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Kal Penn: Sharp-dressed man

Penn's biggest challenge in bringing the Bhopal disaster to life? A tacky wardrobe.

Five years ago, Kal Penn took time off from entertainment to join the Obama administration's Office of Public Engagement, though he stepped away from those duties from time to time when the right acting gig came up. One of those is "Bhopal: a Prayer for Rain," retelling the tragic story of the disaster 30 years ago at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India — the largest man-made industrial disaster in history. Penn plays an outlandish local journalist with a rather unique fashion sense.

How much did you yourself remember about the Bhopal disaster, given that you were a 7-year-old in New Jersey at the time?
I didn't remember a whole lot. There was certainly a recognition and an awareness of it, but I remembered more from college. But really not until researching my role for the film did I have a chance to really learn for the first time the complexities of what went on. We're a fictionalized adaptation of real-world events, but everybody I think wanted to make sure that to the best extent possible we do justice to them.

Do you think in the 30 years since, with deregulation and the the changing relationships between corporations and government, that it's gotten more or less likely for something like this to happen again?
I don't know if it's fair for me to speculate on things like that, because when I worked in government my area of expertise was more in policy and outreach related to young people. But anecdotally, about a year and a half or two years after we shot this movie was when the BP oil spill took place. On the one hand I think it is kind of crazy that this stuff keeps repeating itself, sure, but then again it's also very hard to make that comparison because we don't know if there were disasters like this that have been prevented by changing law, because they didn't happen.

When you first saw your wardrobe for this movie, what did you think?
I was a little bit worried at first, to be honest — you know, really loud-colored shirts and prints. And I thought, who is this guy? Have I been prepping for this character all wrong? And the director said, "No, actually he's loosely based on a real guy who did dress this way at the time." It was an interesting acting challenge to sit there and go OK, clearly my character is over the top, boisterous, larger than life, loves himself at the beginning of the film. But the film's a tragedy, and the arc of this guy is he goes from being this gossip columnist who just wants to sell papers to being a guy who it's really clear cares about his town and cares about the people that live there.

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They are some impressive shirts.
They are. I wish I could keep them, I had to give them back.

Yeah, but where would you wear them?
Everywhere. Where would you not wear them? (laughs)

It's also a very impressive mustache.
Thank you, thank you. I think by the end of the movie I was ready to let go of the mustache. But then again, maybe that's why I couldn't keep the shirts. I feel like they had to go together.

And then you're just cosplaying your own character.
(laughs) Amazing. That's like a movie within a movie but on a whole different level.

How are you doing after last week's election results?
It was interesting. I was less perplexed about the results and more perplexed about the lead-up. I thought there were so many democrats who shied away from their voting records and from the president, and I thought that was a mistake. I'm obviously biased — politically I'm Independent, but I'm a big Obama supporter, and I think some of the things that poll well, especially with young people, all these candidates ran away from. I think they should've doubled down on those things. They should've said, "Look, these are our successes, they're better than they were before and they can continue to be better if you vote for us." They didn't do that, and I think they're learning the lesson of not having done that. And I also think that's part of why you saw a lower turnout than was even expected. It's not like people rallied behind Republican ideas, they just didn't want to vote for the people who weren't campaigning on their record. That's my theory, at least. I don't know how popular it is. (laughs)

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick

 
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