Kal Penn is moving up without getting high

by Beacon Staff • November 29, 2006

Kal Penn pushes his chair back so that it teeters on its back two legs and balances himself with pizza in hand. The whole setup-a tiny room in Northeastern's Campus Center, four boxes of Boston House of Pizza scattered across the table, and chairs obviously too restrictive for a rambunctious actor and his two rock-star friends-is supposed to show off how "cool" and "hip" and "edgy" and down-to-Earth this guy is.

He does, anyway, have a brand new teen movie to sell.

But then he talks. And, unless Van Wilder 2 is a string of epiphanic, intellectual soul-searching rhetoric, it doesn't sound like Penn gets the point of this press junket thing.

Then again, that's probably a good thing.

"I've always had an interest in film," says Penn, in between bites of his vegetarian pizza. "I've always genuinely had that interest. I didn't do it because I wanted to rebel. I've known what I wanted to do since I was four. I didn't want to be in that position where all of a sudden I'm 40 and I realize I'm not doing what I wanted to do."

The 30-year-old Penn, Art Alexakis from Everclear and Jonny Dubowsky of Jonny Lives! have been touring around the country for weeks, promoting the Van Wilder 2: Rise of Taj soundtrack, slowly prodding at each others' childhoods and what made them who they are.

"The expectation is for me to be an engineer," says Penn, alluding to his Indian heritage. "But I majored in sociology, theatre, film and TV [at UCLA], and I realized that the time required to be an actor-a good one-was actually more than the time required to be an engineer."

Inasmuch as the three are legitimately humble about their beginnings, Penn, Alexakis and Dubowski are probably a bit too modest about the years that actually got them into this movie or onto this soundtrack.

This seems to be at least a somewhat conscious decision for Penn. He's a bit wary of being pigeonholed as a teen movie megastar, which Rise of Taj and his previous role as Kumar in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle might suggest.

"My goal was always to do both drama and comedy," says Penn, who will test out his dramatic side as a villain on Fox's next season of "24."

"I've always enjoyed storytelling, but when you start off, your only options are to work in the theatre or be on an all-white WB show," he said. "For obvious reasons, I'm not on the WB."

After the success of Harold and Kumar, his prominence in the Van Wilder movies and a role as a henchman in Superman Returns, all that was enough to move this interview from a middle-of-the-city pizza shop to a closed-off room at the top floor of a campus center, and it was enough to make these recent "what have I done with my life?" press-junket conversations positive ones.

"My grandma is still working on getting me on Regis," said Dubowski.

"And all of my friends want me on-what do they call it?-'that Raymond show?' They keep asking me when I'm gonna be on that," added Penn. "I'm not a monkey. I'm an artist."

Penn, though, has merited countless Kumar and Taj imitators, something that he hopes is only part of his legacy.

"I don't think I'm spawning that. If you look at the backstory, Kumar graduated from Columbia." he said. "It's their choice [to be like that character]. I don't smoke weed [like Kumar]. If they think that I do, then that's totally on them. It's interesting to play characters that are dumber than I am."

So, if Van Wilder 2 is as atrocious as the trailer suggests, there's no need to blame Penn. He has to sit in that uncomfortable chair in that tiny room. He'll just make it abundantly clear that he doesn't really belong there.

But he'll still gladly eat the pizza.