"I have to go read my nine-page confidentiality agreement," laughed actor Kal Penn, preparing himself for the first interview regarding his recently completed work in one of next year's most eagerly anticipated films, "Superman Returns." After one more quick joke about consulting his lawyers, the "Van Wilder" funnyman settled himself down, offering a rare peek at a comic book extravaganza whose contractually enforced muzzles have kept its details as secret as the Fortress of Solitude's location.
"Oh, man, it was incredible," Penn remembered of the film's epic shoot, rumored to be one of the most expensive of all time. "It was like nothing I've ever seen. ... You see these incredibly talented set designers, and obviously Bryan [Singer, the film's director]. ... It's that kind of film."
The project was a major departure for the 28-year-old star, not only because of its budgetary upgrade over the independent films that have marked Penn's career — including his memorable starring role in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" — but also because the slimly built comedian was cast as a heavy.
"Stanford is one of Lex Luthor's henchmen," he said of the part, which places him in the employ of Kevin Spacey's 21st-century update on Superman's arch-enemy. "I play the bad guy."
The chance to embrace his inner super-villain, coupled with a rare opportunity for the Indian-American actor to take on a role that ignored his ethnicity, resulted in a high-profile movie that provided more freedom than many of his indies. "This is one of those great roles that is an example of when incredible directors and writers can think outside the box," Penn beamed. "They're colorblind casting. They write characters for characters, not for what they look like."
Singer and his "Superman" crew also made the controversial casting decision of recycling Marlon Brando's performance as Jor-El from the deleted scenes of 1980's "Superman II," a move that Penn called "awesome."
Such outside-the-box thinking similarly brought in newcomer Brandon Routh, whose audition soared above some of Hollywood's biggest names to become the new Man of Steel. "Brandon is fantastic," Penn said, "But I'm actually biased, because we were friends for about four years before we got to work on this."
"Two years ago, he was Clark Kent for Halloween," Penn remembered, saying the role was a lifelong dream for his soon-to-be-superstar buddy. "It was really interesting to see him take a character that has been played before, add new life to it ... and I have to say that for all the cast. To see these incredible actors that you've seen in other things before play these compelling characters with that much history to them, I can't wait to see it."
Penn acknowledges that people from across the world have been approaching him for months, trying to extract any tiny tidbits of information. "There's so much I can't tell you," he laughed, apologetically.
As the film (which opens this June) continues to evolve in post-production, all Penn can do is wait. Like many others, he says he was blown away by the movie's recent trailer, and says it was indicative of the way the film will tap into the Superman mythology. "It is really gonna be a great film," he insisted. "The history of Superman too, is one of the quintessential American films. To take it from when it was a comic book way, way back, and taking the history of it and then to re-launch it now with people who understand the history of it, and obviously it's a huge budget film with special effects, but it's also a story that's close to everybody's heart. For me, it was a perfect combination of something that has a lot of artistic merit and something that has a huge commercial appeal to people."
"You can see how everyone's really looking forward to this film, and I can't wait to see it myself," he concluded, possibly imagining a team of lawyers advising him to wrap things up. "The audience is gonna be blown away."
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