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Since being named by the New York Times as one of the best actors of 2004, Kal Penn has moved on to become a box office draw and a community hero. APA got in on the junket action and stole a quick interview with the man himself.
The trailer for Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle may have humorously called him "that Indian guy from Van Wilder," but in the three years since his 2004 breakthrough, Kal Penn has become Kal Penn, not someone defined by race or an association with stoner films. Well, the stoner stigma will be harder to shake off: even in his latest film, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's acclaimed novel The Namesake, his character is the source of pothead hijinks. But in the context of Indian American representation and the model minority myth, there's something empowering about type-casting against type.
Penn may have resurrected his character (and accent) from Van Wilder for The Rise of Taj, but he became the sequel's lead. Epic Movie may have been in the same vein of adolescent humor, but Penn got top billing in a film that opened at number one in the North American box office. Meanwhile, "that Indian guy" became Lex Luthor's right-hand man in Superman Returns, one of the most high-profile films of 2006.
The Namesake is in some ways part of a continuum of Indian American-themed films that Penn has been doing consistently since American Desi in 2001, although it's clear from our short chat with him that such a designation may not be completely appropriate. Regardless, The Namesake will be advertised, interpreted, and claimed from a number of perspectives, reflecting the contradictory nature of an "ethnic" American film, made by a world-class auteur (Mira Nair), shot partially in India, and sold by a major Hollywood "indie" distributor (Fox Searchlight).
APA had five minutes Kal Penn, who chimes in on all this and more. --Brian Hu
Interview with Kal Penn
February 10, 2007
Century City, California
Interview by Brian Hu
Video edit by Oliver Chien
Transcribed by Ada Tseng
Asia Pacific Arts: So I was listening to the radio a few months ago -- I think this was for Rise of Taj -- and the interviewer asked you the whole "Where are you from?... No, where are you really from?" thing. Does it still amaze you that this happens?
Kal Penn: Yes. It kind of amazes me that people are such idiots sometimes. That the question "Where are you from?" is really meant to classify you and to suggest that you are not American and perhaps you are from somewhere else -- some mysterious Oriental foreign exotic place. And that's ridiculous.
APA: I remember there was a line in the film where this actually happens. Was that originally in the novel?
KP: Yes, it was in the novel.
APA: Can you talk about what attracted you to this novel to begin with?
KP: Yes, John Cho actually recommended it to me when we were shooting Harold and Kumar (the first one), and I was a huge fan of Jhumpa's first novel The Interpreter of Maladies, but I hadn't read The Namesake yet. And he suggested reading it, and when I read it, what attracted me to it was -- it was sort of this intangible thing that attracted me to Catcher in the Rye when I first read that when I was 14. And obviously I'm not a white rich kid from a New England boarding school, but for some reason Holden Caulfield was this character that I coule relate to. It was the same thing with Gogol. We share a similar family history or background, but that wasn't what ultimately attracted me to the character, and I still can't figure out what exactly what it was. Part of it may be his cynicism, part of it may be that his career choice is nontraditional. I don't know what it is still, but it was immediately my favorite book and I really wanted to play the character.
APA: Is there anything different about this project from other South Asian American films that you've worked on like American Desi and Where's the Party Yaar?
KP: Yes, I think American Desi and Where's the Party Yaar are identity films. I don't think they're particularly interesting stories. The Namesake is a very American story, it's a very universal story, it deals with issues of family and hope and love and loss and things that apply to everybody. It just so happens that it's happening through the lens of these characters who are from India, and their son who's American. In that sense, I think it's a very American story, because unless you're a Native American, you're from somewhere at some point, so this story applies to you if your parents moved here in the sixties, or it applies to you if they moved here in 1500.
APA: Do you think this is unusual among Indian American films? Do they tend to be about identity?
KP: I think unfortunately, a lot of Asian American, Indian American films do tend to be about identity, or solely from the perspective of identity. And I think that the reason those are so boring to me is: number one, how are you going to get an audience to root for characters if they're only about being ethnic. Because while we criticize, for example, this [radio] DJ who's trying to find out where you're really from, at the same time, we're dumbing ourselves down by pretending that when we do ethnic films, that it's ethnicity that drives something. So how can you simultaneously reject the notion that ethnicity should drive your identity, and then at the same time only dwell on how ethnicity drives your identity? Because for me, and most of my friends, what drives me when I get up in the morning, and when I brush my teeth, and do what I do, and what impassions me is not ethnicity. It's my personality. And I think as Asian American filmmakers focus more on personality and the actual driving force of human beings and human interaction and move away from Asian American identity issue oriented films, the products are going to be a lot more interesting too.
Date Posted: 3/2/2007