I think “Van Wilder 1” was my big actual break. That’s the first time I got a chance to do like a studio film.
CS: And you then got to star in the sequel. Was it surprising that they decided to shift the story over to your character Taz like that?
Penn: Yeah, I mean when they wanted to spin it off into his own movie, I thought it was a really interesting idea, especially as an actor ’cause the first one was kind of stereotypical, so to take a stereotype and actually make him a full human being I actually thought was an interesting exercise. Unfortunately, the movie itself didn’t turn out as well as we hoped, and there were some problems with it. But it was a good learning experience for that, too.
CS: Is it hard switching gears from something like “The Namesake” to a straight comedy like “Van Wilder” or “Harold & Kumar”?
Penn: No, I love switching gears.
CS: Do you feel more comfortable doing the comedic stuff or do you just like being able to act and playing different characters, regardless of genre?
Penn: I don’t know. I guess both, it depends.
CS: You also have gotten into doing TV yourself with the recurring role on “24.” You obviously have a steady stream of movie roles, so why did you decide to do that?
Penn: It’s just something that came along. I really like the show, and it was a really cool role, so I thought it was something to pursue.
CS: Have you started filming the sequel to “Harold & Kumar” yet?
Penn: Yes, we’re in the middle of it right now. Danny’s no longer involved unfortunately. It’s going alright. It’s a tough shoot, because we have no budget really, it’s a very low budget film. There’s not a lot of support from the production company, but on the plus side, John Cho and I love the characters so much, we’re having an amazing time just being these guys again. John Hurwitz and Jason Schlosberg, the two guys who wrote it are directing it this time, so that’s great. It’s tough but it’s fun.
CS: Have you been shooting that in Europe?
Penn: In Shreveport, Louisiana.
CS: So Harold and Kumar are no longer going to Amsterdam?
Penn: They are, they get there at the end.
CS: “Harold & Kumar” was interesting because it came out in a year where there were a bunch of R-rated comedies that didn’t do well. Then the following year, there was “Wedding Crashers” and “40-Year-Old Virgin,” both huge hits. What are your feelings about them after your own experiences?
Penn: I guess it’s just scripts people write that they don’t want to taper down or censor and hope that the audience will pick up on it, but it depends. If things skew younger, it’s harder to get a successful R-rated comedy because kids can’t get into them.