KAL PENN (Taj)
Director Walt Becker said he allowed you to adlib some scenes, including your interview scene.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I was so glad to be able to work with someone like Walt. He is very about the moment which was great as an actor, especially with the comedy. Things just kind of evolve when you are doing a scene and he's all about capturing that.
Were you hesitant or did it bother you to be asked to do the stereotypical accent?
At first it did. I didn't get the full script - all I had was 3 or 4 pages for the audition scenes - and on top of it it said the character's name and a little blurb about the character and his scenes. I saw his name was Taj Mahal and that he had an Indian accent and I was like, That's it. I'm sorry, I'm not going to audition for this. I called my agent and she said, I think you might actually be surprised with the nature of the character if you read the script. I didn't want to jump to conclusions about that so I read the script. The thing that struck me the most was that he's a character who turns out to be Van's best friend and his assistant, and he advances the plot of the film. His whole reason is that he wants to get laid which was, to me, a lot different than a lot of the two or three line parts that are unfortunately out there for Indian actors - the 2 lines at the 7/11 where it's just about degrading the guy behind the counter. I saw a huge difference between that and "Van Wilder," just because of the nature of the character.
I asked the writers what their motivation was for making this guy Indian, why didn't they make him anything else? Surprisingly they also said they knew they wanted him to be an exchange student just to add some flavor to the character but they didn't know he would be Indian; they were toying with the idea of him being British or South American or African or East Asian. They decided Indian because there's never really been an Indian character with more than those couple of lines. I thought that was wonderful.
You were born in New Jersey and graduated from UCLA. What was your life like before college?
I was born in New Jersey and [it's the] very clichéd story of always having liked being in front of people. There are videos of me when I'm 3 singing songs in front of company and stuff. My parents kind of hoped it would be a phase and that I'd be a doctor or something like that. I went to a performing arts high school and they were like, Fine, go. You'll see, you'll see. I went there and towards the end of that they started getting supportive. They talked to some of my professors and they were like, Wow, he really does love doing this. I applied to a couple of schools, and among them I think I was just going back and forth between UCLA and NYU for their drama school. I decided I wanted to come out here (LA) mostly because I wanted to do more film and TV as opposed to just theatre. I had done mostly theatre in high school and community theatre - that's how I got started.
Do you find it's been more difficult to find roles where your nationality doesn't play a major part?
It's definitely been a challenge. I'd say it's about 50-50. Half of the roles that I go out for are specifically South Asian or ethnic and the other half are pretty open. It's always a challenge because even if the casting director is open to all ethnicities, you'll read for it and they'll send you to the producers and you'll do a good job for the producers but either the producers or the network might not be sure if they want to take a risk. It's kind of a Catch-22 because I wouldn't say that it's outright racism - if they've never had an Indian guy without an accent before then how's that going to do? Are people going to accept it? Are they going to see the movie or are they going to see the show? Is it going to do well with the numbers? That goes with any character regardless of race in terms of specific types for characters.
Are you interested in being a part of the film industry in India?
Those films don't generally appeal to me. They are larger budget, escapist, song and dance kinds of movies. I would love to continue to work in Hollywood because I was born in America and I would just love to work here.
Is this the first time in your life you've actually been able to support yourself through acting?
How does that make you feel?
Wonderful, it's like a dream come true. A friend of mine asked, When you work those 18 hour days doing a film or on a TV set, doesn't that get to you? The only description I had [related to] driving back at 5am from "Van Wilder" or an episode of NYPD that I did, knowing that I'm going to make someone laugh or cry. At 5am with no energy, going down an open freeway is the best feeling in the world because that's exactly what I wanted to do, is to do this.
What was it like on the set? Did you all get along?
It was a lot of fun. There was a great energy from the first day. It was a fun script; it's pretty light-hearted. You know it's a situational comedy with really cool characters and I think everybody was just having a great time doing it, from the writers and the producers to Ryan, Tara, Teck, and myself. It was really nice to come in every day and know that you were doing something fun, that you were hopefully going to make people laugh. We were making ourselves and the crew guys laugh so much that it was so fun. It had an overall good energy. My agent had called me before I started filming, and said, You should just know that from previous clients, sometimes when you do films with younger actors and crew and people, sometimes egos get a little out of hand. I was scared when she said that but there was nothing like that. Ryan is so down-to-earth and Tara is amazing to work with. Everyone was so great and I'm not just saying that. For a first, big movie experience, it was awesome.
Were you familiar with Lampoon movies?
Oh yeah. Recently I was looking online and there's a bunch of lost Lampoon movies that I didn't know about. I remember when I was in 4th grade, going to see European Vacation with my best friend at the time and his dad. I remember there were like boobs in the theater and I thought, Oh, my mom doesn't want me to see that! I kind of peeked around my hand, very confused. I'm like, Should I tell my mom that that's what I saw? She'd get really mad.
Has your mom seen this?
Yes, she did. I sent my parents to see the New York screening.
What did she say?
I was terrified. I made them read the script beforehand. I was scared that they might be offended - not necessarily the accent but the fact that their son had boobs in his face and all their friends are going to see it. My dad calls me after the screening and I asked what he thought. He said, Congratulations and I said, Really? He said, Yeah, that was really, really funny. Don't get me wrong, if you weren't in it it's not really my kind of movie to go see on my own, but I think it was really funny. There were some funny things in there. So don't worry. I said, Okay, what did mom think? He said, Well, your mother didn't really understand what was in the donuts so I'm going to put her on the phone. I yelled, Dad, dad, please don't! Can you explain it to her? I'm not talking to my mother about what was in there.
When casting directors see this, they may see you as the Indian guy. How will you resist other stereotypical roles that aren't as sensitive as this?
That's something I'm talking to my manager about right now. I haven't been through this experience before so that's actually something I'm - I don't know if concerned is the right word - but definitely anxious about. I want to use this as a platform to get a role that is ethnic neutral - just a guy in college or wherever I can fit that's based on the content of the role. If I'm offered the 2 line Indian role, I've always said I don't have a problem playing a cab driver or 7/11 owner as long it's not about being the cab driver or the 7/11 owner. If it's about the character, then to me that's important to tell the story. It will be a challenge to see how that evolves.