Desi Making Waves
By Elaine G. Flores
Breakout Star: Kal Penn Is Changing The Face of Hollywood. Next Stop, DC?
One of Hollywood's rising stars is Kal Penn, the
30-year-old New Jersey native who has captured attention for the hit
stoner comedy, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Recently,
he also has delivered a critically lauded performance for Mira Nair's
family saga The Namesake, starred as Dr. Kutner on House
and has worked with some of the best in the business. But his interests
extend well beyond Hollywood, and he's caught the eye of another star
who just might end up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though you're probably best known for comedy,
thanks to Harold & Kumar, you're also a dramatic actor.
How do you feel about balancing the material you take on?
Anytime you have a history of playing a character of a particular
genre, you need to break out of that. Something that has been really
surprising, in a nice way, has been the response from what I call
the smarter directors in town, who are the folks that I want to work
with anyway. The creators of 24, Joel Surnow and Howard Gordon;
Bryan Singer, who directed me in Superman Returns; certainly
Mira Nair; House, these are producers and directors and casting
directors who want to break out of type, and they want to go with
what they call an "interesting choice" rather than someone
who just sticks with the same genre.
So you have Harold
& Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay coming out and Two
Sisters. What is that movie about?
Two Sisters is great. It's a short film that Margaret Cho
directed. We had the chance to meet when I was working on Superman
in Sydney, and we became friends. I can't wait to see it. It's a great
script about two sisters that takes place in Topanga Canyon in L.A.
You have been described as "the first
Indian-American actor to have a successful career in mainstream Hollywood."
What do you think about that kind of statement?
I don't think that's true. I know it's meant to be a compliment, but
often times those things are a little silly. Just like we all have
friends who are doctors or lawyers or whatever, none of them went
to school thinking, "I'm going to be a black doctor" or
"I'm going to be an Indian lawyer." You just do what you
love to do. In my case, my passion is in film, and I just decided
to do it. Certainly there are struggles when you're entering a field
where there's typecasting, and it's not as diverse as it will be in
a few years. I owe a lot of credit to the people who are changing
that. I'm just the actor so I know I'm the face that's seen, but there
are a lot of writers, producers and directors who are telling compelling
stories and most of all, the audience, who is supporting the stuff
that I do.
I didn't legally change my name [which is Kalpen Modi], I took my real name and split it in half to use as my stage name, and it seemed like auditions started picking up. I've never figured out if it was more palatable, was easier to pronounce or just sounded cooler.
Do you find yourself getting
cast as other ethnicities?
When I was first starting out, obviously when any actor is starting
out, you first fill a type and that's what you're restricted to, and
what I'm trying to do now is to break out of that a little bit. Both
in terms of ethnicity and genre, working in other mediums is important
to me artistically. A good example is my role on House right
now. The producers and casting on that show don't burden themselves
by worrying about silly things like ethnicity or even gender. When
I went in to audition, I originally read for the part of the Mormon
doctor. In the audition room for that role, there were Caucasian-American
actors, Asian-American actors, myself; ultimately, it ended up going
to the person who they thought was the best person to play that role,
who happened to be African-American. And I ended up getting the role
that was originally written for a Jewish-American actor. They really
don't tokenize anything. They really are committed to casting the
best actor, which is where I hope Hollywood will go.
How did your
name change impact your career?
It's funny, when I first moved to L.A. I toyed with the idea of coming
up with a screen name. Whoopi Goldberg is obviously not Whoopi Goldberg,
and there are a whole bunch of actors who came up with interesting
names. I didn't legally change my name [which is Kalpen Modi], I took
my real name and split it in half to use as my stage name, and it
seemed like auditions started picking up. I've never figured out if
it was more palatable, was easier to pronounce or just sounded cooler.
What are your future plans?
There are two things that I want to do in the next few years. One
is to teach and one is to run for office. I'm a big political buff
— I always have been ever since high school. The cool thing
is I got to meet Senator Obama a few weeks ago, and he is incredible.
I don't want to make this a political interview, but he called me
up and said, "I'd love it if you would come with me on the campaign
trail to Iowa." I obviously agreed to endorse him before that,
and I [went] out to Iowa and joined his campaign. I probably had the
most genuine conversation with him that I've ever had with a political
figure, especially in terms of Indian-Americans. There have been other
political parties that asked me to be a spokesperson to raise money
from the Indian-American community, and I always thought that was
a little weird because it was tokenizing. It's saying, "We don't
see you as American, we see you as this. We know that you have resources,
so we want you to donate those resources." And then here comes
somebody like Obama, who says point-blank, "You have an interest
in politics." I'd met him at a meeting, and I'd gone to a fund-raiser
before that. He said, "Thank you for your support," and
the support was based on his beliefs and his leadership. At no point
did ethnicity come into that conversation, and I think that that's
the way most Americans view themselves. We're all American, and we
need to stop being divided by all these terms that people use to define
us. I was so proud to hear that come from him that I just jumped on
I'm seeing a ticket and I like it.
Obama/Modi? [laughs]. I've been registered to vote since I turned
18, but never as a Democrat or a Republican. I've always voted for
the folks that I thought were the best candidates. That seems like
it makes the most sense.
Elaine G. Flores is a feature writer for Soap Opera Digest, columnist for the St. Louis American and freelance writer. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and lives in New York.
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