Kal Penn has spent the last decade forging a distinctive path through the Hollywood jungle.
The actor, born Kalpen Suresh Modi, battled relentless typecasting (one of his early TV credits is “Young Man in Fez”), but thanks to “Van Wilder,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” “Superman Returns” and a recent guest spot on “24,” he has emerged as the most recognizable Indian-American actor working today.
With his upcoming film “The Namesake,” directed by Mira Nair, Penn takes his game to the next level in what some consider the first award-worthy performance of 2007. Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s beloved bestseller of the same name, the film-festival darling traces two generations of an Indian family discovering that the ties that bind relatives together can also get things dangerously entangled. As Gogol — a young man who embraces Pearl Jam, Christmas trees and blond women while insisting that friends call him Nick — Penn dug into many of his own life experiences for the rare script that didn’t ask him to play a cab driver, terrorist or 7-Eleven clerk.
“My parents, from the time I was born, got a Christmas tree,” said Penn, a first-generation American who was born in New Jersey and graduated from University of California, Los Angeles. “They aren’t Christian, but they got a Christmas tree because all the other kids in the neighborhood celebrated Christmas and they didn’t want us to feel different.”
Penn’s parents came to the U.S. with little money, and they hoped their son’s dreams of being a performer would eventually give way to a career as a doctor or lawyer. In the film, Gogol encounters similar difficulties when his old-school folks watch him sprinkle “like” into his sentences and fall in love with an American beauty played by Jacinda Barrett.
Penn confirmed the rumor that his first reading of “The Namesake” had him dripping tears all over the pages. “I read the book almost in one sitting, and I was bawling my eyes out at the end of it,” he said. “I called my parents just to say, ’Hey, what’s up? I love you.’ ”
Penn believes that everyone, regardless of background, faces struggles with parents and identity. “[The movie] transcends different cultural barriers,” he said. “I went to a screening in New York and one in L.A., and most of the members in the audience were not South Asian, but they were all crying when they left. When I went to the Dubai Film Festival for ’The Namesake’ and it was almost entirely a Middle Eastern audience, it was the same reaction.”
Penn considers his most “Indian” role yet to be the most American character he’s been allowed to play. “I’m bilingual, and so is Gogol,” he explained. “Both our parents are immigrants, we are both American and that’s who you are. But I do hear a lot from people who seem to have had a cultural conflict, as if they need to choose between their friends’ values and their parents’ values. It always weirds me out because I’m like, ’Why can’t you have your own values that are taken from both? Why are they mutually exclusive?’ That’s what America is, isn’t it? It’s not one or the other; it’s both.
“My parents still [call me Kalpen]. … I’ve never changed my name legally — it was important to me to keep my real name,” Penn added. “A lot of producers I met when I first got [to Hollywood] were like, ’You should get a name that is a little more catchy or more anglicized.’ I took my birth name, split it in half, and put ’Kal Penn’ on my résumé and head shots. Suddenly my auditions went up by, like, 30 percent.”
But like Gogol, Penn places great importance on remembering his family’s struggles, appreciating the opportunities America has offered him and making sure to stay in touch with his heritage.
One of the highlights of making the movie was filming at the Taj Mahal. “That was awesome — I had never been to the Taj Mahal,” he said of the show-stopping scene that has the Ganguli family visiting the enormous mausoleum in Agra, India. “I take that back — I supposedly went when I was 5. But this was the first time that I had gone there as an adult. The size of the building, the scope and the history — everything that Gogol finds amazing about the building is what I found amazing about it also.”
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