Kal Pen remembers the exact moment his life changed. It was during a school production of “The Wiz” in suburban New Jersey: “I got cast as the Tin Man, and it was just the first time I experienced being in the zone as an actor.
“I put the axe up and I turned to the audience and I say, ‘All you fine ladies out there …’ and I just did this pelvic thrust, and the crowd went nuts! And I was just, like, That feeling was interesting.”
“Interesting,” because it gave Penn (born Kalpen Suresh Modi) a way to navigate his world, going from a self-described “skinny Brown kid from New Jersey” to a star, in films like “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and TV shows like “Sunnyside.”
Penn’s journey to stardom was a somewhat unlikely one. Born in Montclair, N.J., the child of parents who moved to the U.S. from India, Penn didn’t see many people who looked like him on American film and TV growing up.
“If you’ve always grown up seeing people who look like you on screen, I totally understand why a lot of people are like, ‘Well, what’s the big deal?'” he told correspondent Luke Burbank. “But to be invisible, it kind of makes you feel like your possibilities might be limited.”
Actor Kal Penn.
But Penn found an early champion in nearby Howell High School drama teacher Stephen Kazakoff.
Burbank asked, “What do you remember about him as a student?”
“Kal had a wonderful, natural way of approaching something,” Kazakoff replied. “So, he never quite looked as if he was acting. He looked as if he just kind of slipped in here and belonged in that scene.”
Penn honed those acting skills wherever he could, including, of all places, in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “My nerdy actor friends and I would put out a little hat between the stairs and the fountain and do monologues for tourists, and the goal was only to make bus fare back to Jersey,” he said.
Eventually, Penn earned a ticket to UCLA’s prestigious acting program, and probably figured he was on his way to making it.
But then, the realities of Hollywood set in.
Penn recalled: “There was a woman where I signed in once, and she spoke loudly and slowly: ‘THIS IS THE SIGN-IN SHEET!’ And then in conversation saying something like, ‘Well, where’s your turban?’ And I said, you know, ‘I don’t wear a turban, I’m not Sikh.’ And I remember her saying, ‘Well, can you go home and put a bedsheet on your head or something?'”
Early on, Penn faced the nearly impossible choice of trying to avoid stereotypical roles, while still advancing up Hollywood’s ladder.
Then came “Harold and Kumar.” The cult comedy hit features two leads, both Asian American men, who speak without accents, and have simple goals: to get VERY high, and to visit a White Castle.
Penn said, “I was really happy that this movie was going to be made, whether I had the chance to play him or not. But really, I needed to figure out how to play him.”
The film changed the course of Penn’s career, leading to serious movie roles, like in the award-winning “The Namesake,” and a lucrative job on the hit TV show “House.”
Which is right about when Penn decided to do something highly unexpected: he walked away from acting, to campaign for – and eventually join the White House staff of – President Barack Obama.
“I remember my manager being very perplexed: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not? It’s not a career shift. It’s not like I want to do this forever. Just, this is the time to do it, and I feel passionately that it’s something I want to do.'”
Penn worked for two years in the Office of Public Engagement, with a focus on connecting with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, an experience he details in his new memoir, “You Can’t Be Serious” (published by Simon & Schuster, a ViacomCBS company).
Penn said, “I don’t like politics; I like public service. And that goes back to my grandparents who marched with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement. And those were the dinner table conversations that we had.”
And one more thing Penn writes about in his new memoir: his partner, Josh.
Burbank said, “I thought it was interesting how it presented itself in the book. It was fairly matter-of-fact. What was it like for you to put that in this book for the world to know about?”
“I mean, you know, Josh and I’ve been together for 11 years,” said Penn. “We had our 11th anniversary in October. So, for me and writing about it, I think the tricky thing was, you’re right, it’s very matter-of-fact in our lives, and when you’re the son of Indian immigrants who says that you want to be an actor, the chaos that that creates in your family and your community, will trump anything else, always.”
After leaving the White House, he picked up right where he left off, and has been working steadily in TV and film. And these days, when Kal Penn walks around the steps of The Met, he gets a somewhat different response than back when he was 16.
Burbank asked, “I mean, is it ever surreal to you, though, to realize, like, this is how your life has turned out? Or did you always sort of think it was going to happen?”
“I really feel incredibly blessed when I have the chance to be part of a project that I’m really passionate about,” he replied. “For the same reason that I was passionate about ‘The Wiz’ in eighth grade, there’s still an opportunity as an artist to just make somebody laugh or feel some happiness with other humans in another space and time. [There] is a magic to this that I hope never gets old.”
For more info:
- “You Can’t Be Serious” by Kal Penn (Gallery Books), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Follow Kal Penn on Twitter
Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Lauren Barnello.