CBR’s coverage of “Superman Returns” continues with Kal Penn roundtable interview, focusing on the cult-favorite actor who is poised to make it “big” with this film. While beloved for his work in “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle,” Penn isn’t yet on everyone’s radar and if his role as Lex Luthor’s henchmen in comparable to previous goons, he’ll soon be quite recognizable. This interview took place last summer in Syndey, and Penn was as most might expect: laid back, articulate and full on enthusiasm for the project.
PRESS: So are you shooting a “Harold and Kumar” sequel?
Kal Penn:: You came all the way to Sydney to ask me that?
KAL PENN:: I don’t know. I hope so. John and I would both love to do one, as would the writers, the director, and everyone involved in it. It’s a question of finances, and when the guys with the money want to give us some.
PRESS: White Castle could sponsor you…
KAL PENN:: Well, it’s not going to be… It’s going to be “Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam.”
PRESS: They could still sponsor you…
KAL PENN:: They could. They got enough money off the first movie.
PRESS: Who do you play in this film?
KAL PENN:: I play a guy named Stanford, who’s one of Lex’s henchmen. I’m a bad guy.
PRESS: Does he have a surname?
KAL PENN:: I think we’re just calling him Stanford for now. You guys should have the writers in with me so that they could answer all of the… (to Joe Everett) Does Stanford… No, I don’t think… not in the script.
PRESS: Are you comic relief?
Press:That’s the big concern when you use a term like “henchman.” That it’s going to be an Otis-type character.
KAL PENN:: Everybody asks me if it’s an Otis-type character. I would say it’s… different… from the Otis character.
PRESS: Do you have a theme, any kind of theme you think of?
KAL PENN:: For me? The exact opposite of whatever Superman likes.
PRESS: Are you a guy on the computer, or a guy with a ray gun?
KAL PENN:: Well, there are four or five of the henchman, and I’m sort of the brains behind it. I’m the smarter one.
PRESS: How have you found working with Kevin Spacey? Has that been a thrill, something you’ve wanted to do?
KAL PENN:: Yeah, it’s awesome. Especially because he’s a very versatile actor in terms of doing a lot of really great ground-breaking theater, as well as his immense body of film work. It’s very inspiring to work with somebody like that. I’d say almost everybody involved with this project is very layered that way. It’s nice for a young actor, like myself, who aspires to be like a lot of these guy, to be able to work with them all.
PRESS: What are the character dynamics with you, Lex and the other henchmen? [didn’t record this last part very well. Couldn’t make it out, some sort of options]
KAL PENN:: With five of them, it’s sort of a unit. There are inner workings here and there, but I wouldn’t say I’m either of those.
PRESS: How do you dress? Do you have a white lab coat, do you have…
KAL PENN:: I have a white lab coat with pin stripes, and glasses, and a funny hat with a big “X” on it that looks like I work for the Red Cross. No…
KAL PENN:: This is part of what I wear. This is what I’m wearing in the scene we’re doing now.
PRESS: Is it your own, or does it belong to wardrobe?
KAL PENN:: Well, I’m going to steal it at the end. I like it. I like the jeans and the shoes. It’s probably the most comfortable costume I’ve ever worn for any show.
PRESS: Talk about what it’s like for you to be in a movie this huge, and to be in the next Superman event.
KAL PENN:: It’s awesome. It’s definitely… as an American kid growing up, or a kid growing up anywhere, I guess, it’s the quintessential American story, if not at this point – with globalization – the quintessential universal story about a superhuman, and good versus evil. Obviously in society those definitions are always fluid and changing, yet a story like Superman remains completely universal. For a dorky kid from New Jersey who grew up watching Superman, it’s amazing to actually be in the movie.
PRESS: Which Superman did you watch, exactly?
KAL PENN:: All of them.
PRESS: The movies…
KAL PENN:: The movies. As far as comics go, I was probably more of a Spiderman comics fan.
KAL PENN:: For films, it’s was definitely Superman. I never really got into the Spiderman movie. The Superman cartoons, also, were really good.
PRESS: How is it working with Brandon? I understand you’ve been friends for a time?
KAL PENN:: Yeah, it’s cool. I’ve known Brandon for a couple of years. It was awesome. We had a big party for him when he booked it.
PRESS: Is it purely coincidental, you being friends with Brandon?
KAL PENN:: Well, I’m sure he picked up the phone and put in a good word with Bryan. A couple of things were happening simultaneously. He was up for the role of Superman, and my manager was talking to somebody at Warner Brothers about getting me in for a part. The casting director had put me in some stuff prior, so those two things were happening simultaneously. I mentioned casually to Brandon, “Hey, I’m up for something in Superman. Wouldn’t that be insane if we both actually got it?” He booked the part before I found out if I got it or not.
PRESS: How did you know him?
KAL PENN:: Just random…
PRESS: Did you grow up together or anything?
KAL PENN:: No, just through friends. There’s a group of 5 or 7 of us that hang out, just actors in LA.
PRESS: So, when you say cartoons, which cartoons? Superfriends, or….
KAL PENN:: I haven’t watched them in a long, long time. I just remember watching Superman cartoons when I was little. I honestly couldn’t tell you which ones. It could have been part of Superfriends, or… I feel like it was a Saturday morning thing.
PRESS: Was Krypto in it?
KAL PENN:: I don’t know. I remember more Scooby-Doo stuff than I do Superman, cartoon-wise.
PRESS: He teamed up with Superman.
KAL PENN:: Did he really?
PRESS: Yeah, Scooby’s teamed up with Superman.
KAL PENN:: With like a cape?
PRESS: When Brandon got the job as Superman, what did you say to him? What did he say to you?
KAL PENN:: He got the job before… let’s see. He had already left for Sydney before I found out whether or not I’d got the job. There was a lot of yelling over the phone, “Oh my god!”
“Oh my god!”
“I know, right?!”
I think the feeling was – with friends in general – it’s always nice to be able to work with people you know, especially if you know them from something that’s not “Hollywoody” or not film related. We obviously would have loved to do a student film or a short together, so to be able to do a 200 million dollar movie that’s such a part of the human psyche is amazing.
PRESS: Knowing him as your friend Brandon before he became Superman, what do you see in him as an actor that people saw that he could BE Superman?
KAL PENN:: The actor that plays Superman has to be extremely versatile. Not just in the more generic sense you usually describe in interviews, “Oh, you have to be able to do a wide range of things.” Even physically and also supernaturally. You’re playing a guy who’s a dorky human being on one hand, and saving the planet on the other. To be able to make that jump requires a really strong actor, and he’s absolutely a very talented actor.
PRESS: Is there a back story to your character? How is it you became involved with Lex?
KAL PENN:: There IS a back story that I discussed with the writers. I’m not sure if I’m at liberty to… are you guys talking to the writers?
PRESS: We already did.
KAL PENN:: What did they say?
PRESS: They told us everything about your character.
KAL PENN:: Oh, cool. Well, in that case! In 1981, when. . . . no.
PRESS: What can we know?
KAL PENN:: Well, there is a back story, but I don’t think we even mention it in the script.
PRESS: Well, what is it Lex wants you to do?
KAL PENN:: He summarizes it really well, for me. The only back story… (long pause)
PRESS: Did Luthor enterprises call you and that’s how you got the job, or…
Press:Is it anything to do with when Luthor was in prison?
KAL PENN:: That may have had something to do with it. I don’t know. The deal is: Lex Luthor and Kitty were both huge Harold and Kumar fans, so he decided to bring me on as part of his team.
PRESS: How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor working on this movie? What do you feel you’ve learned that you didn’t know before you came in?
KAL PENN:: That’s a good question. What have I learned? I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing.
PRESS: Well, are there areas where you feel more confident, where you have a greater breadth of understanding having worked with these people, and worked on a film like this?
KAL PENN:: Yeah, without a doubt. I’m trying to figure out the best way to articulate it because I’ve never worked on a film of this caliber. Obviously, I know Bryan’s work and Kevin’s work, but having not worked with them prior to this I wasn’t really sure what to expect. They’re both so smart and intelligent. I was really happy to hear their descriptions of where the characters are going, and where the story’s going. I feel like it’s so easy. A lot of directors take these huge budget films and just make it about explosions and special effects, and it’s over. You call it a date movie, or a movie for kids, or whatever it is. You’ve got a group of writers, director, and cast who are really committed to making this a story, first and foremost. Then you also have these incredible special effects and all of this action stuff going on. I felt like that was something that was really refreshing, knowing that a lot of big budget films tend to go for a gimmicky thing, which is easy to do. It’s cool to see people actually focused on the layers. There’s a lot of green screen stuff, just in terms of technical things, so it’s not unlike theater where you have to picture a fourth wall so that you don’t see the audience there. Selective sight, or whatever you want to call it. There’s a lot of that. It’s similar to theater, in that sense, because you’re picturing…. Yesterday we shot a scene that was almost entirely green around you, which is very different from actually being at a museum, or wherever you’re supposed to be.
PRESS: Any other challenges in the filming, aside from the green screen?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. I have a really bad attitude problem.
KAL PENN:: What do you mean?
PRESS: Just something you’ve come up against interesting, something that has been new to you, or just something unknown in the filming process.
KAL PENN:: Sure. I’d say it was the special effects work. I haven’t had…
PRESS: Is your character involved in special effects sequences?
KAL PENN:: I think every character is. A lot.
PRESS: How long have you actually been shooting, and how long do you have to go?
PRESS: What’s it like watching Kevin get into the character of Lex? It is one second he’s “Hey Kevin” and then “action” and he turns into Lex?
KAL PENN:: I think it depends on the scene we’re shooting, but yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Working with an actor who’s so experienced and so on point with everything is amazing to watch for somebody who’s relatively just starting out compared to these guys. To see the overall process that actors take, depending on what they’re working on and what’s being shot, it’s very inspiring.
PRESS: Are you evil?
KAL PENN:: Am I evil? Yeah.
PRESS: In the movie you’re evil?
KAL PENN:: In the movie! In the movie, yeah!
KAL PENN:: I’m a nice guy.
PRESS: Is this character something new for you? There’s a comical element to your character, I’m guessing, but is the whole “evil” aspect something new?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. It’s nice to play a character that I haven’t had the opportunity to play before. A lot of the teen movies that I first started doing, you’re playing a college student. You’re playing it up for the likability, to be attached to the audience for specific reasons, knowing who your market is for that. This is the exact opposite, in terms of knowing the audience isn’t going to like you.
PRESS: Which is easier?
KAL PENN:: They’re completely different.
PRESS: Any improvising of jokes or dialogue?
KAL PENN:: No. I’d say that if anything was…. I know what you’re saying.
PRESS: Was there not really much room in the script for that?
KAL PENN:: I hesitate saying it that way. The scenes are so specific and concrete that, rather than improvising any type of dialogue, you kind of discover these unspoken moments of action in a scene. That’s been happening. That tends to happen when you’ve got a great director. As far as the Christopher Guest type of ad-libbing, no.
PRESS: How is it working with Bryan? Is that something you’ve wanted to do?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. Cliche, but ever since “Usual Suspects” came out, watching it in high school. It was just amazing. “I wanna work with this guy.” I didn’t think that I would have this type of an opportunity for a long time.
PRESS: You were over here shooting… was it “Son of Mask?”
KAL PENN:: What?
PRESS: Okay, an art-house movie in Sydney, then.
KAL PENN:: I came down to scope out the city because I knew I’d be coming here for Superman.
PRESS: You just happened to shoot another movie on the way.
KAL PENN:: Right.
PRESS: Was it cool because you were already familiar with the city, and with Fox studios. Did you feel like you had a little edge?
KAL PENN:: Yeah, I enjoyed it. I’ve been traveling for about a year and a half, so I haven’t been in LA for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time. It was nice to come to a city that I’m familiar with so that it doesn’t seem so foreign.
PRESS: Did you always think that Brandon would get his break?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. Definitely. I think that goes for actors that you meet, do a play with or a commercial with, that you’re friends with, that you know, that have a specific talent.
PRESS: I know you’re working closely with Kevin, and he’s doing a lot of work in London at the moment, at the Old Vic. Is that something you’d like to do? Come to London and act on stage?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. Definitely. In fact, next year I’m trying to split my time between LA and New York. I’d like to do some more theater, and eventually do some stuff in London, as well.
PRESS: Can you tell us about some of the other henchmen or characters you’re associated with in the movie?
KAL PENN:: The actors?
PRESS: I know you already talked about the actors, I’m just wondering about their dynamics and such.
KAL PENN:: Well, I don’t want to speak for other actors. Are you guys talking to them?
PRESS: We don’t know.
Press:Are they wearing black knit caps, and..
KAL PENN:: What I will say is this: I think the audience will enjoy the group dynamic, as well as the individual characters that make it up. It’s not just something that’s being thrown away.
PRESS: And where does your character hang out? Where’s his computer that he works on, if you’re allowed to say?
KAL PENN:: It’s in… I got nothing. I was going to try to come up with something…
PRESS: How about sequels? If the film goes on to do sequels, would Stanford be involved?
KAL PENN:: Will Stanford go to Amsterdam?
KAL PENN:: I don’t know. We’ll see. I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
PRESS: You mentioned Spiderman. Do you follow comics? Are you a comics fan?
KAL PENN:: No, not now. When I was younger it’s something that I… I wouldn’t say I lost interest in it all. It just, sort of….
PRESS: Acting got in the way?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. I used to collect comics when I was younger, and I still read them, but I wouldn’t say it as vociferously as some people I know.
PRESS: Did you flip through them looking for inspiration for Stanford?
KAL PENN:: Yes.
PRESS: Did you find any?
KAL PENN:: Yes.
PRESS: Where did you find it?
KAL PENN:: That has nothing to do with any of the back story or any of the stuff anyone told me about it. I got really excited because I was like “Oh, man! I’m going to be in Superman!” and I started reading all of these Superman comics. That’s as far as the inspiration. That’s what I meant by getting really psyched up.
PRESS: Which ones? Did DC send you over a bunch of new ones, or?
KAL PENN:: No, but if you guys know anyone there, I’d love some. I just kind of looked in the comic book shop. I looked… there are a lot of DC comics online now. They’re scanned on different websites. I read them online.
PRESS: So you’re ripping them off, pretty much?
KAL PENN:: I wouldn’t say I based any of my stuff on these characters, but what I took from your question was inspiration for it, getting psyched up. Going back to what I said about it being such a quintessential American story, a universal story. I was looking at comic books in general. I was also reading a book called “The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay” that quickly became my favorite book ever. It’s that type of – for those of you who know the story – how relevant comic books are to human history. It was getting psyched up more about that aspect of it.
PRESS: Are you and Brandon on screen together at the same time?
KAL PENN:: Yeah.
PRESS: While he’s wearing the Superman costume?
KAL PENN:: That’s a good question.
PRESS: Do you get an action figure?
KAL PENN:: (yelling) I want to know the answer to that question! I want to know if I get an action figure. (stops yelling) I want to know if I’m going to be in the video game, and when Brandon gets a ride at Disneyland, am I going to be the back of the seat? You know, you sit on. . . never-mind. I don’t know. I want to know the answer to that question.
PRESS: Do you ever go online and check out what people are saying about your being cast?
KAL PENN:: Well there’s the site BlueTights, which has all of Bryan’s blogs. I was working on a film called “Namesake” in New York before this, and one of the guys who was in the film with me came in and said “Oh my god, dude. There’s this site, BlueTights. Have you seen it?” He explained to me what it was, and said that Bryan had to go and save “King Kong” from falling apart. I was like, “What are you talking about?” So he explained this whole thing to me, and without having seen it I’m like “You know that’s a joke, right?” He’s like, “No. I’m telling you. Go and see it.” I was like “Come on!” I went home and I watched it, and I came back to work the next day and was like “You’re kidding, right? You think it’s real?” He goes “I’m telling you, it’s real.” That, I think, piqued my fascination with what people are saying on the internet about different things. It’s fun to hear speculation about different things, and how wrong most of it is, but how determined everyone is to believe it. It was also cool to see the response from Comic-Con.
PRESS: Were you at Comic-Con?
KAL PENN:: No, I was here.
PRESS: You were there last year.
KAL PENN:: I was there last year, you’re right. It was fun. I liked Comic-Con.
PRESS: A lot of comic book movies have their characters pulled from the comics, so it’s tied to a lot of continuity. It’s difficult to do something new, like with Stanford, a totally new character. Was that a good thing for you? You could sort of put your own spin on it?
KAL PENN:: Yeah. I enjoyed, especially, being able to work with the writers in the direction of the character and how they saw Stanford play into the story.
PRESS: What was the audition process?
KAL PENN:: I met Bryan, and the writers, and the casting director back in the beginning of October – maybe end of September – at Warner Brothers, and that was it. Everything was based off of that meeting. I forget if it was on tape or not. That was my interaction with it. I know there was a huge team of agents and managers and other casting directors and directors who would call in to kind of be a support team. “You should really cast this kid, he’s really good” or “He sucks, don’t cast him.” I don’t know who called in what.
PRESS: Did you eventually do a scene with Kevin, or something like that as a final audition?
KAL PENN:: No. All of the whole “bad crew” came from different places. Kevin lives in London right now, Parker lives in New York, I was in LA and New York. A lot of these guys are from here. [Sydney]
PRESS: Do you have a name for yourselves as a group?
KAL PENN:: No. We should come up with one.
PRESS: The “bad crew” was pretty good.
KAL PENN:: The bad crew.
PRESS: How about The leX-Men?
KAL PENN:: We’ve got to come up with something.
PRESS: Hollywood is coming around to Asian cinema. Films are getting major releases. Do you think it’s a good time for Asian actors?
KAL PENN:: Well, I hope so. I kind of hesitate answering that question because the fear is that it’s always going to be some type of Madonna/Gwen Stefani-esque “exoticization” of Asian-ness, and it’ll fade in a couple of years.
KAL PENN:: I hope that Hollywood, overall, is becoming more diverse. I think that it is. I hope it’s not a trend, and I hope it’s something that is an actual realization… that you can tell very compelling stories and cast it realistically, which I think people are doing.
PRESS: What’s it like working with Parker Posey?
KAL PENN:: Awesome. She’s so cool.
PRESS: She’s kind of crazy, isn’t she?
KAL PENN:: She’s awesome! She’s another example of a very versatile actress. I just saw her in “Hurly Burly” in New York before I left for here. That’s another great example of an amazing actress who does film and theater. I aspire to be like everybody that I’m working with.