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Actor Kal Penn isn't afraid to take chances, on screen or in life

In 2009, actor Kal Penn did something unexpected: He left his job as a cast regular on the popular TV show House to take a position in the Obama White House, serving as a junior staffer and liaison to arts communities, young Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Penn had gotten his start acting in the stoner comedies Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and National Lampoon's Van Wilder. He says he initially worried that he'd been hired by the Obama administration only because of his fame as an actor, but presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett disabused him of that notion.

"In true V.J. fashion, [she] gave me a look that we all know and love her for and said, 'I can assure you you're being hired in spite of it,' " Penn says. "And that was very meaningful to me."

Taking a hiatus from acting was a risk, but Penn was used to taking chances. When he was growing up in New Jersey as the child of immigrant parents, just becoming an actor had seemed like a rebellious choice. At family gatherings, he says, he dreaded being asked about his plans for the future.

"Almost everybody else's kids were doing something traditional," he says. Telling his parents' friends at gatherings that he wanted to be an actor resulted in something that "was almost like out of a comedy. It was like either a record scratch or you could hear pin-drop silence."

After working for the Obama administration for two years, Penn returned to Hollywood in 2011 and played White House press secretary Seth Wright in the ABC series Designated Survivor and a former New York City councilman on the NBC sitcom Sunnyside. His new memoir, You Can't Be Serious, is a collection of stories about his life and career.

"When I was [in] my early 20s, 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 putting these stories together mostly because of how happy I am that things have changed so much in Hollywood."

Interview highlights

On being asked to do a stereotypical Indian accent for a small role on the sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch — and confronting the director

<em>You Can't Be Serious</em>, by Kal Penn
/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
You Can't Be Serious, by Kal Penn

I pled my case to him. I said, "Hey, man, I thank you for having me on the show. Thank you for the opportunity. The show was so funny." (I may have been embellishing there a little bit for his benefit.) ... I said, "I was wondering if there's any way that I could play this part without the 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 to myself, "They say that racism comes from ignorance, so maybe I should educate him?" Here I am in my early 20s on a TV set, and I said, "Hey, if I could, I have young cousins and they love watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I know that they also haven't had the chance to watch somebody who just looks like us as Americans on-screen. I just thought it'd be a really cool opportunity if when they saw this, they would see a character that's not a stereotype and was just funny based on the merits."

It's a bit of a misnomer that racism only comes from ignorance; it can also come from a conscious maintenance of power and a desire to keep people down.

And I remember this so clearly. He looked at me and he said, "Well, your cousins should feel lucky that you're allowed to be on TV to begin with. And so should you." And he walked off. And so I kind of got a lesson in, I think it's a bit of a misnomer that racism only comes from ignorance; it can also come from a conscious maintenance of power and a desire to keep people down.

On his breakthrough role of "Taj Mahal" in the teen sex comedy Van Wilder and what he calls the "Brown Catch-22"

[My agent] couldn't get me in the door for auditions that weren't written brown, and the only brown parts that were written were written to be fairly stereotypical. So her hope was that I would book a few of these in rapid enough succession that I could break out of the "Brown Catch-22" and prove to the town that I had merits as an artist outside of the confines of these types of roles. I ultimately decided to audition for this movie and wasn't sure if I was going to take it. ...

Two things happened in the final callback: One, I walked into the audition room knowing that there was going to be another guy who I was up against, and I walk in and it was a white dude in brownface that kind of caught me off guard. In those days, it was not uncommon, to be clear, to go to an audition and see white guys in brownface. I guess it's a little less common now, thankfully, but unfortunately [it] still happens. But I walked in there, and as soon as I saw him, I thought to myself, like, my beef is never with another actor in this case. I know the desperation of wanting to book a part. So I understood on some weird, bizarre level the desperation that he probably felt in wanting to book this part. But I also knew, like, bro, you're not allowed to play this part. You're just not. I'm getting this part — you're not allowed to do this.

So I had that motivation going into the audition. And then Ryan Reynolds was such a wonderful actor and so kind in that audition. He encouraged me to improvise. He's like, "I can tell you're really funny. Do you want to just improv some stuff?" And so he and I improvised a few of the scenes in that audition. I ended up booking it, and the agent turned out to be right.

On his most famous role, Kumar, in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

I wanted to play Kumar in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle because it was the funniest script I had ever read in my life. I mean, I think that still holds true, actually. ... It was so funny — I laughed at every page, and I also was the right look or type for the part. I mean, it was a buddy comedy about two friends who go on this ridiculous quest for hamburgers after they get high. But also it was the first time that a studio had cast or would cast two Asian American men as the lead in a comedy. So all of that spoke to me when I read the script for the first time, and I just knew I had to play this part.

On disclosing in the book (to the surprise of many) that he is gay and has had a partner for 11 years

I certainly was not 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 that chapter ... [that] we're engaged, and I didn't think, obviously naively in retrospect, I didn't think that that would be kind of a newsworthy item, mostly because we've been together for 11 years.

There are things that I certainly haven't shared publicly in interviews out of respect to Josh, because he doesn't love the limelight. He's very similar to my parents and my brother in that regard. When we'd go to movie premieres or things like that, and all of them would always come to be supportive and always without fail go through a side door and say, "Go ahead — you do your red carpet stuff. We'll see you at the seats." But I think because we've been together for so long, again perhaps naively, I just didn't think that that would be of interest.

And I also remember when I made my speech at the DNC in 2012 and he and my parents were there and I talked about how I'm very proud of the president and vice president at the time for their stance on marriage equality. I sort of half-jokingly said, I think the phrase I used was, "As you know, the president's cool with all of us getting gay-married." By "all of us" I obviously meant myself as well. So I thought this was a fun story to share with people. I'm so glad it resonated that people had so much love for that 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.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.