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In 2009, actor Kal Penn did something unexpected: he quit his job as a regular actor for the popular TV show lodge to serve in the Obama White House, as a junior staff member and liaison with the arts communities, young Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Penn had started acting in stoner comedies Harold and Kumar go to the white castle and Van Wilder of National Lampoon. He says he initially worried he was hired by the Obama administration purely because of his fame as an actor, but Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett has disillusioned him with that notion.
“In VJ fashion, [she] gave me a look that we all know and love her for and said, “I can assure you you’re hired despite this,” Penn said. “And that was very meaningful to me.”
Taking a break from acting was a risk, but Penn was used to taking risks. Growing up in New Jersey as a child of immigrant parents, becoming an actor seemed like a rebellious choice. At family gatherings, he said, he dreaded being asked about his plans for the future.
“Almost other people’s children were doing something traditional,” he says. Telling his parents’ friends at meetings that he wanted to be an actor resulted in something that “almost sounded like a comedy. It was like a record scratch where you could hear the silence of a pin.”
After working for the Obama administration for two years, Penn returned to Hollywood in 2011 and starred White House Press Secretary Seth Wright on ABC Series Designated survivor, and a former New York City Councilor on the NBC sitcom, Sunny side. His new thesis, You can’t be serious, is a collection of stories about his life and career.
“When I was [in] in my early twenties there wasn’t really a book that talked about what it was like to navigate hollywood as a young man of color, “he says.” and so i started to collect these stories mainly because I’m glad these things have changed so much in Hollywood. “
When asked to do a stereotypical Indian accent for a small role on the sitcom Sabrina the teenage witch – and confront the director
Simon & Schuster
I pleaded my case to him. I said, “Hey, man, thank you for inviting me on the show. Thanks for the opportunity. The show was so funny.” (Maybe I made some embellishments there for her good.) … I said, “I was wondering if there was a way I could play this part without an accent?”
And he kind of cut me off and was dismissive, he said, “No, no, no, no. That’s why we hired you. You’re going to do that accent. It’s funny.”
And I remember thinking, they say racism comes from ignorance, so maybe I should educate him? Here, I’m in my early twenties on a TV set, and I said, “Hey if I could I have young cousins and they love to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I know they haven’t had the chance to watch someone who looks like us as Americans onscreen either. I just thought it would be a really cool opportunity if when they saw that they saw a character that isn’t a stereotype and that was just funny on the basis of merit. “
And I remember it so clearly. He looked at me and he said, “Well, your cousins should feel lucky that you were allowed to be on TV to begin with. And so are you.” And he left. And so I kind of had a lesson, I think it’s a little bit abusive that racism only comes from ignorance; it can also come from a conscious retention of power and a desire to keep people down.
On her pivotal role as “Taj Mahal” in the teen sex comedy van Wilder and what he calls “The Brown Catch-22”
[My agent] couldn’t get me in for auditions that weren’t written in brown, and the only brown parts that were written were written to be pretty stereotypical. So his hope was that I would book a few of them soon enough so that I could get out of “Brown Catch-22” and prove to the city that I had merit as an artist outside of these boundaries. types of roles. . I finally decided to audition for this movie and wasn’t sure if I was going to take it. …
Two things happened on the final encore: First, I walked into the audition room knowing there would be another guy I was against, and I walked in and it was a white guy with a brown face. that kind of caught me off guard. Back then, it was not uncommon, to be clear, to go to an audition and see white brown faces. I guess it’s a little less common now, luckily, but unfortunately [it] still happens. But I walked in there and as soon as I saw it I thought my beef is never with another actor in this case. I know the desperation of wanting to book a game. So I understood on a weird, weird level, the desperation he probably felt in wanting to book this part. But I also knew, like, bro, that you weren’t allowed to play that role. You just are not. I am getting this part, you are not allowed to do this.
So I had this motivation for the hearing. And then Ryan Reynolds was such a wonderful, sweet actor in that audition. He encouraged me to improvise. He said to me, “I can tell you are really funny. You just wanna improvise stuff?” And so he and I improvised a few scenes from this audition. I ended up booking it and the agent turned out to be right.
On his most famous role, Kumar, in Harold and Kumar go to the white castle
I wanted to play Kumar in Harold and Kumar go to the white castle because it was the funniest script I have ever read in my life. I mean, I think it’s still true, actually. … It was so funny, I was laughing every page and I also had the right look or type for the role. I mean, it was a buddy comedy about two friends going on this ridiculous burger quest after getting high. But it was also the first time that a studio had chosen or would launch two Asian American men for the lead role in a comedy. So it all spoke to me when I first read the script, and I just knew I had to play this part.
By revealing in the book (to the surprise of many) that he is gay and had an 11-year-old partner
I certainly wasn’t expecting all the love for Chapter 18, where I talk about my partner Josh and how we’ve been together for 11 years. … I mentioned in this chapter … [that] we’re engaged and I didn’t think, obviously naively in retrospect, I didn’t think this would be some kind of newsworthy item, mainly because we’ve been together for 11 years.
There are things that I certainly haven’t shared publicly in interviews out of respect for Josh because he doesn’t like the limelight. He looks a lot like my parents and my brother in this regard. When we were going to movie premieres or things like that, and everyone was always coming to support us and always flawlessly, let’s go through a side door and say, ‘Go ahead, you do your stuff on the mat. Red. We’ll see you soon at the seats. ”But I think because we’ve been together again for so long, perhaps naively, I just didn’t think it would be interesting.
And I also remember when I gave my speech at the DNC in 2012 and he and my parents were there and I said how very proud I am of the then president and vice president for their position on marriage equality. I kind of half-joked, I think the phrase I used was, “As you know the president is cool with all of us marrying gay people.” By “all of us” I obviously also meant myself. So I thought it was a fun story to share with people. I’m so glad it resonated that people have so much love for this love.
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.