Kal Penn's film credits include Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (he was Kumar, and will be again in the soon-to-film sequel), Superman Returns, Sueño, American Desi, and the upcoming The Namesake. Penn also originated the role of Taj Badalamanabad in National Lampoon's Van Wilder; Taj has been promoted to star in National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj. I spoke with Penn at San Francisco's Clift Hotel. This interview also aired on Celluloid Dreams (90.5FM in San Jose, CA) on November 27, 2006.
Groucho: We're here with a prominent actor on the rise. Kal Penn, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
Kal Penn: Thank you.
G: And so, the student becomes the master.
G: How much more confident is Taj Badalamanabad this time—?
KP: Taj is very confident now. I mean, in the first film, he was really kind of the nervous sidekick who was so uncomfortable because he had no sense of self, pretty much. And this film is a spin-off four years later where he really is confident—he's comfortable with himself because he's accepted his, sort of, uniqueness. And he's cool because of that uniqueness. It's fun, yeah.
G: And what's he been doing in the four year interim?
KP: He's been the new proverbial Van Wilder in those four years, you know? He took over Van's role essentially as planning parties and counseling the underclassmen and all of that. So now he goes to grad school in the U.K.
G: And what are the top lessons that one would learn from Taj?
KP: I have no idea.
G: He just makes it up as he goes along?
KP: He does. And I say that because—it's funny, he's not—the whole "Van Wilder" brand is not based on any actual set of rules.
KP: It really is the whole unique originality, the—you know, doing things because you want to do them. Finding your own greatness personally, and if people like it, they like it, and, if not, that's their problem, sort of thing.
G: And that sort of stems from a heritage of National Lampoon movies, I guess.
KP: It does. Exactly.
G: Yeah. This movie, of course, has a big rivalry in it. I trust that Taj and his new mates subscribe to the notion that all's fair in love and war.
KP: Of course.
G: Do you play dirty?
KP: Of course. It's a Van Wilder film. It's a Lampoon film.
G: But we wouldn't dare give away—
KP: No, no. But in terms of all the nonsense and the cringing humor from the first one, the spin-off has equal amounts of that kind of stuff.
G: Probably sets the bar a little higher, I would guess.
KP: Yes. Yes.
G: Recently you've moved into playing leads. This is one of a couple of films. You have a film called The Namesake coming out next year.
G: In which you're also playing the lead. But I'm sure you have experience on the stage in playing the lead, right?
G: Do you feel an added responsibility in the center of a big film like this?
KP: No. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) Good answer. But you're also an executive producer. What does that entail?
KP: Well, that was interesting. I—you know, when they approached me to do The Rise of Taj, my first inclination was "no" because I didn't want it to be some lame knock-off sequel. Especially since Ryan did such a great job—Ryan Reynolds did such a great job in Van Wilder, the first one. I didn't want to do something that would be, you know, interpreted as trying to imitate that or something. So we talked about developing an idea that would be a spin-off where it's Taj as himself four years later. And that's where I realized that there might be a good opportunity to help with the creative team on that. And so, we sat down and negotiated being able to produce the film with them. So it was the first time I produced a film and it—I enjoyed it because you have more control over your character and you can kind of help the story—help the plot—make it more fun.
G: Yeah, I'm curious about that, specifically—the creative input you had in building the character and expanding the character to a more full, fleshed-out character. In the first film, as I recall, he's maybe a little more the butt of the joke, and here he's—
KP: Oh yeah. In the first one, he is the sidekick stereotype in a lot of ways. But one of the things the audiences seem to respond to was the more human elements. Things that—I mean, nobody really identifies with a stereotype, right? Because they're the stereotype. If they're the butt of the joke, they're the butt of the joke. But Taj was always likeable. He was always the underdog. And people seemed to identify with the more universal qualities—the fact that he was an eighteen-year-old college freshman who wanted to get laid. The fact that he was dysfunctional and had no sense of self, you know? Those are the things that people are like "This is compelling because this could have been me, or was me, or is my cousin" or whatever they thought, you know?
KP: And in the sequel or rather the spin-off, what was cool was to up the ante on those qualities. You know, it's four years later, he's original and unique and comfortable in his own skin now. And he's passing the torch to other people. And the quirkiness that they liked about Taj is still there, you know? That's not the kind of stuff that goes away. So it was fun to embellish those things and play with it, but get rid of the more boring stereotypical stuff. And replace them with—to me—what's funnier.
G: Yeah. And comedy, of course, is a take-no-prisoners kind of venture—
G: Did you find there were times when you had to negotiate drawing the line in terms of ethnic humor?
KP: There's no line.
G: Or compromise with—
KP: No, rather than compromise, I think what was cool about this is because it takes place at a British university, that is wide open for jokes. The British colonized both India and the United States. And this is hardly Schindler's List or Gandhi, but the fact that that happened means there's so much humor you can go into. The whole arrogant British aristocracy, which still exists, and is still as pompous as it was in the 1700's. You don't make fun of it in a degrading way, but you make fun of it in a way that's pretty damn funny—if you really, you know, do it in a smart way.
G: There's no better target than a stuffed shirt.
KP: Right. Yeah.
G: I wanted to ask you about—a little bit about Superman Returns—
G: Now that you're coming around.
KP: You want to know about my one line in it?
G: (Laughs.) Well, that comes to mind, yeah. I was reading something that one of your fans said on the internet—a female fan who joked that she was one of your stalkers.
KP: Oh, boy. (Laughs.)
G: She said, though, that she was very inspired by your landing that role because it was sort of in a sense a breakthrough for you as a character where your cultural background really had no play in it at all. I wonder what was there that attracted you to the project, and I presume there's some material on the cutting room floor—
G: That we didn't see.
KP: What attracted me to the project was, you know, one of the many things I enjoy about acting, especially in film, is the cultural relevance to things. And the fact that film really stays as part of American culture or global culture—whatever you want to call it. And Superman started as a comic book character in the 1920's [sic]—that whole era—became a popular radio show that confronted the KKK, for example. And it's really steeped in American history. And then, during the Chris Reeve films, it went—Superman went from being the quintessential American hero to being a very global hero in this universal human theme of good versus evil. And it's got such an awesome history—that "S" is recognized everywhere. And I thought that was really neat. So when I knew they were making a Superman Returns, I wanted to be part of it. I mean, obviously, I'm not such a huge actor that I can just call somebody up and say, "Give me a part." You know, you've got to meet and audition and go through the grind just like everybody else. But the appeal was being part of a story like that—an epic like that. A continuation of that. So the original role was a guy named Stanford who was one of Lex Luthor's henchmen who, in the back story, in the subplot, is-you know, he and Lex have this plan where Stanford, who is an astronomer, fabricates evidence in the Daily Planet that sends Superman into outer space to die, so that they can take over the world. But Superman doesn't die, and he comes back and that's where, actually, the film picks up. So I think, you know, it was running long and I have a feeling that, you know, in the later edit, it just seemed like it strayed maybe from the creative vision of the film's creators and director and all that. And, to be honest, I think the film is probably a cleaner cut without that subplot. But there are a couple of scenes, I think, on the DVD special features.
G: And with the sequel now greenlit, has anyone been in touch with you about returning in that role?
KP: No. As far as I know, I died.
G: Well, it's science fiction, you know, and you could be—
KP: That'd be awesome, man. I'd love nothing more.
G: I read that you're in the process of making a documentary film of your own. Is that right?
KP: Uhh, where'd you read that?
G: Well, I read on IMDB—someone said in one of your college appearances you were training your camera on some of the students—
KP: Oh. Right. Yeah.
G: What is that all about?
KP: It's not a quite structured documentary. But I always find it interesting—I find the interaction between audiences and filmmakers very interesting. And I got this idea sort of during the Harold and Kumar press tour because it seemed like a lot of the questions we got were overwhelmingly about race or ethnicity. Or about weed or burgers. Which is, you know, all of that is totally understandable. But the movie to me wasn't about race, ethnicity, weed or burgers. It was just a regular story.
KP: And according to models that studios use, for example, a movie like that isn't supposed to do well. And it didn't do well in the theatres. And so, then a lot of the bitter press was like "See, this movie's never gonna work." Movies with women or people of color aren't going to work, blah, blah, blah. Then it comes out on DVD with no marketing, and it totally takes off because the audience isn't stupid. People just want something that's going to make them laugh. That's, I think, a testament to fans—not to guys in suits who run studios.
G: Right. Or movie critics.
KP: Or movie critics. Exactly. So I this idea where I'm like, you know, I don't believe—I think the belief in Hollywood is that the audience can be pandered to and they only care about what the actors look like. I completely disagree. I think that people want to see something that's going to make them laugh. Or that's going to make them cry. Whatever they want. They don't care what the characters look like as long as they're being entertained.
KP: And when we've been doing the college tours, for example, you're meeting all these awesome fans who supported the film. And there's not one particular look. They come from all different backgrounds. And I thought that was so cool. So I wanted to sort of document my experiences and maybe turn it into something nice.
G: Cool. Well, we're about out of time here, but thanks very much for speaking with us.
KP: Sure. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
[For Groucho's interview with John Cho, click here.]