Gurney's Inn
April 04, 2007

Kal Penn Gives Hollywood a Run For It's Money

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Grab a slider at White Castle. What could be simpler? Yet there was nothing ordinary about the 2004 stoner/buddy flick Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

Doing creditable numbers at the box office, Harold and Kumar became a monstrous hit in DVD release.

These days, Kal Penn can't walk down a New York City street without hearing that familiar refrain "Hey, KUMARRR!!!" Such recognition is nothing to sneer at, but the 29-year-old Asian American wants more.

A big step in that direction is director Mira Nair's The Namesake, which recently opened to critic acclaim. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name, it's an intimate, yet universal, tale about cultural assimilation.

The storyline backtracks to 1977 Calcutta, where a young spirited singer named Ashima (Tabu) agrees to marry the older, intellectual Ashoke (Irfan Khan). The blush of romance quickly withers when Ashoke brings his wife to his New York home to start a family. Ashima finds herself isolated, freezing and married to a virtual stranger.

Life improves when their son, named after Ashoke's favorite Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, is born. Yet unlike his conservative, immigrant parents, Gogol (Penn) is determined to forge his own identity.

A promising architect, Gogol marries a rich American girl (Jacinda Barrett), virtually turning his back on his parents. Taken to extremes, he even hides his given name. Yet it's inevitable that Gogol must come to terms with his Bengali heritage.

Surface-wise, Gogol and Kumar have absolutely nothing in common, except a touch of irony.

An avid reader and Lahiri fan, Penn had originally tried to option The Namesake for a future production, only to discover Nair had gotten there first. Next Penn tried approaching Nair without success. She'd never heard of him.

That's when Nair's 15-year-old son, Zohran, and his best friend, Sam, who were fans of Kumar, intervened and launched a persuasive campaign.

The director recalled, "Every night, Zohran would ask, 'Mom, did you get a hold of Kal yet? He's your Gogol.'" Eventually, she bowed and auditioned Penn, who immediately nailed the part.

Although his engineer father and fragrance sampler mother hailed from Mumbai, India, Penn can't relate to the identity crises faced by Gogol. It was only when he began auditioning that he encountered the cruel reality of racism.

One casting director candidly told him, "You're not white or black, so you're never going to get the parts." Another casting director had the audacity to ask, "Where's your turban?" and further suggested he wrap a towel around his head.

Born Kalpenn Modi on April 23, 1977 in Montclair, NJ, an upscale suburb about a dozen miles from Manhattan, he later moved to Monmouth County where Penn attended Freehold Regional High School, cited for its performing arts curriculum.

"It was love from the moment I first got up on the stage. I had a teacher named Steve Kazakoff, who really encouraged me, but still acting seemed like such a risky occupation," stated the 5'11" tall Penn, who was chosen as one of People's "Most Beautiful People under 30."

Reaching a compromise with his parents, Penn enrolled at UCLA where he earned a degree in Sociology with a minor in Theater in 1999. Remaining in Hollywood, he juggled "a ton of odd jobs," giving him the flexibility to audition at odd hours and pick up occasional guest spots on TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," and "Spin City," along with being Lex Luthor's (Kevin Spacey) henchman in Superman Returns.

In a few cases, Penn managed to parlay those early assignments into future jobs, like the campus high jinks 2002 Van Wilder. He reprised the character of Taj Mahal Badalandabad last November in National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj. Only this time, the action shifted to graduate school in England where Taj gave a class of losers a dose of self-confidence.

Aside from looking cool and donning a tux, Penn mastered a new skill fencing, peppered with some Errol Flynn-like sword fighting moves.

It hasn't all been innocent fun. In January, Penn incurred the wrath of Indian-American bloggers when he played Ahmed Amar, a sleeper cell terrorist, on Fox's hit series "24," who was eliminated by Jack Bauer in the fourth episode.

Turning serious, Penn admitted, "As an Asian-American I think the character was repulsive, but as an actor, why shouldn't I have that opportunity? I refuse to be intimidated by media images or peoples' thought processes. There's some merit in having the freedom to play a role that I so vehemently disagreed with."

Come September, he'll have the perfect platform to express those views. Penn is scheduled to teach a course titled "Images of Asian Americans in Media" at the University of Pennsylvania.

Don't expect Penn to sell out on his legion of young male fans, however, because Kumar will be returning to neighborhood multiplexes in 2008. At this moment, Penn can be found in Freeport, Arkansas, on location for the sequel Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam. A proposed European excursion is abruptly grounded when the boys are suspected of being terrorists, a charge that gets them shipped to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Only the president can pardon the guys and clear up the misunderstanding, but finding him is an entirely different matter.

"It's been a really tough shot. The first one was an independent, low budget movie. You'd think after the success of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle that things would be easier and we'd have more money, but it didn't work out that way," Penn lamented.

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