Interview with Kal Penn (Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain)

Actor Kal Penn is known for a great many things. His stoner adventures in the Harold and Kumar film series are without a doubt, his most notable works. He’s actually also on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under Barack Obama. With his busy schedule, he even finds time and currently stars in the new drama Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain, a film which explores the Bhopal chemical disaster which occurred in India 30 years ago. Mr. Penn was nice enough to speak with me about the very important film and it was truly enlightening, to say the least:

What drew you to Bhopal?

So what drew me to the project, I read the script so that, the writer reached out and I thought the script was really powerful. I had known about the story beforehand, the real-life events. I was a little apprehensive at first because I thought, you know, how are you going to do a fictionalized adaptation of something that was that tragic and happened not that long ago? And what I liked about the power of the script was it didn’t just talk about the role that Union Carbide played in sort of the corporate side of things but also touched on workers in these communities and why people want jobs or need jobs so badly. It looked at corruption at every level of the Indian government. I thought it was a really smart script in that regard. And then I had the chance to talk to the writer where I was also apprehensive and I thought, “Alright, let’s see who this guy is and why he wants to make this movie.” He kind of was talking about his personal ties to the region, how he wanted to make, write a story that makes people think when they saw it. The thing about it is this is not a movie that people don’t know the ending to. Either you know about the story and can look it up or you don’t know the ending and then you become angry about it. We had a screening in New York, and I was really surprised. A lot of people were leaving the theater very angry that this had happened, talking about other industrial disasters, how do we prevent something like this, and I thought, wow, this initial conversation I had with the writer turns out to be right, that he made a movie in a way that makes people respond.

There was a screening in August at the UN.

Yeah.

How was that?

I hear it was great. Did you go? I didn’t get to go. I hear it was good. I didn’t get a chance to go because I was shooting something in L.A.

So do you feel that safety standards at chemical plants have improved since the disaster?

Good question! I wish I was an expert on that enough to answer that question. I don’t think I could fairly answer it, but I think one of the interesting trends from audiences that I’ve seen is that it is something that they debate by citing examples, so a lot of people that have either read about the film or seen it talk about BP. They talk about the oil spill in the Gulf, and they talk about the CEO of BP and how badly he botched his PR campaign when he would go on the air.

A sequel to this?

It made people kind of think, but beyond that, this is a plant that really hasn’t been cleaned up. Union Carbide was sold to Dow Chemical which still exists. Dow Chemical never went and cleaned it up. There’s still legal cases pending against it, so I think the answer to the question is that obviously I’m not equipped to answer the science behind that. These issues are still very active, they’re still pending, both related to actual Bhopal and related to other industrial disasters as well.

Hopefully they’ll see this film and definitely improve safety standards.

I hope so! You know, Amnesty International is apparently partnering with the film and hosting discussions and other campaigns that they are already working on. I was surprised to see that. As an actor, you kind of, at least I, you hope the work does justice to the people who were actually affected by it, but then to see there are actual advocacy groups that think there is value in the work they are doing as well is interesting. I wasn’t expecting that.

What was it like filming in India?

Awesome! It’s a totally different experience there. You know, actors there I’m told shoot five movies simultaneously, and I don’t just mean like back-to-back, week-to-week. I mean, like on a Monday they will be shooting a movie. On a Tuesday, they’ll do another one, and on Wednesday, they’ll come back to the first one, and on Thursday, they’ll go to a third one. And it’s nuts because we’re used to, if you’re lucky enough to do two movies, they are back-to-back. Nobody would let you do two movies a week, and so their schedules are kind of crazy, and there’s a certain vibrant nature of filmmaking there.

So a lot more hectic than L.A.!

It’s a lot more hectic than L.A., but it is also, like, it’s vibrant in ways that I can’t really describe. It took a while to get used to obviously because I’m used to a little more traditional order based on our standards, but once you jump into their standards, you’re like, wow, this is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of fun.

So it was a unique experience all around.

Oh yeah.

What was it like working with Martin Sheen?

Awesome. I’ve been a Martin Sheen fan for years, so it was particularly awesome to work with him. He’s such a nice guy. Watching his process, the amount of patience he has, and shooting any independent film is kind of a chaotic schedule, but juxtapose that with shooting in a foreign country and their customs and it kind of throws you for a loop sometimes. You look at Martin, and he’s always very calm, very dedicated, really nice, very eager to take you under his wing and give you some pointers on how you can relax, and it was awesome.

Did you guys hang out?

We did a little bit! We didn’t have, I think we only have one scene together, and our characters don’t speak to each other, but we were on-set together quite a bit just because you’re shooting different scenes throughout the day. He was awesome to talk to. Haven’t seen him in a couple years since the movie ended because we both went and did our own things, but it’s great to see him again regularly when we’ve been promoting the film.

What about Mischa Barton?

Yeah, Mischa is awesome. It was really cool, actually, to see, I was only really familiar with her work on The O.C., and I was a fan of that show. To see her take on a role like this, totally different, playing a French journalist, going from being an American actor to shooting in India, playing a French journalist, it’s like, that headspace has to be really challenging. I think she’s done a tremendous job and was also really fun to work with. Also really fun to explore Hyderabad with because neither of us had been to the city, and so we’d kind of go off and visit these places that you’d read about on our days off, take a bunch of the crew with us.

Good food?

Amazing food! I’ve never been to a place where I haven’t enjoyed the food except for…actually, I don’t know. I felt like there would be one example of a bad experience.

What upcoming films or projects do you have going?

I have a TV show right now that we’re shooting. It comes out in early next year called Battle Creek, a new show for CBS that Vince Gilligan and David Shore did. Vince apparently wrote the script twelve years before Breaking Bad. After Breaking Bad did so well, people were like, “Don’t you have anything else?” And he said, “Yeah, all these scripts that you didn’t buy twelve years ago!” So they bought Battle Creek. He retooled it with David Shore who also did House, and I play a detective, sort of gun-toting, catching bad guys…

Gritty action?

It’s gritty, but there’s a lot of humor in it. It’s almost a dramedy. I hate that word, but it’s a funny drama. And that’s been a lot of fun. There are about three or four independent films I’ve shot over the last couple of years that seem to be coming out late this year, early next year. There’s a British horror movie called Dementamania that I shot. There’s a movie that’s kind of geared towards young women called Sisterhood of Night that was shot two years ago in upstate New York that, it’s Lydia Dean Pilcher who just got, I think she got an Oscar nomination for her work for The Lunchbox, is that right? Was The Lunchbox nominated? She also produced The Namesake a couple years ago. So yeah, a couple things coming out, and it’s all like, it’s all the stuff that you hope that things do well, and you’re kind of waiting for something to come out, and different things kind of appeal to different demographics. I think Battle Creek is a lot more mainstream than something like Dementamania, but hopefully there is some overlap with the audience.

Yeah, there’s a lot of different genres you’re tackling.

I kind of like that, you know?

Any possibility for a fourth Harold & Kumar?

I am always down to do any number of those movies ever. Kumar is infinitely cooler than I will ever be in real life, so any time I can play him, I’m happy to. We just shot a pilot for an animated series for Adult Swim, so we’re actually going to find out in the next month or two whether Adult Swim is gonna air it and turn it into twenty episodes.

Kind of like what they did with the Clerks series?

Yeah, exactly. We’re hoping, fingers crossed.

And John Cho is also…

Yeah, we all do our own voices. And that first pilot script is so wrong, like in the way that you hope a Harold and Kumar script is wrong. It’s written by the same guys, and I’m glad it is animated because on television, I don’t think you could get away with some of the stuff they are getting away with.

Well, Adult Swim is pretty risqué with a lot of their stuff.

Yeah, exactly.

So are you still working with the White House?

I’m not. So I took a two year sabbatical from acting, so I was there from 2009 to 2011, and I loved it, and then after 2011, I kind of knew, okay, this is when I’m coming back to acting and was lucky that the gig on How I Met Your Mother season, which was a month after I left the White House.

You were Robin’s boyfriend, okay.

Yeah, so it was a nice transition back, but I serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, so it’s not a full-time job. It’s the kind of thing you can, I think they meet four or five times a year, and the focus is on arts education in different schools around the country. So you can do your work from really wherever you are, whether it’s New York or L.A., or if you’re shooting a movie, you can still take time on the weekends.

So if you’re in L.A., you just quickly come to D.C.?

No, you don’t even have to. There’s Skype or it’s at different schools that are in different places around the country. There’s only one in D.C. and the rest are scattered around.

Where are they, like are they in New York?

There is one in New York I think? There are thirty-four of them. Chicago, Iowa, Montana, California, I can actually send you a list. There’s a website that has all the info about what the committee does too which is PCAH.gov.

Yeah, because I love kids, and arts education is very necessary.

I agree. I’m obviously biased as an actor, but yeah, part of what they do is chartered a pilot program of four schools, and the goal was to utilize the arts to improve math and reading scores, and it seemed to have worked in those initial four schools.

Like listening to Mozart, like that type of thing?

It’s more of actually playing Mozart or performing, giving kids that confidence, and they are all in under-performing schools, so the idea there was something lacking in these schools, and of course arts tends to be the first thing that gets cut. And a lot of the schools, they’ve seen not just attendance but parental involvement in the school go up as arts education increases. The other kind of awesome thing about the program is that it is a public/private partnership, so a lot of the funding is all private money, so Congress has not decided that the arts are important nowadays, it seems.

Sounds like a movie!

(Laughs)

That was Meryl Streep, right? Music of the Heart.

The two choices are obviously we should keep fighting Congress for arts funding, but are you just going to sit on your ass until that happens? No. So the committee sort of decided to find private partners who believe that this is important.

That’s awesome. Well, I’m for it!

Yeah! You know, a lot of people are, but it’s not the type of thing that we often think about when we vote for representatives in Congress.

Well, maybe they will when they read this interview!

Yeah, that would be nice.

You know, I was going to bring a box full of White Castle, but then I heard that you don’t eat meat. You were in this movie, and you don’t eat meat, and you don’t smoke. Was that a challenge?

No, because I feel like the movie is more about friendship anyway. It’s about friendship more than the weed or the burgers. I also love that question because I like, I’m curious about the psychology behind it because I feel like nobody asks me if it was weird that I rode a cheetah. Actually, that’s not true. A lot of audience members will come up to you at random times and go, “Hey man, I love that movie, but that cheetah was just not realistic.” Okay, so the raccoon that spit up blood was realistic? The hang gliding was realistic? I just think it’s funny. I feel like it’s more about friendship than the weed or the burgers.

Harold and Kumar anyway, they’re like Abbott and Costello.

That’s what I think, but then also part of that’s flattering because for people that do like to smoke weed and eat hamburgers, especially when they’re high, the fact that that was such a, like to them, the movie is, yes it’s about friendship, but it’s also about smoking weed and eating burgers. As an actor, if you convince somebody that your character has done anything that you don’t do in real life, it’s kind of an awesome feeling. This is probably a terrible example, but I really enjoyed the role I had in 24. I played a terrorist. The reason why I enjoyed it was I took a family hostage, and I’m scared of guns in real life. I’m scared of hostage scenarios, but if I did that believably, then like I feel good about my day at work. So it’s a similar thing. I don’t think you have to necessarily eat or smoke weed to do a movie about it, but I love the audience. See, I love that you thought to bring burgers.

Oh man, I was so going to do that…

I know they were testing veggie burgers for a while, do you know if they are still doing that?

I don’t think I’ve been in White Castle since college.

I haven’t since the movie.

A veggie slider?

There was something about the patterns of people being more health-conscious now, and I’m like, but isn’t the whole point of going to White Castle that you’re not? I’m all for it if they introduce them, though.

I’m not a big fast-food eater. I mean, I like the halal carts.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you have a stronger passion for politics or the arts, or is it pretty much equal?

Thankfully in my life, they haven’t been mutually exclusive. I think my first love has always been the arts, so you know, I feel really lucky that I could go and take that sabbatical and then come back and audiences are still willing to turn on the TV and give me jobs. But that’s what I like, especially in a place like the White House, there were so many people that took time off from their primary careers. You had people that were academics and lawyers and doctors, pediatricians, and they would take a year or four years or six years or whatever it is to serve and then they would go back to their private sector careers. Obviously as an actor, there was a little more undue attention when you go and do it as an actor because you already have a career in the public eye, but it actually wasn’t that special of a thing to go do in the sense that other people also have done it. Personally special of course, but it’s not uncommon, I think. It was kind of cool that is something that is possible. I feel like there are very few countries in the world where that is actually possible.

So you mentioned the schools and arts education. Do they have performances that people can pay to go see?

A lot of it depends on the schools, so the program is catered toward each school district, so the school district has to, I think, raise matching funds, and the administration program is done locally, if I’m not mistaken. But the First Lady a couple months ago hosted a White House talent show with a lot of the kids from these schools, so the point of it was obviously not just to have a bunch of kids singing and dance but to showcase what the program is doing and how it has been effective in the particular schools. And the kids were actually really good, so the entire talent show is online on WhiteHouse.gov.

Where was that event held?

In the East Room. It was pretty cool.

It must have been, yeah. This is kind of off-topic, but what are your thoughts on the Secret Service’s less-than-sterling reputation recently?

I think they have a really hard job. I don’t work there anymore, so it’s really hard to say what, to have thoughts on the inside. I know that when I worked there, there are plenty of things that happened that don’t make the news. They are public, but people don’t tend to notice. They do a tremendous job, and they work day and night. I remember realizing when I started working there that when it’s minus-twenty degrees, they’re standing on the roof of the White House, doing what they do. Standing in the cold or in the heat in D.C. with all that gear, 115 degrees or whatever it was. So I had a lot of respect for those guys. I think they have a really tough job. I think obviously there have been a couple of lapses that are a combination of, and embarrassing for the agency and potentially dangerous that they are working on fixing. Their new interim director is a guy who was there when I was there, and he is well-liked by everybody who I know. He is well-liked by people regardless of politics. It has nothing to do with political affiliation. Hopefully the restructuring that he’s working on is going to be helpful.

I guess it’s a little too early to tell. What’s the President like?

The President is a great guy! Look, I think he has a very tough job. I’m very proud of the things he’s accomplished. The types of stuff that I worked on when I was there were things, I worked on youth outreach primarily, so the things that I worked on had a lot of consensus for the most part if you were under 30, so doubling the Pell Grants so it’s easier to go to college, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” ending the war in Iraq, making sure veterans get their benefits. It’s shocking that these are things that not everyone agrees on, so if you go over 35, there are a lot of older people that sit there and go, “Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen if we repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Well, we don’t know about this doubling the Pell Grants. Who is that really going to impact?” All that ridiculousness. So for me, seeing the President fight for these things, on the one hand, you look at young people and they go, “Why are these things taking so long? We elected Obama, and we thought that it would happen immediately.” And you realize the reason why they aren’t happening immediately is because there are so many people in Congress that actually oppose it, and still the President’s using a lot of political capital. He’s fighting really hard behind the scenes to get this done. Again, these are all things that don’t make it into the news because they aren’t salacious stories, right? They want to talk about how we’re all going to die of Ebola. So I think the President has shown tremendous leadership. I think he’s also an incredible guy behind the scenes, likes to laugh, has a great way of being able to be very serious when he needs to be serious and when there’s something silly on cable news that doesn’t really mean anything, you know, there’s an appropriate time to shrug something off.

Does he get involved with your job on the arts committee?

Yes. The way that the committees work, the First Lady is the honorary chair of it, so it’s not, you don’t have to report directly to the President, but whenever, for example, the committee put together a report on the state of arts education. Unlike a lot of other federal government reports that sit on desks and nobody reads, this was one that was presented to the President and those organizations were what went into those thirty-four schools, the turn-around with the arts program. And then the office that I worked in was called the Office of Public Engagement, so there were people that were essentially outreach on every conceivable issue, so Asian-Americans, Irish-Americans, rural farmers, urban Americans, and your interaction with the President would be if you had a particular meeting that he was taking and if you had to brief him on a particular set of things. That’s when you would sit down for three minutes before he goes into the meeting room, or in the case of something like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, we were in charge of putting together the signing ceremony, so obviously the President wants to invite as many people as possible who are affected by that policy when he is repealing it. Where do you have that, who do you invite, who does he want in the room, that kind of thing. So it is fascinating to see, and I actually left the White House feeling much better about our political system than even before I went in because it showed me if people do vote and after voting, they call up members of Congress and say, “I do feel this way,” or, “I don’t feel this way” about the way they are going to vote on a particular bill, it’s surprising how much of a different that actually makes. They feel that pressure. If we don’t do that, then the only pressure they are going to get is from people that give them money for their campaigns. I left with a really positive feeling about it.

Have you or any of the filmmakers with Bhopal reached out to the families or people affected?

Yes, so Ravi Kumar, who is our director, has, and I don’t know exactly the relationship between them. There were some folks who came from Bhupal to the screening we had a couple weeks ago in New York. I have not had a chance to interact as deeply with them, but it was nice to see that survivors and people who are still involved in the campaign felt, and I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but it seemed to me that they felt that the film hopefully did justice to the story, and that was important to me, especially because it is a fictionalized adaptation of it. You want to make sure that since it happened so recently and people are still suffering the consequences of it, that you tell the story that people do feel is fair.

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