The actor discusses starring in the new film, working on 24, Epic Movie and the next Harold & Kumar installment

If you've seen National Lampoon's Van Wilder, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, or Superman Returns, than you have witnessed the elegant, simplistic, comic brilliance of Kal Penn. The versatile actor recently sat down with us discuss his spinoff film, National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj. In this film, Taj (Kal Penn) heads to England's prestigious Oxford University to further his studies while in the process, showing the uptight student body how to party.

What's it like to co-star in the first Van Wilder and now star in the sequel?

Kal Penn: We had no idea what was going to happen when we did the original. It's kind of cool because in the original Van Wilder, I was basically just kind of a sidekick character. Kind of one dimensional, and a little stereotypical, too. So it was cool that the audience actually liked it, because I had fears that they weren't going to identify with the character. They thought I was likable and they liked that he was so quirky, I guess. It's actually more of a spinoff than a sequel.

I think it's sort of weird that it's called Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, (laughs) I think it should just be called The Rise of Taj, because it's misleading because Ryan's not in the sequel, unfortunately. The opportunity to create a character 4 years later was pretty awesome. To take a guy who was just kind of sidekick part and make him the lead, who gets the girl in the movie, and does more of the insanity instead of just talks about it, was cool.

What do you think the secret of comedy is in a film like The Rise of Taj?

Kal Penn: I don't know that there's any real secret to the comedy. I think in order for the comedy to work you have to play it real. So it could be the most insane situation in the world like getting your back lit on fire... if your character understands his humor then the scene's not going to work. Your character has to be completely committed to the fear or the loathing, the anger or whatever he's feeling at the moment. It really is the same thing as a drama, except the situation is so bizarre that it'll make it funny.

From the first Van Wilder to Harold & Kumar, and now The Rise of Taj was it always your plan to be a comic actor?

Kal Penn: No, it sort of just came upon me. I'm actually branching out in the next two things that I have coming out. I'm on this season of 24 in January, and I'm in a movie called The Namesake that comes out in March. It's a drama based on a book by the same title. I love the comedy thing, I think it's a lot of fun to do, but the goal is to definitely mix it up a little bit.

You mentioned that The Rise of Taj is a spinoff more than a sequel, was it your ultimate goal to then make it not look like a sequel?

Kal Penn: Yeah, of course. From the beginning of the development stages it was important to me, and important to all of us, to make sure that it was not one of those cheesy teen movie knockoff sequels. That's just kind of lame. We wanted to make it something that was a true spinoff of a movie, where you're taking a character that people liked, and people identified with, and you're adding things to him that make him more interesting to watch than the first time around. Otherwise, it sort of gets watered down. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to take the opportunity to develop a character, develop a story, in an interesting way that goes beyond the first one and doesn't just try and rip it off.

You were also the executive producer on this film, I was wondering how much more difficult that role made Kal Penn's work day?

Kal Penn: For me it's a more challenging work day, that's sort of the goal. To be able to have more creative input on things. Just to give you a couple of examples, when I get the first draft of the script and then... the movie takes place in the UK, so I thought it would be cool to have a couple of jokes about the British. The British colonized both America and India, right? And Taj is kind of the American Dream. He's this kid who moved from a foreign country after he lived in America for a while and went somewhere else. I thought there was a lot of room for humor there.

We gave the writer some notes and that turned into a couple of things you see in the trailer. Some of the jokes that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a dumb teen movie, but nevertheless you still have your fart jokes and stuff; that's not gone. It was cool to be able to help develop it by producing it.

Can you talk at all about Epic Movie and Harold & Kumar Go to Amsterdam?

Kal Penn: I actually haven't seen the rough cut for Epic Movie, we shot so much stuff I'm not sure what's gonna end up in the film. It's a spoof movie essentially. It's by the guys who did Scary Movie so I guess the more prevalent spoofs are the ones that are going to make in. That was fun to work on. That was a movie I did this summer. And then, the Harold & Kumar sequel we're shooting in Shreveport, LA in January. It is not called Harold & Kumar Go to Amsterdam, but I will assure you that it is funnier than the first one. I read the script recently and it was pretty amazing that they wrote something even funnier than the first time around.

Does it have it title?

Kal Penn: No.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj parties into theaters December 1 from MGM, Bauer Martinez Distribution.

You can also see the origin of Taj in Van Wilder: Van Gone Wilder Edition which hits DVD November 28 from Lionsgate.

Evan Jacobs