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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

interview with Kal Penn

Kal Penn’s had a busy year. He’s had a recurring role as a med student on House, saw his breakthrough dramatic role in The Namesake released (it’s now on DVD), and now Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay — the sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle — is about to hit theaters (it opens April 25). I chatted with Penn recently via email about his work, the particular challenges (or not!) of being an “ethnic” actor in white Hollywood, and more:
Q: The Namesake took you in a different direction, at least from the roles that have brought you the most notice before that: Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar. Did you have any trouble convincing Mira Nair that you were right for the part of Gogol?

A: It was definitely a challenge. Mira’s son Zohran and her agent’s son Sam were essentially my lobbyists. They were huge “Harold and Kumar” fans, and insisted that Mira audition me for the role of Gogol. Meanwhile, I’d been bombarding her office with emails and phone calls, and the 2 finally came together with her agreement to let me audition.

Q: Was there one particular aspect of The Namesake or of Gogol that made you say, “Yes, I must do this movie”?

A: It was the book. John Cho recommended it to me a few years before the movie was announced, and the book appealed to me in much the same way that The Catcher in the Rye had — the vivid characters who you can relate to because of the human elements of the story.

Q: How did your own experience as an Indian-American impact your performance as Gogol?

A: Gogol and I share a certain family history of experience, so that certainly informed some of the choices we both made, but thanks to Jhumpa’s writing and Mira’s directing, those aren’t the most interesting parts of who he is.

Q: You’ve said before that you Americanized your name out of fear that a too-foreign name is a distraction when trying to find work in Hollywood (similar to the theme of Gogol’s). Are you tempted, as you become better known, to revert to your birth name?

A: If you don’t mind, I’d like to point something out. I find the word “Americanized” pretty absurd. We’re all Americans, so who’s to say that “Americanizing” means one thing or another? If you mean Anglicizing, then I suppose to some extent that applies, though not for the reasons you might think. My close friends and family have always called me by my real name, but like many actors, I also use a screen name for work.

Q: Have you found it difficult to get considered for ethnicity-blind roles? Has this changed — for the better or for the worse — as you’ve become better known?

A: It’s always difficult for any actor to break out of “type” and “typecasting,” and especially when you first start out, the first few years are particularly rough. I have been fortunate in my opportunities, and have now in the last 2 years, finally been able to work with amazing directors, writers, and producers who truly think outside the box. But it’s always an uphill battle trying to convince someone that you’re right for a role that they may have envisioned differently. Hopefully that continues to change for the better — I think it’ll ultimately provide more equal opportunities, and better products for audiences.

Q: How did you land the parts on House and 24? Were you making a conscious choice to seek out TV roles, or did they come to you?

A: I auditioned like everyone else. I wouldn’t say I seek out film or TV roles based on their mediums, but I am trying to seek out interesting roles because they’re well-written. And House certainly falls in that category.

Q: What drew you back to Kumar for Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay?

A: The contract we signed back in 2004. And my love for the writers, cast, and of course, the character.

Q: Will there be more adventures for Harold and Kumar after this one?

A: Probably not, but you never know!

Q: Have you done DVD commentaries on your movies? What did you enjoy most about the experience? What did you dislike?

A: I have a done DVD commentary on the first Harold and Kumar. The actor never has a choice — lots of people don’t understand that. If the studio calls and says, “Will you do a DVD commentary?” you do it. If they don’t call you and ask for one, you don’t. I personally loved the experience on H&K because it’s a way of being able to explain the filmmaking process to the fans who have enjoyed and supported the film.

Q: What’s in your DVD player right now? What movies do you watch over and over on DVD?

A: Right now, it’s a series of old Sessue Hayakawa silent films. I really like politically relevant films, documentaries, and foreign cinema.

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