“So who’s the last person you dated?” I ask Kal Penn as we sit down to wait for his hair and makeup to start. “None of your business,” snaps the 29-year-old actor, his expression going from polite to offended. “Are you really asking me that?” he says, shooting me a look of disgust. “You know what? No.” Then, like that seventh-grade bully you felt helpless against, he rips my tape recorder out of my hand, taking the tape out like he’s going to destroy the content of our half-hour conversation all because I asked about his personal life. Holy crap, this interview just took a turn for the worse. I scramble cluelessly in my skin as I realize I’ve managed to piss off Hollywood’s darling of Indian-Americans. Several seconds of awkward tension later, Kal cracks a smile. “I’m just kidding!” he says, handing me back my tape. And while my heartbeat slows down somewhat, it becomes clear what just happened. He got me.
“Listen to this.” Kal’s proudly telling his publicist, the stylist, the makeup artist, the photographer and everyone else who’s around what he’s done.
“Kal is an asshole,” says his publicist, Jen, jokingly. “He always says things [to freak me out], like the plane’s going to explode right before we take off.”
We’re gathered in a suite at the ultra-modern Strand Hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami. It’s 80 degrees and sunny outside and by some weird coincidence “Get Steady” by Jonny Lives! (the song which Kal just co-directed a music video for) comes on a cable music channel. I’m not making this up.
Kal is in town to speak at the South Asian Students’ Alliance conference and promote The Namesake, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of immigrant life whose trailer alone conjured up tears and pride for almost every Indian I know. He’s sporting an orange T-shirt with CALIFORNIA written across the chest, blue jeans, black Puma’s and a sick tan from spending the
last two weeks vacationing in Costa Rica. After lunch, a turkey burger—yes the one time vegetarian (for reasons more to do with concerns about factory-farming than religion) is eating white meat and fish now to get more protein in his diet—I ask if we can do the interview in a quieter room, away from the production crew.
“How far away? We don’t really want him being recognized,” says Jen as we walk a few steps through a public area to the other wing of the hotel. Yes, things have definitely changed since the first time I met Kal, which was a few years ago when he was making his way through the New York media circuit, eagerly introducing himself to journalists. Back then it was just Kal, a backpack and pure enthusiasm.
That was right before Harold and Kumar blew up. The awesome equal-opportunity stoner movie (which has done more for the confidence of young Indian-and Asian-American kids than any PlayStation tournament win ever has) made Kal and his costar, John Cho, rock stars to the underdogs in the IT department. Then came parts in more mainstream movies like A Lot Like Love, Man About Town and Superman Returns (although Kal wants you to know he pretty much got cut out of Superman: “Originally, there were, like, five or six decent scenes. I had a whole subplot with Lex Luthor that they cut for creative reasons”).
Now, a normal day for the New Jersey native involves waking up at 7 in his L.A. apartment, going to the gym, reading the paper (“The New York Times,” he says in a “like, duh” way. “The L.A. Times is a comic book”). Then it’s hitting up some meetings or researching a role. This could mean spending days in the UCLA medical library learning how to extract a bullet, like he did for the operating scene in Harold and Kumar. I wonder what kind of “research” went into playing a pothead. I’m picturing
fat blunts being passed around in a trailer littered with Entenmann’s boxes as Kal and John carried on some deep existential discussion followed by fits of laughter. But Kal sticks to his story—he didn’t smoke.
“Ever?” I ask.
“No. Look, it’s the same thing as being a vegetarian. Everybody’s so shocked that I never ate burgers for the duration of that movie, and that they made me soy burgers,” he says, speaking of the movie’s other vice.
And to prove it, Kal tells me stories about how his college buddies got high and watched cartoons every day. He got down with the Scooby Doo, too. Only sober. “Peer pressure never really got to me,” Kal says. “If I want to do something, I will.”
It totally makes sense that Kal’s so strong-minded. It takes discipline and determination to make it in Hollywood, which doesn’t exactly embrace minorities in a lot of leading roles. And was his family skeptical? hell yeah. As a kid in Montclair, N.J., Kalpen Modi loved putting on shows for his family (he later changed his name, saying it helped with callbacks). “I was a dork growing up. I was in drama club, speech and debate,” he says. It was in high school when Kal saw Mississippi Masala, and knew for sure that he could be an actor. Then it was off to UCLA to study drama. It’s a move that’s scary for most people—but especially for a Guju boy who veers a little on the goofy side.
“Did you ever have a backup plan?” I ask.
“That’s something my mom recently started talking about,” Kal says. “She tells the story of how she used to try to get me to have a fallback career, and I said people who have fallback careers always end up falling back on them, because it’s that financial stability that you get trapped in. So I said I didn’t want a fallback career. There are enough jobs in entertainment that I could do something in the field I love.”
And he did. We first noticed Kal as the endearing wannabe hip-hop kid in the surprisingly good indie flick American Desi and then in Where’s the Party, Yaar? (even if you didn’t watch the movie, listening to the Moviefone voice say “Yaaarrr” was priceless). He also landed TV roles before his big break with Van Wilder. Now with The Rise of Taj, Kal’s one of the few Indian-American actors to carry a Hollywood movie.
“Do you feel a sense of responsibility because you’re the only one who’s representing?” I ask. Here’s where Kal’s demeanor kinda changes.
“No, and I’ll tell you why,” he says, barely waiting for me to get the question out. “The people who are critical of the types of roles [I take] tend to be the guys going to med school or working in finance. So I don’t feel any great responsibility to them, because they’re not trying to change things themselves.”
I seriously doubt that everyone who has issues with Indian actors taking stereotypical roles are doctors. “The fact is, they’re not giving me jobs,” he says. “I thought Van Wilder was incredibly stereotypical. I played an Indian exchange student whose name was Taj Mahal. You can’t get anymore blatantly racist than that.” He adds that he was on the fence about taking the part and consulted with several industry peeps before accepting it. “But you have to have a supporting lead in a studio film on your resume. Hollywood doesn’t care what it is as long as you have it. Then you can go to the next level. I struggled with that a lot, and I finally said, ‘waiting tables isn’t very fun. I’ll take the part.’ Then he adds, “It was me and a white guy, and they were going to paint his face brown and give him the part. So I was like, ‘Screw this. I’m going to take this part and try and make it funny for whatever its worth.’”
Playing the heavily accented loser paid off, because after that came Harold and Kumar. “It was a huge grueling audition process,” he says. “I ended up getting the role because I was the only one in the applicant pool who had a studio film on their resume. And the reason I got the audition for The Namesake was because Zohran, Mira Nair’s son, would say to her every night before she tucked him in, ‘Mama, did you audition Kal Penn yet? I really want you to audition him for Gogol.’”
“So you had the hookup?” I say.
“Well, I [made] the smart decision to do the movie that people diss me for,” Kal says. “It’s very easy [to criticize] without understanding the correlation of how things work. And why do you think there are so few accurate portrayals [of Indians in film or in the media]? It’s because we’re all too busy going to med school and we’re not becoming writers and producers and directors. That’s when things will change more rapidly.”
Kal’s a little, er, defensive. At first I can’t understand why, but then it occurs to me that, the following week he’ll make his debut on Fox’s 24—playing a terrorist. Maybe he’s anticipating the backlash from angry South Asians who feel like he’s helping to instill harmful ideas that brown people equal raging bombers, or maybe he’s a little conflicted with his decision himself. Either way, there is no denying the heated discussions about his acting choices on blogs like the progressive Sepia Mutiny. I feel for Kal. On the one hand, it’s annoying watching him play certain roles (especially when he has spoken out against characters like Apu on The Simpsons), but on the other hand, these are the roles he’s offered, why shouldn’t he get paid? And it’s pretty cool to see an Indian guy be top-billed in a movie. Plus, Kal is everywhere now, with 24, Law and Order and Harold and Kumar 2, he’s putting Indians in the media’s eye. And although he dismisses Van Wilder 2 calling it “a poorly made, not-funny film,” this is his moment.
I can just picture 20 years from now, we’ll be watching an awards ceremony and they’ll give Kal some sort of achievement award.
It doesn’t seem so crazy.
Then Kal says, “I’m not oblivious to the fact that it’s, like, me, Mindy [Parminder Nagra, ER] and Maulik [Maulik Pancholy, 30 Rock] on TV. But then, look at five years ago, there were fewer. There’s been an exponential growth.”
“Do you guys ever get together and shoot the shit about how hard it is to get an audition?” I ask, trying to make light of all this serious talk.
“I don’t actively go around being Indian every day,” Kal says. “I don’t think of myself in terms of race or ethnicity.”
Kal says his most artistically fulfilling role to date is The Namesake, which just so happens to be a movie written by an Indian, directed by an Indian and about the Indian-American experience. We talk about the quirky and fun dance scene, and here’s where Kal throws me off. “For Gogol, nothing is ever about ethnicity,” he says. “Gogol is just Gogol. His mom’s the one who deals with the struggle. People around him can’t handle who he is, but he’s very confident in who he is.”
Whoa. Unless I read the wrong book, I thought it was pretty certain that Gogol did think in terms of race. Gogol spends a lot of the time distancing himself from his Indian family. He’s so uncomfortable with his parents’ traditions, that he avoids them. For a while he doesn’t know how to bring his two worlds together.
But then Kal says, “You know, that’s the great thing about books—they’re totally up to interpretation.”
“Did you relate to the character?” I ask. “Yes, but not because of anything Indian,” he says. “Gogol is a loner, but he’s unique and independent. Other people don’t understand him, but he’s fine with himself.”
I sense that Kal’s a little burned out talking about ethnicity. And honestly, I’m over it, too. “I have an idea: Let’s not talk about Indian stuff anymore,” I tell Kal. “Thank you,” he says, looking relieved. “It’s annoying to always have to represent being Indian. It’s a very small part of who somebody is. I have a lot of [other] interesting things to say.
I hope you think they’re interesting.
Now for the goods, bet you didn’t know that Kal’s got a younger brother who’s vegan, or that he’s boys with the Lonely Island crew (aka the guys from SNL, like Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg, who are responsible for the hysterical and ubiquitous “Dick in a Box” video). He’s even had cameos in a couple of their shorts and starred in “The Avon lady,” a ridiculously funny rap about an ill-tempered dinosaur who hocks Avon products (they’re doing part 2 soon). Kal also tells me that he checks his own MySpace and Facebook pages, so if you’re in the mood to flash him or profess your love, there’s a good chance that he’ll actually see it. “It’s a decent balance between college kids who are offering me drugs or girls who want to marry me,” he says of the messages he gets. “I’m just kidding. But some chick sent me her bio data!”
About that touchy subject of dating, Kal says he is single, but that his mom isn’t trying to secretly post his stats on Shadi.com or anything. “She’s cool with it. I don’t subscribe to that whole ‘you have to be engaged by 24 and married by 26’ thing,” he says. “With my schedule, it’s almost impossible to even date right now. But I’m done with [filming] in April, so we’ll see.”
“Any big plans for that momentous 30th birthday coming up?” I ask.
“I think birthday parties are so weird,” he says. Then he imitates a bratty kid, saying, “‘It’s my birthday—everyone come over and celebrate.’ If I had to do something, I would probably have a sleepover and build forts. And rent Karate Kid and Space Camp and Alvin and the Chipmunks and order pizza. Goofy. Goof troop. That’s probably what I’d do if I had a birthday party.”
Then Kal’s phone goes off. “I get three texts every day at 3 o’clock. MSN has this thing that you sign up for where they send you a text with sports scores or news. I signed up for the science one. Only now, the stories are like ‘how the color green can improve your mood in the bedroom,’” he says in a radio personality voice. “Stupid crap like that.” A science nerd, this is my favorite thing about Kal so far.
Kal Penn was photographed for iSTYLE Magazine in Miami by photographer Rayon Richards.
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