On Wednesday I was given the opportunity to participate in a chat with Kal Penn, whose role in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle has made him a house-hold name among college students and pot smokers. He’s also, I think, a naturally good actor. Maybe that comes off as kissing up somehow, but it’s an honest opinion. He impressed me most in A Lot Like Love because even though the role was extremely limited, he actually managed to upstage Ashton Kutcher while the two shared screen time.
Penn is, of course, doing press for National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, a spin-off sequel to Van Wilder (which gets released next week in a “unrated” version). The interview became a conference call with several college papers throughout the country (we were the only online press around). Penn seemed like a fairly level-headed fellow, which is always refreshing, because when it comes to talking with celebrities, you never quite know what you’re going to get. The following is a selection of the questions and answers from that interview, so I hope you enjoy it.
Question: Did you ever expect you would be making a sequel to Van Wilder, and how did that come about?
Kal Penn: Ah, no, I definitely never thought we’d be doing another Van Wilder movie. In fact, when they called me to do it, I said, ‘I’m not really into it. I don’t want to do a knock off’. The first one, people liked so much, and Ryan [Reynolds] did such a nice job. And then we talked about it, and they said they don’t want to do a knock-off sequel, they want to do a spin off. So they said, ‘We want to take your character, none of the other characters come back, we want to take your character four years later going to grad school.’ So that was sort of interesting to me, and we sat down and talked about how to develop it. In the first one, I play this sort of sidekick, stereotypical kind of guy. But what people liked about him was that he was the underdog. Everyone’s kind of dorky at some point in their lives and we rooted for him because of that. So, we took the elements of the character that were fun and just kind of embellish them a little more and spin him off into his own movie. I definitely didn’t think we would actually do it, but the script was pretty funny, and we tested [the film] with different audiences around the country and people seemed to like it. So, I hope people enjoy it when it comes out.
Q: Was Van Wilder and the upcoming sequel reflective at all to your actual college experience?
KP: No, it was very different. I actually went to a school that I’m really embarrassed about this week. I went to UCLA, and I don’t know if you guys have been following the news, but a student was Tazered five times while he was handcuffed and pinned down by UCLA police in the library. It’s on YouTube, and the student was obviously acting up, but the excessive use of violence by these cops — if you can call them cops — is just outrageous to me. Apparently this is what’s happening at UCLA this week, but that’s not what my experience there was like. We sort of studied during the week and partied on the weekends, which is different than the Van Wilder experience, where they basically party all week.
Q: You’re doing a sequel to Harold and Kumar, can you tell us about that?
KP: The Harold and Kumar sequel is actually untitled right now. IMDB isn’t usually that accurate, but I think they said for a couple of months that the title was going to be Harold and Kumar go to Amsterdam. But that was never the title. It’s untitled right now, and we’re shooting it in Shreveport, Lousiana in the middle of January. I just read the first rough draft of the script, and it was ten times funnier than the first one, I thought. But I don’t know what the final plot’s going to be because they’re re-writing it right now.
Q: According to IMDB, is says you are a vegetarian? Is that true?
KP: No, I’m not. I used to be a vegetarian, but I kind of go on and off.
Q: Were you one while filming Harold and Kumar?
KP: Yes, I was.
Q: What was it like having to eat those burgers?
KP: We actually didn’t eat real meat burgers. We actually got Boca burgers and cut them into little squares. It’s the magic of movie making.
Q: Were you a big lover of White Castle before the movie?
KP: I was not. And I’m still not.
Q: Speaking of Harold and Kumar, I was curious about the DVD menu. It’s one of the best parts of the DVD — aside from the movie, of course. How did that get put together?
KP: The company that did the DVD had an idea of doing a menu that would loop with five or six different loops. They had a rough script and they asked us to just talk for 20 minutes. And we were like, ‘You just want us to sit their and talk?’ It was a little strange. So we got into character and they had these cards, which we loosely followed, while also doing some ad lib.
Q: You’ve done a lot of comedies, are you interested in moving into dramas and other genres?
KP: Yes. Actually, the goal was never to do just comedies, it was to do comedies, drama, action if I can get into it. I’m in the new season of 24 for a couple of episodes, and that starts airing in January. And I have a drama coming out in March called The Namesake, based upon a book with the same title.
Q: Can you talk a little more about The Namesake, which deals with a character of Indian descent who changes his name from something more ethnic to more American. I was curious if that was reflective at all of your own experience?
KP: The character that I play and myself had two totally different experiences in terms of the name change. The character I play is an American kid born in New York City and they gave him a Russian name, so he’s sort of screwed up in the head about that. And my whole name change thing, I haven’t legally changed my name, it is more of a screen name deal like many other actors have done.
Q: Right, many actors change their name in favor of something less ethnic. Do you think Hollywood has changed at all in terms of how people are seen or cast in relation to their name?
KP: Yeah, I think so, slowly. That was the weird thing about doing the whole fake name change thing. I just took my first name and split it in two and added and “n” and put it on my headshots, because friends of mine were telling me that if I had a less ethnic-sounding name then I’d get more work. But I didn’t believe it, and I did it to prove them wrong. And then… it worked. I was getting more auditions, which I thought was screwed up. So then I thought if that’s all I have to do in order to get more auditions, then it’s totally worth it. So I think things are changing, but not as fast as most people would hope. A show like Lost, for example, is great because it has an incredibly diverse cast that is really reflective of the country and of the world. But it doesn’t make an issue of it. They’re stuck on an island, and they don’t get divided by race, they get divided based on other things. Or unified by other things. And those things make the plot more interesting.
Q: Do you have trouble gaining roles because of your ethnicity?
KP: Typecasting is always a big problem, regardless of race. The way that film and TV works, it’s all based on type. If people think you look like a specific type, then that’s all they want you to play. And if you’re studying theater, then it’s really frustrating if they only want you to play one kind of role.
Q: How’d you get started as an actor?
KP: I went to a performing arts high school in New Jersey. It was a public high school, actually, and they had a program where you could take college level theater and film classes. And after that I studied theater and film in college. I missed a lot classes trying to make auditions and get into films and independent films, but it paid off, thankfully. Although my GPA wasn’t the best.
Q: What would you consider your big break?
KP: My first big role was probably in Van Wilder.
Q: How long were you trying to break in before you got that role?
KP: About four or five years, doing little bit parts in commercials or student films for no money.
Q: Did you ever consider giving up and trying something else?
KP: No, I did not. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I never really had a complete fall-back career. I’m sort of opposite of most people. In high school, I always thought that science was a fun hobby, but I never wanted to do it as a career. I wanted to do the film thing as a career. And most people, I think, do the drama club as a hobby with science as a career. It’s kind of the same thing now. I take classes and I’m trying to get into teaching a little bit, but that’s mostly on the side.
Q: What advice would you give to those who are following in the footsteps of being an actor?
KP: I’m glad that I stayed in school and finished school, but I’m also glad that I took some risks and missed some classes in exchange for work. I probably wish I had balanced things better, with a little more on school and a little less on career, but not as much because then I wouldn’t have the success I have now.