Kal Penn entered the film scene with a bang after his heralded performances in Van Wilder andHarold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Since those films, however, he’s struggled to find a satisfying role. After working in bombs like Son of the Mask, Superman Returns, and Epic Movie, Penn is now appearing in his first true dramatic role, starring in Mira Nair’s new film, The Namesake. Penn plays a young Indian named Gogol (named after his father’s favorite author), who grows up outside of New York, experiencing failed relationships with his college girlfriend Maxine and his eventual wife Moushumi. I met with Penn during the L.A. press junket, and during his interview, he seemed extremely grateful to be surrounded by members of the college press, present just to interview him.
Penn noted the difficulties in debunking the stereotypes facing Indians in America. “Thanks to the genius of The Simpsons and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Penn joked, “it took a bit of work to explain to people I’m neither a cartoon character nor a monkey brain–eater.”
For Penn, branching out of comedic roles couldn’t have come sooner. “I mean, we’re filming the sequel to Harold and Kumar right now, but as far as breaking away from the Taj [and] Epic Movie disaster—I mean, scenario—it was a welcome change.”
Penn lit up as he talked about working with director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair). “It was awesome. She was one of my role models growing up, who inspired me to go into filmmaking. The chance for it to come full circle and for me to work with her was very incredible.”
Still, it took a bit of work and a little outside help to even get an audition for Gogol. “John Cho had showed me the novel while we were filming Harold and Kumar. I was a huge fan of the author, but I had never read The Namesake. I read it, and then John and I talked about getting the rights to shoot the film. We had our lawyers call, and they called us back and said Mira Nair had the rights. Now, between those two phone calls, John and I had talked about if we got the rights, we couldn’t think of anyone but Mira Nair who should direct it.”
While at first Penn’s efforts to get cast were unsuccessful, karma from Harold and Kumar eventually paid off. “I began this really aggressive campaign to get the job. I got my manager and my agent [to] call her office, and there were no phone calls returned. Then I decided to write her a letter, telling her exactly why I had to play this part. And that worked only because around the same time her son, Zohran, who was a big fan of Harold and Kumar, every night before bed would say, ‘Mom, why don’t you audition Kal Penn?’ Around the same time, Mira Nair’s agent’s son, Sam, would say ‘Dad, I’m telling you, you have to audition Kal Penn.’ The two of them physically dragged her by the hand to a computer and made her watch the Harold and Kumar trailer and tried to convince her to audition me. So finally, she agreed.”
Gogol’s relationship with Maxine (Jacinda Barret), who comes from a prominent Upper East Side family, is complicated by ethnic differences. Their relationship falls apart when Gogol’s father (Bollywood star Irfan Khan) dies. Penn, however, didn’t think the ethnic divide caused their breakup. “The character of Maxine irritated Gogol enough that it becomes clear when his father passes away that she’s even more self-absorbed than he is. And that’s the biggest reason it’s not going to work out; it’s not that she doesn’t understand him culturally.”
Along the same lines, the breakdown of Gogol’s marriage to Moushumi inverted the problem with Maxine. “It showed me that ethnicity and culture have nothing to do with any of that. I think it’s summarized when they break up and she says, ‘Maybe it’s not enough that we’re Bengali.’ That thought never even entered his mind until she brought it up.”
Despite the great disparity between the film and his past roles, Penn didn’t change his acting style. “I kind of approach preparation in the same way. It’s something like in Harold and Kumar when you’re riding a cheetah, high as a kite, there’s an odd sense of reality. But if you don’t believe in that reality, if you don’t fully believe that it exists, then it’s not going to exist for the audience. I think it’s the same in this case, but here you have a Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s manuscript to work off.”
The film addresses the spiritual journey of Gogol from his teen years to his early 30s. When asked if the film marked a spiritual journey for him, Penn was ambivalent. “It depends on what you mean. On the one hand, no, not really, on the other hand it’s the favorite film I’ve worked on so far; I had such an incredible time. We’d work 18 hour days and I’d go home exhausted, and I couldn’t wait to get up and do it all over again. So in that sense it was kind of like ‘OK, it doesn’t have to be all like Van Wilder was. I can actually look forward to work in the morning and feel passionate about what I’m doing.’”
When asked if his comedies felt more like work, Penn countered, “No, I think this was more like work. You can’t really compare them because that was a supporting character, while here it’s a fully fleshed-out character [who] drives the plot of the film. But as a stepping stone, had I not done Van Wilder, I would not have done The Namesake. Having the credit of Van Wilder was one of the reasons I got Harold and Kumar. And if I hadn’t done Harold and Kumar, Zohran and Sam would not have insisted that I did this role.”
Penn is one of the first Indian actors to make a name for himself in his own right in the U.S. He was hesitant, however, to suggest he has paved the way for Indian Americans in the entertainment industry. “It’s weird to think about that. I think Mira really paved the way. I wouldn’t credit myself at all. Sendhil [Ramamurthy] is on Heroes. Actually, if you look at the background, there’s an illustrious history of people who studied it and are living it. I don’t think commercial success should be considered an indication of people entering the field.”
When The Namesake opens on Friday, it may finally be time Kal Penn gets the spotlight on his own terms.