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by Brad Balfour
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
December 2, 2006.
Kal Penn, doing Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj Ė the spin-off of
National Lampoon's Van Wilder (which starred Ryan Reynolds) ó keeps
him employed and laughing. But this wasn't what the real Kalpen Suresh
Modi was doing when he started out acting. At first he played secondary
characters in a bunch of TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and
Spin City and was a lead or supporting cast member in some of the
first indies to feature authentic South Asian American characters
(especially American Desi), until he made the first Van Wilder
film. That film put Penn on the map, the same map he made a mess of when
he cruised all over the State of New Jersey as stoner Kumar Ė the
Indian-American med student who pals around with Harold, the
Korean-American investment banker Ė in search of the perfect burger in
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.
Since that benchmark, he has offered character support in a slew of other
comedies and a few dramas like Superman Returns. But now, with
The Rise of Taj, Penn grabs the comic lead and makes it his own as he
relays the story of how Van Wilder's protege, Taj Mahal Badalandabad, goes
from Coolidge College to the halls of England's Camford University (where
he continues his education and teaches a band of uptight Anglo-geek
students how to get cool and triumph on campus).
Of course, Penn doesn't want his audience to think comedy is all he's
capable of. He has also recently tackled the male lead in master director
Mira Nair's rendition of Jhumpa Lahiri's acclaimed story The Namesake.
And this is a film Ė to be released in the States next year Ė
that's been garnering accolades at festivals already.
Where did your
goofiness from? You started doing indie films but then did
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; that certainly changed the kind of
roles you've been doing now.
I think the
characters Iíve played early on have definitely appealed to the goofy
comedy element, but itís really random. When you start out as a young
actor, itís pretty much the WB TV network or teen comedies that you can
get jobs in. I happen to not be pretty enough for the WB, soÖ
I donít think youíre
too broken up about that. But which WB show would you have wanted to be
You know, I really
liked Off Center, which was a sitcom John Cho was in. I really
liked Everwood. They do have some good shows. I also like
you prefer to be a demon on
Supernatural or the love interest in Everwood?
What, I canít do
both? I prefer film to television. For the most part.
Why is that?
You have more
freedom with your characters.
Some people say TV
gives you the chance to really stretch out.
I havenít really
seen that. I can see it if youíre on a series for eight years, but Iíve
had limited experiences in television.
What about you
creating a series?
Thereís been some
discussion about that.
But in a way, you
have created a franchise both with
Harold and Kumar
and now with The Rise of Taj. You even took an Executive Producer
credit with this film.
When they first
approached me to do another Van Wilder, I said no. I thought Ryan
Reynolds did a great job and didnít think a sequel was necessary. But
after they explained that it was a spin-off and not just a sequel I
thought it would be fun to develop the concept of Taj having his own
But if they really
wanted it to be about Taj, I had many notes. I didnít want to play a
one-dimensional sidekick and, at first, I didnít see how Taj could have
his own film. After all, the one-note joke gets old and I wanted to make
that didnít happen if we were shooting an entire film based on Taj. The
producers are smart men.
Wedding Crashers after Van Wilder and had a lot of success with
comedies. I wanted to be part of that and have creative input. We worked
out an arrangement where I helped produce, had some creative and casting
input. So we all worked together.
What was different
this time around?
Itís not a
Brit-slamming movie. It slams the characters, not the British. I actually
think it shouldnít be called Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, because
itís a little misleading. Itís not a sequel. Itís a spin-off film, in the
same vein that the National Lampoonís Vacation movies were. We are
not trying to imitate the same character in the same plot. So if you
enjoyed the first film, this is probably another film that youíll enjoy. I
donít see it as being in competition with each other. I think Ryan
Reynolds did a great job at being Van Wilder. Taj is not trying to be Van
Wilder Ė Taj is trying to being Taj. They complement each other.
you contribute any of your own jokes to the film?
Yes though itís hard
to say. There was a lot of improvising and when you give your own material
to a film it becomes part of the project so itís hard to separate what is
ďmineĒ and what is ďthe filmís.
Harold and Kumar, you created a series that follows in the National
Lampoon tradition. Did it shock you that you became an icon?
Yeah. You do these
films, which are fairly low-budget compared to a film like Lord of the
Rings or Superman, and you meet with other actors who love
storytelling and love making people laugh. Sometimes the movies do well in
theaters, sometimes they donít. Then they do really well on DVD and some
kid comes up to you on the street and yells a line from your movie that
you shot three years ago. It takes you a few seconds to realize what
theyíre doing. Itís really weird.
Is a sequel planned
Harold and Kumar?
Yes, weíre shooting
it in January in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Harold and Kumar meets Superman?
No, no. I donít
think so! But we are in discussions with Brandon Routh [who played
Superman] to play a cameo. I donít know if I was allowed to say that
but many of our friends were in the first Harold and Kumar. Ryan
Reynolds had a cameo and so did Jamie Kennedy. Obviously we met because of
Van Wilder and Malibuís Most Wanted, but we enjoy working
together. Itís the same with John Cho and Eddie Kaye Thomas. So, I love
working with friends because you develop a work relationship that is also
What will Brandon be
doing with you?
Right now they donít
even have a title for the script yet, so itís in the very early stages.
The first one, I wouldnít say it was Ďcameo heavyí but the movie really
benefited from fantastic actors who did our film for not a huge paycheck
but because they liked our film. I know Brandon was a fan of the first
film. Mos Def was a fan of the first film I heard. I met Kanye West last
year who said he was a big fan of the movie. Itís all these guys weíve met
over the past two years that weíve had the chance to hang out with because
of a mutual appreciation of the work. We kind of compiled a list together
and see who might want to be in the sequel with us.
Who else is on your
Iím a huge Líil Kim
fan. I donít even know if she knows the movie exists, but I would love to
work with her.
you the funny kid growing up?
I donít know. Off
and on, I guess.
Though you got into
acting in films through teen comedies, you really do have a genuinely
funny side to you. There must be something to that.
A lot of comics say
they were the class clown, but you didnít do standup.
No, Iím scared of
stand-up. Is there something I do a lot?
Were there funny
movies you found inspirational?
I like really
bizarre characters that are grounded in something. Sometimes they come
from really weird places. I really like Office Space and Ferris
Buellerís Day Off. I really like Dude Whereís My Car? I really
like a lot of the characters. Thereís a lady at the DMV who I think is
hilarious because she laughs for no reason during her entire scene. You
know during the filming of that scene, that character drives some sadistic
pleasure out of making people miserable at the DMV. And itís clear that
thatís her intention as an actor. But you never get to see weird
characters like that. Like, why is she doing that and why is she at the
DMV? I donít want to deconstruct the setting of a scene, but those are the
types of things I really like.
Do you like the
trend of comics taking serious roles?
I donít know what
itís like. Iím not a stand-up comic, but for me, itís just sort of random
that I fell into comedy. I would love to follow in the footsteps of people
How much of a
Bollywood fan have you been?
I've watched some
Bollywood films. And I like them.
Have they had any
inspiring moments that you'll include in your films in the future?
No. Most of the
films that come out of India that I like, I guess you'd call them
independent films. Mr. and Mrs. Ire, Bombay Boys, stuff like
that. I enjoy watching the big song and dance stuff too; I can see myself
in one of those [laughs]. As far as the post-colonial stuff... Most
of what Iíve seen is when it ends up in Bollywood films Ė Iím not well
enough versed to probably say anything about it Ė but it seems like itís
either really well-versed or really over-the-top.
Thereís a middle
ground, especially when youíre doing a T&A movie Ė like a college comedy Ė
you can do it in a different way. It can be in the middle of fencing or it
can be at a poetry reading. Something kind of out of left field, so that
youíre poking fun at human nature and itís fun for everybody. Itís not
like youíre burdening the audience with it. Youíre letting them have fun
youíre not looking for your opportunity to be in a Bollywood film?
I wouldnít say Iím
searching for the opportunity but I certainly wouldnít be opposed to it.
Bollywood version of a T&A college comedy?
Hereís the thing: I
love storytelling. So if someone were to come to me with a great idea for
a Bollywood film, Iíd totally consider it. I think it would be interesting
There is quite a
contrast in genres going from this film to your other recent project, The Namesake, Mira Nair's adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel about
American-born Gogol, who wants to fit in despite his family who clings to
their traditional past. Was it difficult to clearly establish the
difference in character of one film to the other?
The goal is to never
just do one specific genre of film. Itís to do a bunch of stuff with
storytelling. Working with Jhumpa Lahiri [and Mira Nair] was incredible.
Iíd love to take my career in that direction as well.
A lot of South
Asian-Americans got their start working on films with South Asian
subjects. In a way, you actually are finally getting to one.
I actually did a few
smaller South Asian-American films that I didnít find particularly
interesting to work on. Iíve done my fair share of those. This, I wouldnít
be misled because of the ethnicities of the characters. I think this is a
very American film and is not at all in the same ballpark as other films
that have South Asian characters in them. You have a world class
filmmaker and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. In my view, it just so
happens that theyíre characters of South Asian descent. But the book is
more like a Catcher in the Rye and the film is more like a
Notebook, in terms of the beauty that comes from this loneliness, more
than it is, like, a Bend It Like Beckham. It's a great film.
Whatís the contrast
of working with a director thatís focused on comedy and a director thatís
focused on drama? Do you get more improvisational with the comedy?
I think it depends
on the director. And also with Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, you
have a character I played when he was four years younger and a very
different person. They probably trusted the cast more in a film like this
to just improvise because you know the characters much more. Itís a freer
form story than maybe a drama would be. Itís a teen comedy. We hope people
just have fun with it.
you feel weird, after doing a film like
The Namesake, to play a character that plays up the Indian accent?
It wasnít a big deal
for me, because I donít equate accent with stereotype. I think that if a
character has an accent and the character is also one dimensional and does
not contribute to the plot, and is the butt of a joke, then itís very
stereotypical. But a character can have an accent and drive the plot of
the film and get the girl and fence somebody and put somebody in trouble,
and help the underclassmen pass exams and be a real human being.
It wasnít a concern
in this case. It has been a concern before but this wasnít one of those
cases, because I didnít feel the film was stereotypical. In fact, I
thought the first Van Wilder was a bit stereotypical, so it was a
great opportunity to keep the universal humor that people like Ė with Taj
being the underdog Ė but make it funnier for reasons everyone can relate
Howís your fencing
now? You were definitely shown up by your English girlfriend (played by
Itís better than it
was before, but ask herÖ
She whooped your
actually. I had no fencing background. I was so scared to shoot with the