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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.


Kal Penn

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 board.

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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