Finding a name, leaving a typecast

Los Angeles – In another daring Hollywood move to break out of being typecast, Kal Penn, best known for his stereotypical stoner lead in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” takes on the leading dramatic role in the film adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s’s “The Namesake.”

In this tale of heritage and self-acceptance, a couple from Calcutta, India moves to New York to raise a family. While the Gangoli parents try their entire lives to assimilate, they can never bring themselves to completely break away from their heritagem while their Americanized son Gogol rails against his background, wanting only to blend into the crowd with a normal name and American life.

In a new cinematic genre to Penn, he experienced what he said has become favorite work to date while acting under Mira Nair, one of his favorite directors. Penn sat down with “The Temple News” to divulge what it was like to portray a three dimension character for once, and how he was cast in the role thanks to a couple of teenagers.

The Temple News: What was it like growing up an American Indian in New Jersey?
Kall Penn: Well, thanks to the genius of “The Simpsons” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” it took a little bit of work to explain to people that I’m neither a cartoon character nor a monkey brain eater.

TTN: What was it like to break out of the roles of Kumar and Taj from “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder?”
KP: It was very welcome. I mean, we’re shooting the “Harold and Kumar” sequel now. But as far as breaking away from the Taj and “Epic Movie” scenario, it was a welcomed change.

TTN: What was it like working with director Mira Nair?
KP: It was awesome working with her. She was one of my role models growing up. She really inspired me to go into filmmaking. To come full circle and have the chance to work with her was really incredible.

TTN: How did you get this role?
KP: I had read the novel while shooting “Harold and Kumar.” I was a huge fan of “The Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, but I had never read “The Namesake.” I began this really aggressive campaign to try and get the job. So I had my manager call her office, and there were no phone calls returned. Then I called myself and there were no phone calls returned.

And then I decided to write her a letter, telling her exactly why I had to play this part in one of my favorite books. That worked only because her son, who was 14 at the time, every night before bed, because he was such a huge fan of “Harold and Kumar,” would say, ‘Mom, why don’t we audition Kal Penn?’ And simultaneous to that, Mira’s agent’s son, who was 15, would say to his dad, ‘Dad, I’m telling you, you have to convince Mira to audition Kal Penn.

I loved “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”‘ And the two of them, on a group family vacation, physically dragged her by the hand to a computer and made her watch the “Harold and Kumar” trailer and tried to convince her to audition me. So finally, after every single night of having her son and her agent’s son berate her, she agreed to audition me and I flew to New York.

TTN: What was it like playing a dramatic role?
KP: It’s a different kind of challenge, but I approach the preparation in the same kind of way. In something like “Harold and Kumar,” even when you’re riding a cheetah high as a kite, there’s an odd sense of reality even within the confines of something so absurd.

Even if you don’t believe you’re actually doing those things, and if you don’t fully believe that this reality exists, then it’s not going to exist for the audience. I think it’s the same way with drama, except in this case, you have a Pulitzer-winning author’s manuscript to base it off of.

TTN: What was the filming experience like?
KP: It’s my favorite film that I’ve worked on so far. I had the most incredible time. We would work 18-hour days and I would go home, be exhausted, and yet couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to do it all over again. So in that sense, I was like, ‘OK, it doesn’t all have to be like “Van Wilder was.”‘ I can actually look forward to going to work in the morning and be really passionate about what I’m doing.

TTN: You sound like you regret your previous acting roles.
KP: Had I not done “Van Wilder,” I never would have done “The Namesake,” because having the credit in “Van Wilder” was one of the reasons I got “Harold and Kumar.” The studios always want an actor who has done something in the past so they know their investment is going to be recouped eventually and the actor isn’t going to screw it up.

So, had I not done “Van Wilder,” I never would have done “Harold and Kumar,” and clearly, had I not done “Harold and Kumar,” Mira’s son would have never got me to do “The Namesake.”

Jesse North can be reached at jesse.north@temple.edu.

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