Sometimes being a teen-comedy icon is not an obstacle to having a serious acting career. Just ask Kal Penn. In the hearts and minds of a generation, he will forever be known as Kumar from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but it was a young fan of the 2004 stoner flick who lobbied for him to be cast as Gogol, the central character in Mira Nair's The Namesake (in theaters now). That youngster happens to be Nair's now 16-year-old son, Zohran.
"Zohran would bug her every night when she tucked him in for bed and say, "Mom, can you audition Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle?" Penn relates.
"I didn't really take it seriously," admits Nair, the acclaimed director of Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. "Then I got a letter from Kal saying, 'I am an actor because of your Mississippi Masala. I was 8 years old when I saw it in a New Jersey mall, and I realized people on screen could look like me' — good seductive things that any director likes to hear. He had a great hunger for the part. He had charm and appeal, but also he had lived Gogol's life almost."
Penn says he was eager to inhabit the role because of the connection he felt to its source, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about the son of Bengali immigrants who struggles to balance his family's traditions with his desire to fit in with American culture, all while being saddled with the absurd name of his father's favorite Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. "It's the kind of book that makes you want to call your parents when you're done reading it," Penn says.
Of course, after Harold and Kumar, National Lampoon's Van Wilder and Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, he was also looking for a role he could sink his teeth into. "It was really nice to be able to play a character like this, especially in contrast to all the other stuff," he says. "If you're a young actor and you're a pretty boy from Iowa, you get on TV, and if not, you do comedies, I guess. Those are the youth opportunities that are out there."
Ironically, one of the challenges for this role was actually playing a teenage Gogol. "I thought about what I was like as a teenager, but more specifically, the book is so detailed from the time Gogol is born until the story ends — from the way that he feels when his body is changing and he's walking down the hallway in high school and feels uncomfortable in his body, to his ATM password when he gets older... things like that," Penn says. "Obviously [I used] physicality: When you're 15, your arms are suddenly really long and you don't know where to put them. And the hair, that mid- to late-'90s grunge thing."
Born Kalpen Modi, Penn has had his own issues with name and identity. "When I moved to L.A., half of my producer friends suggested coming up with a catchier name," he recalls. "The other half were saying, 'If you had a Western-sounding name it would help you get more work.' To prove them wrong, on my head shot and résumé I split my first name into two, and my auditions actually went up. I'm playing other characters anyway, so you can call me anything. I really don't care."
And he's been adding to that list of characters, playing a terrorist for four episodes of 24 earlier this season, a homicidal rapist on Law & Order: SVU and, most recently, a hypochondriac paramedic in a pilot for ABC from the creators of 24.
But right now Penn is going back to his roots, filming the Harold and Kumar sequel in Louisiana. Without giving away the movie's plot, he tells us, "It's very similar [to filming the first movie] in the sense that it's a very low-budget film. It's really bare-bones, not a lot of resources provided. You just go out there and cram as much as you can in a day, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing in the sense that the energy stays fresh, a bad thing in the sense that if you screw up one take, you don't have another chance to do it. Neil Patrick Harris is coming back, Chris Meloni's coming back, Eddie Kaye Thomas and David Krumholtz.... And there's a whole bunch of new people."
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