His real name is Kalpesh Suresh Modi but this Indian American actor is known by his stage name Kal Penn. Seen as the fulcrum of cultural displacement in The Namesake, the actor says his ethnic background did make his struggle harder in Hollywood.
"Being an actor is tough no matter what your ethnic background, but adding race to the game makes things hundreds of times harder. Starting out for me was particularly difficult," Penn told IANS in an interview.
Excerpts from the interview:
Does Kal Penn have a life beyond movies?
I've actually been fortunate enough to be working nearly non-stop since The Namesake. Right after that film, which we shot in New York and Kolkata, I was living in Sydney while shooting Superman Returns. I came back from that to shoot the TV series 24 then headed to Romania for Van Wilder 2. After that, I was back in the States, living in Louisiana for the Harold and Kumar 2 shoot, and then moved back to Los Angeles to shoot the TV series House. Life beyond movies is just beginning.
What about Bollywood? How familiar are you with Hindi films?
I love watching movies. Some of my favourite Bollywood films are Mr & Mrs Iyer, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1942 - A Love Story and Don (the original). As far as actors go, of course Amitabh Bachchan is a given. I am a big fan of Kajol as well. I also like Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Rani Mukerji and Preity Zinta.
The Namesake, I'm sure, has changed your life and career. To what extent has this cathartic masterpiece affected you as a person?
The film itself was the most artistically rewarding experience of my life to date. Having the opportunity to work with such incredible, talented folks like Mira Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sooni Taraporewala and a cast as remarkable as Tabu and Irrfan Khan was so inspiring, I can't even begin to describe it.
The experience I had working on The Namesake showed me that it was possible to tell a refined, compelling story that is as universal as it is personal.
The film uses your character as the central force that brings the theme of the diaspora to the surface. Were you, as a second-generation Indian-American, affected by the theme of reaching into the Indian roots?
I think in some ways the second-generation themes resonated with me, but what drew me to the character was his relationship with his family and the world around him. In a lot of ways I think this transcends being Indian American and actually amalgamates ethnicity into the global world in which we live.
How hard has the struggle to establish yourself been? Is it tough being an Asian actor in the US?
Being an actor is tough no matter what your ethnic background, but adding race to the game makes things hundreds of times harder. Starting out for me was particularly difficult. There wasn't and still isn't relatively, much support for the arts in the South Asian American community.
In the workplace, it's tough to get seen for roles that aren't written with a specific "look" in mind, so there are times when one makes a decision to take a role based on the need to build a resume rather than an artistic outlet.
Things are certainly changing in Hollywood, but the more writers and directors the community can produce, the faster these changes will take place I think.
Harold & Kumar was another turning point in your career. How have you avoided playing the stereotypical thickly accented desi in American films?
I don't think I have managed to entirely avoid that. While I've certainly turned down stereotypical projects in the past, in my first film called National Lampoon's Van Wilder, I was playing a thickly accented exchange student named Taj Mahal. You can't get much more stereotypical than that! Luckily, I had the chance to shoot a follow-up - Van Wilder 2, which has a plot that's more about personality than nationality.
Had I not done the first Van Wilder though, I probably wouldn't have had the chance to work on Harold and Kumar. And without Mira's son Zohran and his friend Sam being huge Harold and Kumar fans pestering her to allow me to audition, I probably wouldn't have had the chance to do that film either. It's been an interesting road full of conscious decisions and a lot of luck.
How was your interaction with Tabu and Irrfan? Both too young to play your parents, and yet so right!
In real life they are way too young to play my parents, but their remarkable transformations are a testament to their brilliance. Once the cameras rolled, there was never any doubt in my mind that as Gogol, my parents were standing before me - not actors. Their talent and commitment made my job so much easier.
Do you visit Mumbai, your native city?
I try to visit India as much as possible. I was born in the US, but have lots of family in Mumbai, so I do try to visit every chance I can get.