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The Rise of Kal Penn

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

Kal Penn in "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Kal Penn in “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”



by Brad Balfour

For Kal Penn, doing Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj – the spin-off of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (which starred Ryan Reynolds) — keeps him employed and laughing. But this wasn’t what the real Kalpen Suresh Modi was doing when he started out acting. At first he played secondary characters in a bunch of TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Spin City and was a lead or supporting cast member in some of the first indies to feature authentic South Asian American characters (especially American Desi), until he made the first Van Wilder film. That film put Penn on the map, the same map he made a mess of when he cruised all over the State of New Jersey as stoner Kumar – the Indian-American med student who pals around with Harold, the Korean-American investment banker – in search of the perfect burger in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.

Since that benchmark, he has offered character support in a slew of other comedies and a few dramas like Superman Returns. But now, with The Rise of Taj, Penn grabs the comic lead and makes it his own as he relays the story of how Van Wilder’s protege, Taj Mahal Badalandabad, goes from Coolidge College to the halls of England’s Camford University (where he continues his education and teaches a band of uptight Anglo-geek students how to get cool and triumph on campus).

Of course, Penn doesn’t want his audience to think comedy is all he’s capable of. He has also recently tackled the male lead in master director Mira Nair’s rendition of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed story The Namesake. And this is a film – to be released in the States next year – that’s been garnering accolades at festivals already.

Where did your goofiness from? You started doing indie films but then did Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; that certainly changed the kind of roles you’ve been doing now.

I think the characters I’ve played early on have definitely appealed to the goofy comedy element, but it’s really random. When you start out as a young actor, it’s pretty much the WB TV network or teen comedies that you can get jobs in. I happen to not be pretty enough for the WB, so…

I don’t think you’re too broken up about that. But which WB show would you have wanted to be on?

You know, I really liked Off Center, which was a sitcom John Cho was in. I really liked Everwood. They do have some good shows. I also like Supernatural.

Kal Penn and Laura Cohan at the New York press day for "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Kal Penn and Laura Cohan at the New York press day for “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”

Would you prefer to be a demon on Supernatural or the love interest in Everwood?

What, I can’t do both? I prefer film to television. For the most part.

Why is that?

You have more freedom with your characters.

Some people say TV gives you the chance to really stretch out.

I haven’t really seen that. I can see it if you’re on a series for eight years, but I’ve had limited experiences in television.

What about you creating a series?

There’s been some discussion about that.

But in a way, you have created a franchise both with Harold and Kumar and now with The Rise of Taj. You even took an Executive Producer credit with this film.

When they first approached me to do another Van Wilder, I said no. I thought Ryan Reynolds did a great job and didn’t think a sequel was necessary. But after they explained that it was a spin-off and not just a sequel I thought it would be fun to develop the concept of Taj having his own film.

But if they really wanted it to be about Taj, I had many notes. I didn’t want to play a one-dimensional sidekick and, at first, I didn’t see how Taj could have his own film. After all, the one-note joke gets old and I wanted to make that didn’t happen if we were shooting an entire film based on Taj. The producers are smart men.

They produced Wedding Crashers after Van Wilder and had a lot of success with comedies. I wanted to be part of that and have creative input. We worked out an arrangement where I helped produce, had some creative and casting input. So we all worked together.

What was different this time around?

It’s not a Brit-slamming movie. It slams the characters, not the British. I actually think it shouldn’t be called Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, because it’s a little misleading. It’s not a sequel. It’s a spin-off film, in the same vein that the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies were. We are not trying to imitate the same character in the same plot. So if you enjoyed the first film, this is probably another film that you’ll enjoy. I don’t see it as being in competition with each other. I think Ryan Reynolds did a great job at being Van Wilder. Taj is not trying to be Van Wilder – Taj is trying to being Taj. They complement each other.

Holly Davidson and Kal Penn in "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Holly Davidson and Kal Penn in “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”

Did you contribute any of your own jokes to the film?

Yes though it’s hard to say. There was a lot of improvising and when you give your own material to a film it becomes part of the project so it’s hard to separate what is “mine” and what is “the film’s.

With Harold and Kumar, you created a series that follows in the National Lampoon tradition. Did it shock you that you became an icon?

Yeah. You do these films, which are fairly low-budget compared to a film like Lord of the Rings or Superman, and you meet with other actors who love storytelling and love making people laugh. Sometimes the movies do well in theaters, sometimes they don’t. Then they do really well on DVD and some kid comes up to you on the street and yells a line from your movie that you shot three years ago. It takes you a few seconds to realize what they’re doing. It’s really weird.

Is a sequel planned for Harold and Kumar?

Yes, we’re shooting it in January in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Oh, like Harold and Kumar meets Superman?

No, no. I don’t think so! But we are in discussions with Brandon Routh [who played Superman] to play a cameo. I don’t know if I was allowed to say that but many of our friends were in the first Harold and Kumar. Ryan Reynolds had a cameo and so did Jamie Kennedy. Obviously we met because of Van Wilder and Malibu’s Most Wanted, but we enjoy working together. It’s the same with John Cho and Eddie Kaye Thomas. So, I love working with friends because you develop a work relationship that is also a friendship.

What will Brandon be doing with you?

Right now they don’t even have a title for the script yet, so it’s in the very early stages. The first one, I wouldn’t say it was ‘cameo heavy’ but the movie really benefited from fantastic actors who did our film for not a huge paycheck but because they liked our film. I know Brandon was a fan of the first film. Mos Def was a fan of the first film I heard. I met Kanye West last year who said he was a big fan of the movie. It’s all these guys we’ve met over the past two years that we’ve had the chance to hang out with because of a mutual appreciation of the work. We kind of compiled a list together and see who might want to be in the sequel with us.

Who else is on your list?

I’m a huge L’il Kim fan. I don’t even know if she knows the movie exists, but I would love to work with her.

Kal Penn and Laura Cohan in "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Kal Penn and Laura Cohan in “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”

Were you the funny kid growing up?

I don’t know. Off and on, I guess.

Though you got into acting in films through teen comedies, you really do have a genuinely funny side to you. There must be something to that.

It’s enjoyable.

A lot of comics say they were the class clown, but you didn’t do standup.

No, I’m scared of stand-up. Is there something I do a lot?

Were there funny movies you found inspirational?

I like really bizarre characters that are grounded in something. Sometimes they come from really weird places. I really like Office Space and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I really like Dude Where’s My Car? I really like a lot of the characters. There’s a lady at the DMV who I think is hilarious because she laughs for no reason during her entire scene. You know during the filming of that scene, that character drives some sadistic pleasure out of making people miserable at the DMV. And it’s clear that that’s her intention as an actor. But you never get to see weird characters like that. Like, why is she doing that and why is she at the DMV? I don’t want to deconstruct the setting of a scene, but those are the types of things I really like.

Do you like the trend of comics taking serious roles?

I don’t know what it’s like. I’m not a stand-up comic, but for me, it’s just sort of random that I fell into comedy. I would love to follow in the footsteps of people like that.

How much of a Bollywood fan have you been?

I’ve watched some Bollywood films. And I like them.

Have they had any inspiring moments that you’ll include in your films in the future?

No. Most of the films that come out of India that I like, I guess you’d call them independent films. Mr. and Mrs. IreBombay Boys, stuff like that. I enjoy watching the big song and dance stuff too; I can see myself in one of those [laughs]. As far as the post-colonial stuff… Most of what I’ve seen is when it ends up in Bollywood films – I’m not well enough versed to probably say anything about it – but it seems like it’s either really well-versed or really over-the-top.

There’s a middle ground, especially when you’re doing a T&A movie – like a college comedy – you can do it in a different way. It can be in the middle of fencing or it can be at a poetry reading. Something kind of out of left field, so that you’re poking fun at human nature and it’s fun for everybody. It’s not like you’re burdening the audience with it. You’re letting them have fun with it.

Kal Penn in "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Kal Penn in “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”

So you’re not looking for your opportunity to be in a Bollywood film?

I wouldn’t say I’m searching for the opportunity but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to it.

Especially a Bollywood version of a T&A college comedy?

Here’s the thing: I love storytelling. So if someone were to come to me with a great idea for a Bollywood film, I’d totally consider it. I think it would be interesting to do.

There is quite a contrast in genres going from this film to your other recent project, The Namesake, Mira Nair’s adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel about American-born Gogol, who wants to fit in despite his family who clings to their traditional past. Was it difficult to clearly establish the difference in character of one film to the other? 

The goal is to never just do one specific genre of film. It’s to do a bunch of stuff with storytelling. Working with Jhumpa Lahiri [and Mira Nair] was incredible. I’d love to take my career in that direction as well.

A lot of South Asian-Americans got their start working on films with South Asian subjects. In a way, you actually are finally getting to one.

I actually did a few smaller South Asian-American films that I didn’t find particularly interesting to work on. I’ve done my fair share of those. This, I wouldn’t be misled because of the ethnicities of the characters. I think this is a very American film and is not at all in the same ballpark as other films that have South Asian characters in them.  You have a world class filmmaker and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. In my view, it just so happens that they’re characters of South Asian descent. But the book is more like a Catcher in the Rye and the film is more like a Notebook, in terms of the beauty that comes from this loneliness, more than it is, like, a Bend It Like Beckham. It’s a great film.

What’s the contrast of working with a director that’s focused on comedy and a director that’s focused on drama? Do you get more improvisational with the comedy?

I think it depends on the director. And also with Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, you have a character I played when he was four years younger and a very different person. They probably trusted the cast more in a film like this to just improvise because you know the characters much more. It’s a freer form story than maybe a drama would be. It’s a teen comedy. We hope people just have fun with it.

Kal Penn and Holly Davidson in "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj."

Kal Penn and Holly Davidson in “Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj.”

Did you feel weird, after doing a film like The Namesake, to play a character that plays up the Indian accent?

It wasn’t a big deal for me, because I don’t equate accent with stereotype. I think that if a character has an accent and the character is also one dimensional and does not contribute to the plot, and is the butt of a joke, then it’s very stereotypical. But a character can have an accent and drive the plot of the film and get the girl and fence somebody and put somebody in trouble, and help the underclassmen pass exams and be a real human being.

It wasn’t a concern in this case. It has been a concern before but this wasn’t one of those cases, because I didn’t feel the film was stereotypical. In fact, I thought the first Van Wilder was a bit stereotypical, so it was a great opportunity to keep the universal humor that people like – with Taj being the underdog – but make it funnier for reasons everyone can relate to.

How’s your fencing now? You were definitely shown up by your English girlfriend (played by Lauren Cohan).

It’s better than it was before, but ask her…

She whooped your ass?

Um…she did, actually. I had no fencing background. I was so scared to shoot with the foil.

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: December 2, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006. Courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006. Courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006. Courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.#5 © 2006. Courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.#6 © 2006. Courtesy of MGM Pictures. All rights reserved.

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