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Capone Chats With Kal Penn About VAN WILDER 2: THE RISE OF TAJ, THE NAMESAKE, And His Deleted Subplot In SUPERMAN RETURNS!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, just days away from boarding that big old jet airliner bound for Austin for BNAT 8. But before I do that, I've got a couple of things I need to throw your way to clear the decks. I've got two interviews for you. One will probably appear in AICN’s good-old Coaxial column, and then there's this here interview with VAN WILDER 2: THE RISE OF TAJ star Kal Penn. I've now seen this film and, well, let's just say there's a reason that critics weren't allowed to preview it before release and why I'm glad I didn't dwell on the film during our talk. But my real reason for wanting to talk to Penn had more to do with a couple upcoming projects he's got coming out early next year, as well as his oddly silent role in SUPERMAN RETURNS, the DVD of which came out the day Penn and I chatted. Plus, the guy is Kumar, so why would I say No to interviewing him? Enjoy...

Capone: It sounds like from what the publicist told me, you've had a hellacious 24 hours [his long-delayed flight to Chicago arrived the night before at about 1 a.m.] Kal Penn: It's been insane. The whole press tour thing is always really, really crazy scheduling.
C: I haven't seen THE RISE OF TAJ yet, obviously. But I want you to make a case for me and all of America to check this out. What's different? What's the same? KP: Yeah, yeah, of course. Well, number one, it's not SCHINDLER'S LIST, so don't go in expecting that.
C: I'll cross that off my list of expectations. KP: Exactly. It's actually amazing to me because a couple of the smarter HAROLD & KUMAR fans are like, “Man, is this going to suck?” And I'll say, "Well, if you're expecting this to be MALCOLM X, then you might not love it. Actually, about a year and a half ago, the guys who produced the original VAN WILDER called me up and asked me if I wanted to do a sequel. And I said, “No, of course not.” Ryan Reynolds did an incredible job as Van. I would not even want to attempt to do a lame knockoff of his amazing performance. And so they said, “Meet with us anyway.” So I met with them, and what happened in that meeting was that they proposed a spin-off instead. And I said, if the spin-off is funny and smart then I'll do it, but I'm not just going to do a Van Wilder spin-off if it's lame. We talked about getting into producing together, and they had just gotten off producing WEDDING CRASHERS, or it had just come out. After the whole HAROLD & KUMAR experience, they had this writer who came up with this idea, in conjunction with National Lampoon, who wanted to do something similar to the older VACATION series. I think Chevy Chase was in most of them. And ANIMAL HOUSE, which had a couple of spin-offs. And I know that Lampoon has had a couple of straight-to-DVD releases since VAN 1, and I think they saw VAN WILDER as being a franchise similar to the VACATION series, which is actually flattering because I grew up on those movies. And they pitched this idea that it was not a sequel but Taj going to grad school. So he goes from being the stereotypical sidekick in the first one to proverbially...his lessons were from Van Wilder, but he's got this quirkiness and these insane situations from the first one that are carried over to the second one. He goes to grad school at an Oxford-type school. He thinks that he's going to be in this secret society that his dad was in, and after a series of mishaps, he end up being a resident adviser to a bunch of dorky, pasty freshmen.
C: From the trailer, it looks like he's more of a leader than a follower in this film. KP: Exactly, and that's the four-year transformation between the last movie and the spin-off. So he goes to grad school, being this resident adviser, and falling in love with this girl who turns out to be dating an aristocrat, this guy who turns out to be related to the Queen. And as we were developing that, I insisted that we throw in a bunch of colonial jokes, because you always get the guy behind the 7-11, but he never gets to jab back. Not in a serious way, but in a very "Family Guy"-esque way. I wanted to put in the kind of jokes that you only get to see in cartoons. So there's a lot of that kind of humor. The guy who plays my dad is on a hit BBC show called "Goodness Gracious Me," and Taj's parents are actually a pretty significant part of the plot. He's kind of like a Eugene Levy character, except the dad pretends he's conservative in front of the mom, but when the mom leaves...and he ends up getting caught. It turns out he was never in that secret society; he just wanted his son to think he was cool. It's a pretty broad comedy. He's still got his Taj-isms but he becomes a leader. And it's similar to the VACATION series, the theme is. It's the college experience and balancing the partying and studying and getting the girl. And this time, Taj goes from being the underdog to getting the girl.
C: Is Taj a natural leader? KP: He is. The cool transformation he goes through is from being this guy who's uncomfortable in his own skin to being...he didn't assimilate in those four years. He didn't live up to anyone else's expectation. But he took the lessons that Van Wilder taught him and he's cool because he's an individual, which is really fun to play. It's certainly more fun to play that than imitating anybody else.
C: You say that National Lampoon is looking to make this a franchise. Are they looking to make it a Taj-centered franchise, or take a different character from VAN WILDER and giving them their own spin-off? KP: From what I understand, it's more like the second thing you said. Ryan Reynolds played Van Wilder in the first, I play Taj in the spin-off, and I would imagine that if they do successfully turn it into a series, it would spin off into something with the British characters or the parents or something like that.
C: I say this with all sincerity: do you think that one of the keys to your comic acting is that you possess one of the all-time greatest "Oh Shit!" faces in film? I don't know how to describe it any better, and I certainly couldn't imitate it, but it does crack me up. KP: [Laughing] I wasn't even aware of that. Thank you very much. I wish you had a .jpg that you could e-mail, so I could see what you meant. I think you might be touching on something that I've always believed about comedy, which is that if the comic actor in a scene thinks it's funny then it's not going to work. You have to live it. Anything as bizarre as riding a cheetah in HAROLD & KUMAR, you've got to believe you are riding a cheetah, otherwise it's not funny. If you think it's funny when you're shooting the scene, it's not going to be funny. It's sort of realistically under these imaginary circumstances.
C: You've obviously become very busy in the last couple of years, sparked by HAROLD & KUMAR's success, and you're branching out into non-comedies as well. It just so happens that the SUPERMAN RETURNS DVD streets today, and I saw this film five times before the release date. I loved it. KP: Did you see it before it was released?
C: There were a bunch of screenings for critics before the release, and I went to nearly every one of them. KP: Wow, okay.
C: I have yet to see the deleted scenes on the DVD, so maybe this question would be answered by those, but was there a time when your character actually had lines? KP: [Laughs] Yeah, here's what happened with that. The original script, the character's name is Stanford, and he had a subplot that's about 20-minutes long in the rough cut that I saw. Part of his plot was that he and Lex Luthor are in cahoots, and Stanford plants evidence in the Daily Planet that sends Superman into outer space for all those years. And that's why he leaves, because he thinks Krypton still exists.
C: That's fantastic. I know that Bryan Singer has said he's toying with the idea of releasing a mega-cut of this film eventually and showing some of the Superman going to Krypton storyline. I know they were shot. KP: I implicitly trust Bryan as a director. He makes amazing films, and the version in the theaters was absolutely the director's cut. It's a much cleaner story with the cuts that he made. But the flip side as an actor is that it's a bummer that you don't get to have as big a part in SUPERMAN.
C: But you're in SUPERMAN RETURNS. You could do the convention circuit now as Stanford! KP: Oh yeah. The bottom line as an actor and a fan of the significance of Superman, pop-culture-wise and throughout American history, it was definitely an experience that I'll never forget. But would it be cool to have them on the DVD? Yeah, and I hope they're on there. [They aren't. However, one of the deleted scenes does actually feature Penn speaking. Hooray!]
C: But in addition to being a part of the iconography, you also got to shoot almost all of your scenes with Kevin Spacey. That had to be quite and experience. KP: It was. That guy...while we were shooting SUPERMAN, he was simultaneously rehearsing for two plays at the theatre company he runs in London. I hope I can be that hard working when I'm older.
C: You also have a couple things set for release early next year. You have EPIC MOVIE, which is set for January. Your name appears first in the credits. Are you the hero of that piece? KP: No, it's an ensemble cast.
C: Okay, so what sorts of films are they skewering in this film, because it seems like they're taking the same approach as SCARY MOVIE or DATE MOVIE. KP: I'll be curious to see what they put in in the end. They were targeting most of the recent epics, so films like NARNIA, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. There's also a short spoof of SUPERMAN and BORAT. I don't know how you could spoof BORAT. I wasn't in those scenes, so we'll see.
C: What is your role? KP: Well, it's not a sequential plot. It's a bunch of short skits put together. I thought the title should have been SPOOF MOVIE, because that's all it is. I play sort of the Augustus character from CHARLIE, I play the Edmond character in the NARNIA spoof. Certainly not challenging material but cool to be on the CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY sets, because they rebuilt all the sets.
C: Alright, well moving on to more substantial things. My wife recently read the book THE NAMESAKE and loved it. And when I showed her the trailer for the film, she flipped when she saw it was you playing the lead, because she thought you'd be perfect. Is the film still set for a March release? [TRAILER HERE] KP: THE NAMESAKE comes out March 9 and that is probably the film I'm most proud of.
C: I'm a fan of anything Mira Nair directs, so I'm excited to see it. Was that a role that you had to pursue, or did she come to you? KP: I pursued it pretty aggressively. About a year and a half ago, John Cho gave me the book, and he knew that I was a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri's previous book THE INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. So I read THE NAMESAKE, and John and I talked about trying to get the option rights to it to develop it into a film. So my manager made a bunch of phone calls, and called me back to say that Mira Nair had already gotten the rights to it. So then I began this incredibly aggressive campaign to try and track her down somehow. She's been an inspiration and role model to me since I was a little kid when I saw this movie MISSISSPPI MASALA when I was in the eighth grade. And I said, Hey you're not standing being a 7-11 counter. This is cool, you're telling real stories. So my manager was calling aggressively, and I was calling friends who had worked with her. I had a cousin who worked on a film of hers. None of these phone calls were really coming through, and finally my manger called me and said, "Come into the office." And I went to his office and he said, "You need to book a flight now to New York. I got you an appointment with Mira Nair." And it turns out that Mira's agent has a son that's about 14 or 15 years old, his name is Sam, and Mira's son is roughly the same age. And apparently the two of them physically grabbed her and dragged her over to a computer and made her watch one of the trailers for HAROLD & KUMAR, and said, "Trust us, you have to bring this kid in and audition him. We want him to play Gogol." These are high school kids. And I guess every night before bed, Mira's son would ask her, "Mom, have you gotten in touch with Kal Penn yet?" And Sam would tell his did, "Dad, you've got to audition Kal." So, finally, she decided she was going to audition me, and because my manager had been so aggressive, she had all my information, so they set something up. The part was cast already, which I didn't know until I met with her. The first thing she said after she offered me tea was that the part was already cast but she'd be happy to let me audition anyway. I wasn't going to say no, so I auditioned, and she said, "I wish I'd met you before I cast the part." And luckily, two weeks later after being thoroughly depressed that I'd missed this opportunity, I get a call from her saying the dates with the other actor didn't work out and she offered me the part.
C: Can you say who the other actor was? Is it someone we'd know? KP: Sure, it's an Indian actor from Bollywood. His name is Abhishek Bachchan, he's the son of Amitabh Bachchan. The story behind my interest in the film is that when I read the book, what appealed to me, a lot of people think it's the ethnicity of the character and the whole ethnic storyline. I know the trailer makes it look like that. But when I read it, I felt the same attachment I did to Holden Caulfield when I read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in high school. It was something about this person. Gogol was someone completely different from me, just like Holden was; I'm not a boarding school kid from New England. But there's something about it. I think the film is more like THE NOTEBOOK in sentiment than it is a BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING or any ethnic-driven film.
C: The film obviously has the potential to open up the kinds of role you might be considered for in the future. Does that excite you or terrify you? KP: I hope so. It really excites me. I think when you're a young actor starting out, if you're a pretty white boy from Minnesota, you end up on the WB, and if you're not, you end up doing teen comedies. I've been so fortunate that I've had the opportunity to the latter, but I'm hoping to segue that into doing dramas and doing both comedies and more serious stuff.
C: Can you foresee a day when comedies won't be your bread-and-butter work? KP: Yes, I do. The goal, honestly, is to mix it up. I went to drama school and studied film, and what I enjoy is storytelling. I'm still considered a new actor, because my first couple of roles were in comedies. And I'm hoping with my upcoming time on "24" and THE NAMESAKE, that that will change and I can mix it up.
C: Was shooting THE NAMESAKE your first time in India? KP: No. The places we went, yes. But my grandparents lived half of the year in India where they grew up, and half the year with us in New Jersey. So a lot of times in the summer when I was a kid, we'd go and visit them. It was interesting. As an American kid, it's crazy to go to a foreign country. And one of my grandparents taught me to speak one of the languages, so it's crazy to go to a foreign country and sort of understand what they're saying. It's a weird dichotomy, because you feel like you're going to Japan or Ecuador. You don't know the country, it's completely foreign to you, and yet because you're a first generation American kid, you can speak another language, so it's cool.
C: So as an adult going to India, what was your reaction? KP: Very different, because I was going as an actor to places I'd never been before, and I didn't speak any of the languages.
C: There has been much talk about a HAROLD & KUMAR sequel. The original is a film that is held in high regard, even among those who are comic snobs. Is the sequel definitely happening? KP: That is definitely happening. We're starting to shoot at the end of January. It's untitled now.
C: I thought I'd read something about a plot having to do with you guys going to Amsterdam. Is that right? KP: A lot of the plot synopsis you read on blogs on are just a bunch of kids who got high and thought that they knew something. So, I just read one of the first drafts of the sequel, and it's 10 times funnier than the first, but I know they're rewriting it, so I don't want to say anything about the plot if it's not actually going to be in the final product. But it's definitely happening.

At this point, we were interrupted, but I swear the next question out of my mouth was going to be about Kal's role on "24" (apparently he's a villain). Maybe if he comes back to Chicago before THE NAMESAKE is released and after "24" had been back on the air for a couple of months, I'll grill him about that.


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