Kal Penn Interviewed – ‘The Namesake’

     March 3, 2007

I should start off by saying I loved the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. While some of the dumb comedies of recent years have stunk pretty badly, Harold and Kumar and Eurotrip were two that I can watch again and again and always laugh. For awhile now I had heard rumors that they were going to make a sequel to Harold and Kumar and I’m happy to report they have begun filming in Louisiana.

So why am I talking about Harold and Kumar?

During a hiatus from filming Kal Penn came to L.A. to promote his new film The Namesake, needless to say I wanted Harold and Kumar info. While there is some info on the sequel, most of the interview below is about his latest film.

In the film Kal plays Gogol, who is a first generation American from an Indian family. The film opens with his parents, the Ganguli’s, meeting in India and then flying to New York. They want a new life for themselves as well as for their future children. As the film progresses we watch as their children struggle to fit in and find themselves as both American’s and as Indian Americans. The film is another take on the immigrant struggle, but this one is a more modern tale as it starts in the 70’s and goes through today.

And unlike most Kal Penn movies, this one shows his acting range. During the interview that is something he kept going back tohis desire to show his range and depth as a performer. He says that his ideal world would be where he could make both serious films as well as comedies, to not be pigeonholed into one genre over another.

At the end of the interview he said he is going to be doing a pilot for ABC that will be about two EMT’s in Los Angeles. It’s going to be a single camera show in a half hour format and it sounds a lot like Scrubs. If the show gets picked up it might be awhile before we get Harold and Kumar three.

If you would like to listen to the interview click here. Also here is a link to the trailer in case you haven’t seen it yet.

The Namesake opens March 9th.

Have you seen the film?

Yeah. Heartfelt is a good way to describe it. I’m wonder about your sense of it because in many ways your life story parallels the character.

Not really. There are some parallels like obviously being first generation of Indian parents but that’s not really to me what the story is about at all. I think the identify portion of the story is Ashima’s character. She’s the one who really goes through the real identity arch and fitting in with the American society. Gogol on the other hand is born and raised in America. He’s an American of Indian decent. He’s bilingual and he’s comfortable with all that and it’s other people who always take issue with his identity. Those I guess the parallels that I’ve always been very comfortable with. Identity stuff and I’m always weirded out when people ask me questions about it. Do you feel more Indian or more American? Like are they mutually exclusive? I didn’t know they were. They’re not to me unless you’re Native American everyone’s from somewhere so why do you have to pick one. I think Gogol encounters that a lot even with his girlfriend Maxine. She asks him if his parents want him to marry a nice Indian girl and he’s like ‘I don’t know. I don’t care what they want. What I want is something else.” Same when he finds out his wife is cheating on him he… she actually has the audacity to say maybe it’s not enough that we’re both Bengali as if that’s what made him love her. That’s not why he loved her. He loved her because that’s who she was. So those are some of the similarities I guess is that neither Gogol nor myself are uncomfortable with who we are but people constantly feel the need to quantify you as one thing or another.

This is kind of like a change from what we’re used to seeing you….

I hope so.

It’s good and I was wondering the reason why you took the role and not just because of that but to show that for you this is an important thing to show.

Like the spiritual and your cultures.

No not at all. Again I don’t think it’s about culture. I think it’s a very universal American story if anything else about family. I don’t think it’s about culture at least that’s not what I focused on because again I think that’s Ashima’s character not Gogol’s character. I wanted to do the film because I loved the book and I loved the book because it reminded me of A Catcher in the Rye which I know is a completely different book from this one but for some reason I was really drawn to The Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield for some reason. I’m not a rich white kid who went to boarding school in NE but for some reason I loved Holden Caulfield. The thing that got me into drama school was dong a monologue adapted from…I took the first 3 pages of the beginning of chapter 3 of that book and that was my monologue and nobody had ever done that as a monologue and they were impressed by that. You don’t look like a vision of HC at all so similarly for some intangible reason I really felt attached to Gogol and The Namesake and it wasn’t because of the ethnicity thing, it was for something that I really haven’t figured out.

Picking up on Steve‘s question I think one of the things people are used to seeing you in are the broad comedies and you certainly can’t argue with a film that opens at #1 and the success of Harold and Kumar notwithstanding, is it particularly satisfying to you to be able to get a role that shows your acting range?

Yes, very much so. Van Wilder–The Rise of Taj and Epic Movie are not particularly challenging acting wise at least. I say that particularly in comparison to having the opportunity to work on a novel, a film adaptation of a novel written by a Pulitzer winning author. That’s insane. You literally have a manuscript to base your character off of that you don’t have with some of the broader comedies and I think there’s a ….I’m not trying to say there’s no intransient values to those comedies. I think that there is and I think that people forget about the day to day pattern, they go and they laugh and they eat popcorn and make out with their girlfriend and then they go home. But this is very much a different type of film and I welcome that also.

Is this sort of like a signal that this is sort of the direction you’d like to go with your career more or like to leave the possibility open for more of those slapstick comedy type films?

I like to do both. I’m working on the 2nd Harold and Kumar right now. I think up until the past couple of months…the assumption is any actor can be picky about the roles that you take. I don’t think that’s true. I think that it’s just now that I hope the Namesake will let me be a lot more picky with the things I take. I would love to do films like Harold and Kumar and I’d love to do more Namesake. I was able to choose the role in 24 and an episode of Law and Order that I did and I really am thankful for that. I really like telling stories and I like doing the outrageous comedy things and I like doing something like The Namesake and I hope to continue doing both of those but maybe on my terms more.

Going back to Harold and Kumar for a second. I know you guys are filming. I read a whole piece in the LA Times about it which pretty much talked about the story and gave some pretty good details. Could you actually give a little synopsis as well as how is Neil Patrick Harris again?

Sure. Well one of the LA Times articles says that I don’t say anything that isn’t…..

A lot of people haven’t……

Ok. The story starts out with us intending to go to Amsterdam. Similar to not actually making it to White Castle immediately in the first one we don’t quite make it to Amsterdam immediately in the second one. Stuff happens along the way. Stuff I think is funnier if I don’t describe it in intimate detail then it will be much more pleasing for the audience. Neil is back. We haven’t shot any of his stuff yet. He comes in I think next week for about 2 weeks and I’m really psyched that he’s back. Christopher Maloney is back as …he’s playing a clansman, the Grand Wizard I think of the KKK. James Adomian is a great actor/comedian is playing George Bush. You can see sort of where the plot goes. Rob Corgery is playing a homeland security deputy.

Are you …are there any other celebrity appearances because we’ve heard some rumblings?

Who have you heard because I’ve…..

Last week there were like 12 different people who they mentioned and off the top of head ….Dave‘s name came up, Chris and I can’t remember who else.

I keep hearing that Snoop Dogg may be in it which I’m very excited about but I haven’t heard if that’s confirmed or not. I heard a couple of names back and forth but a lot is based on scheduling and whether or not people can make it in and whether or not they will do it. I don’t know. The ones I mentioned are definite. Danielle Harris who’s on One Tree Hill is playing Kumar’s ex-girlfriend. Let me brainstorm while we talk about other stuff. I’m trying to think about who else is in it.

Is it still called Go To Amsterdam?

I don’t know. Right now it’s called the Untitled Harold and Kumar Sequel.

I thought it might be Go To Louisiana?

It’s definitely not Go To Louisiana. I don’t know if it going to be Go To Amsterdam or not.

Your costars in this film are really terrific and they are people that American audiences don’t get to see too much at all. What was it like working with them? Is it different than working on a Harold and Kumar movie?

Yeah. Well, it’s different stylistically also. Harold and Kumar is a broad comedy with really subversive political elements that half the audience gets and other half doesn’t and that’s ok if you get it or don’t because that’s what the movie is for, whereas the Namesake is a very different type of film.

Is there a different feel with these actors?

Well, I think especially Irfan and Tabu who play my parents are huge actors in Bollywood and so for them to come over I think this was a very different medium for them. And for me I’d done mostly broad comedies, broad teen comedies so it was a very different medium for me also. So the 3 of us sort of met in the middle and had this amazing opportunity to work with Mira Nair on this dream project.

In the press packet, it said that you were actually inspired to start acting after watching Mississippi Masala? So how was that for you? Did it come full circle to actually be directed by her?

It did. I saw Mississippi Masala when I was in 7th grade I think, 6th or 7th grade. It was one of the things that inspired me to go into acting. I ended up reading a lot about Mira Nair and seeing her other films. The ones in the past in the ones that came out since and she became this role model who I never met while I was pursuing a career in acting. So yes, having a chance to work with her now is incredible. It’s even better than I would have thought as she was inspiring me to be an actor.

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One of her signatures I think is her use of music and I found it very interesting that the wedding night scene turns out to be a musical number. How did that help in terms of getting the rhythms of the world that’s being created, having that musical element?

That particular scene or just in general?

That particular scene but also in general because I think music is something that’s very important to her.

Music is always the last thing added to a film. I know Nitin Sawhney did the score for the movie and a lot of the songs are not decided until late in the editing stages. For me as an actor music actually plays a huge part in preparing for the character. I always call the writer or email the writer and ask for a list of ….what are the top 10 CD’s this character would have? If I don’t have them in real life, I got out and buy them and put the on my IPod and listen to them constantly looped when I’m driving to work or at the gym whatever. I think music plays a huge part in our personalities and what defines us, especially if this character is listening to something completely different from me. I think it’s really important to listen to that sort of music constantly.

Do you play air guitar on your own?

I don’t but I’m glad that that Pearl Jam thing worked out. The book is set about 10 years before the film is set so I was pitching the idea of Pearl Jam and I said we have to get a Pearl Jam song. They were using some temp music from some local band from the lower East Side and I said it’s not the same as Pearl Jam in the late 90’s or the mid-90’s, trust me. Mira totally got it she said I know but we can’t use Pearl Jam unless Pearl jam approves it and Pearl Jam won’t approve it unless they see the film. So you have to show them the film before they agree to use it and we decided to shoot the scene once with the track they already had with this local band and half the time with this Pearl Jam song playing hoping they would agree to it. I guess Eddie Vedder and those guys own all the rights to license their music for film. So they must have watched it and agreed to it.

Have you met him yet?

No, I really want to. I’m a huge fan.

I was going to say that was definitely had to be…..

Yeah, I’m a huge, huge Pearl Jam fan.

You described it as a universal American story. I see it part of the immigrant saga but it’s repeated I mean we’ve seen the story of the Irish, the Jewish, and the Italians although more mobsters in some groups than others maybe. I wonder about the sense of re-discovering your culture. I think that’s one of the things that Gogol goes through. That’s interesting, that does echo throughout that. That people especially the 2nd the 3rd gens have pushed it aside and then they discover there’s something about the culture they want to return to or at least preserve.

Major spoilers in the next paragraph – do not read until you see the movie. It is in white so highlight to read

I didn’t find that actually. I think it depends on how you read the characters. I actually found what Gogol returns to is his sense of family. I think that sense of family is very universal. I don’t think that he returns to any sense of ethnicity because I don’t think he’s ever lost his sense of identity throughout the course of the film. I think what he has lost is what’s equally universal. You go off to college or you move to a different city from where you grew up, you talk to your parents less. You slowly talk to your friends less who you’ve grown up with. In Gogol’s case, he gets caught up in living with Maxine. He’s living with her family, he’s living in the upper East Side in this beautiful multimillion dollar brownstone and it’s not until his father passes away that he realizes he’s been ignoring his own family and that he’s felt a little bit burdened by his own family. He remembers when his dad lost a parent he shaved his head. Gogol remembers that and he’s like well, I loved my father so I’m going to shave my head when I go home. There’s even a little bit of dialogue with the mom who says you know you didn’t have to do that. Well I wanted to do that because that’s who I am and that’s how I mourn the loss of my father because that’s just what you do. I don’t think he ever really lost any sense of cultural identity I think what he lost was a very universal element of family that I think everyone goes through in some point or another.

What are you doing after Harold and Kumar?

A pilot for ABC called The Call. We’ll see after that.

Can you tell us about it real quick?

Yeah, sure. The Call is the same producers who do 24. It’s a single camera 1/2 hour comedy about 2 EMT’s in Los Angeles.

Who’s the other EMT?

I don’t know yet. I’m not sure.

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