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Kal Penn On The Opportunity To Join 'Clarice': 'I Jumped At The Chance, It's So Different'

(CBS) - Kal Penn is trying something new with his role as Shaan Tripathi in the crime drama Clarice. This series, based off the movie Silence Of The Lambs, sees Penn working along side Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) for the FBI following the capture of Buffalo Bill.

CBS' Matt Weiss spoke to Penn about his character, the tone of the show and what it's like to film during a pandemic.

MW: Kal, what's going on my man? New episode of Clarice airs tonight and I'm curious to know, this is a very unique concept for a show in that it's a follow up to a movie and not the other way around, what made you interested in this role in the first place?

KP: Sure. What initially drew me to it was, last season I had the chance to create my own comedy and that was a blast but we knew that was only going to go for one season. Then I was sort of looking, I like mixing things up. I was like, okay, can I do a drama next season? Then this came along.

I thought, wow, alright, you're not just doing a drama, you're doing a continuation of this iconic movie Silence Of The Lambs. I jumped at the chance because it's so different than some of the things I've had a chance to do before.

MW: A career over two decades at this point, really an incredible career, but this is a new show and like you said a drama, switching things up, also filmed during a pandemic. It's an experience you've never had before so is this one really going to stick out for you down the line when you think back on things you've worked on?

KP: Definitely. Look, you're right it's a combination of things. It's the fact that it's an iconic movie that we pick up about a year later, but it's the circumstances of it. I think everybody's concerned. I live in New York and we shoot the show Toronto. The majority of my year in New York, New York got hit pretty hard early. The first priority is everybody's safety and their health. Then you figure out well how are people making TV shows. It's a pared-down crew and you get tested every other day. The resources that they really pour into this you kind of think, wow, I wish everybody had these resources in our daily lives.

We're certainly very privileged to have a chance to do that. The creepy thing in making a creepy show during a time like that is your whole crew, as pared-down as they are, they're all in multiple face masks or goggles and shields. I don't know what anybody looks like. Not only are we doing these creepy scenes with these bloody shootouts, but I also can't see our crew. It's like man, this is just really eerie. It fits the nature of the show pretty well.

MW: Before 2020 it would sound like a nightmare. You're surrounded by blood and there's masked people all around you. That's a living nightmare.

KP: [Laughs] It really is!

MW: Now you play Shaan on the show. I know sometimes it takes a little while to really gel with a character. I'm just curious early on here playing him, what's stood out to you about him so far?

KP: Early on we don't really know a lot about him. I think you'll find out stuff about him halfway through the season around episode six, then again in episodes 11, 12, and 13. The interesting thing about that is a show like this, it almost reminds me of when I was on House. You don't know everything about a character right off the bat because it's such a big group. Each week you learn a little bit more about somebody, a little bit more after that.

We know that Shaan's back story is that he comes to the FBI from library and Museum studies. He probably worked at the Smithsonian before he joined the FBI, which means that his angle in trying to solve these cases is from things like, discovering. Somebody was wearing a vintage jacket; he knows the material that it was made out of. It reminds him of a clue that might help solve the case. It's kind of offbeat stuff like that.

I assume because we're equal parts procedural and equal parts serialized drama that it'll probably all wrap up in a nice little bow towards the end of the season. As an actor, I'm curious to see what that's like because going in a little bit blind can be a blessing and a curse. You get to discover each little thing unlike in movies  where the whole script is in front of you. You know everything about your character. That's also a blessing and a curse because the discovery of it is just a little bit different.

MW: Shaan's also one of the few people on the team who really sees something in Clarice, I'm sure there's way more that we still have to figure out with those two, but what from what you know now, what will that relationship be like?

KP: The origin story of that relationship is Clarice comes from behavioral sciences, which is not a field that's well understood in 1993, in our world. Because Shaan Tripathi, my character, comes from the museum world, he's one of the only people on the team who approaches his FBI work in a non-traditional way. The two of them you kind of get the sense that there may be bonding off of the fact that they both come from different worlds. Because of that Shaan trusts Clarice, a little earlier than the rest of the team.

MW: You mention the world being set in 1993 almost 30 years ago, what's that been like stepping into a time machine?

KP: The interesting thing to me is we're aware every day of how we communicate and how technology just makes things move faster and faster, but to really be reminded of it when you're playing characters who don't have a smartphone in their pocket. You have a brick if you need to make a phone call with, like an old-school satellite looking phone thing.

You think about how it and wonder was 30 years ago a long time in terms of technology? Yeah, I mean things have progressed so much. Even discovering those little nuances, I would say there are times when I'm like, yeah, I could live in 1993 again just because you have more time on your hands maybe. Then other times I'm like, oh no, I obviously couldn't live without my phone.

MW: Right? Remember not having a super computer in your pocket that can tell you whatever you want to know at any moment?

KP: Right, I can't ask it verbally what the weather is going to be.

MW: People just looked outside to know the weather? That's Madness.

KP: [Laughs]

MW: Episode three airs tonight at 10:00PM ET/PT on CBS, what will we see from this latest one?

KP: Tonight's episode is sort of a Waco style compound case where a cult was holding people hostage and we have to save a few people. Now it's kind of trying to figure out who the right suspects are. Michael Cudlitz's character, he plays our boss, Clarice, Rebecca Reed's character, they sort of go head-to-head.

They have different styles of questioning suspects. Cudlitz is very, sort of, type A aggressive question the suspects and Clarice from her behavioral science background is a lot more nuanced. You really get a sense of the tension that builds in tonight's episode.

MW: Awesome, looking forward to it. Thank you so much Kal and all the best and stay safe!

KP: Thanks Matt, I appreciate it!

Clarice airs new episodes Thursday nights at 10:00PM ET/PT, only on CBS and streaming on CBS All Access. Check your local listings for more information.

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