University News

‘Harold and Kumar’ star goes to the White House

News Editor
Thursday, April 12, 2012


Actor Kal Penn has two words of advice for Brown students – be crazy. 

“I’m so glad that I’m constantly meeting people who are making crazy decisions and crazy choices,” said Penn, actor and former White House Associate Director of Public Engagement, who addressed a packed Salomon 101 last night. 

Penn said he has frequently been called “crazy” for decisions he had made – in particular, leaving his role on the television show “House” for a two-year stint in the White House. 

Penn’s talk occurred during the first night of the housing lottery, a conflict for which he apologized.

“I almost feel obligated to find you housing now that you’re here,” he said. 

The talk encompassed both humorous and serious topics, touching upon Penn’s experiences as an Indian-American actor and his work in the Obama administration. He frequently elicited cheers and applause, especially when he discussed his childhood in New Jersey, a background he said “is like an ethnicity” in the way it bonds people.

The subject of diversity often “just comes up organically” when he discusses his experiences, he said. He added that he is not sure he has his own thoughts about diversity – everyone should “just bone diversely” to keep them from looking or sounding the same.

Penn’s status as an Indian-American marked much of his own early experiences in Hollywood, he said. He spent several years “eating beans out of a can” while searching for jobs, when finally his agent called him with a potential supporting role in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” When he asked her what information she was withholding, she confessed: The character was named Taj Mahal. 

Though he was initially turned off, Penn looked at the script. There were about “30 things wrong” with its character portrayal, he said. But fundamentally, Taj Mahal was just an 18-year-old college student who “wants to get laid” – someone he said everybody could relate to. 

Penn was nervous when he went to the audition. But then he saw the other finalist for the role: a “white dude named Nick with brownface on.” 

“I was like, ‘No way,'” Penn said. Though he spoke briefly with Nick, Penn said he knew then that he had to get the part.

Penn’s role in the film helped him land a leading role in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a movie he said purposefully sought to prominently feature Asian-Americans. The studio had asked its writers why the characters had to be Asian and Indian – why they could not instead be black and Jewish.

The writers had a “diverse group of friends,” Penn said, and found it “weird” when Asian and Indian characters were shifted to the side in films and television. Ultimately, they did not want to make “David and Jason go to McDonald’s” – they wanted it to be “Harold and Kumar,” he said. 

And in turn, Penn’s role in “Harold and Kumar” led him to star in Mira Nair’s 2006 film “The Namesake.” 

“So I was really glad I played Taj Mahal,” he said. 

Some of Penn’s own friends took a less traditional path to success. When a group of his friends could not find acting jobs, they bought a video camera and created their own short films for the internet, he said. Eventually, they found success – under the name “The Lonely Island.” 

That ingenuity reflects a creativity prominent in the younger generation, Penn said.

Older executives at NBC “still didn’t know how the changing face of technology would affect their companies,” he said. 

The small number of major media companies influences what people see, he said. For instance, “ER,” which was broadcast on NBC, only featured medical equipment by General Electric – a logical choice, he said, since NBC is owned by GE. The product placement stunned him, though, and he said he wondered whether people actually watched “ER” to choose their medical products.

“I asked doctor cousins of mine – there are lots of doctors in the family,” he said, a comment that was met with laughter. His cousins confirmed what he had suspected: Doctors did not in fact watch “ER” to figure out which medical products to buy.

In the fall of 2007, Penn went to an event that altered the course of his career – a campaign rally for then-Senator Barack Obama. Penn, a lifelong independent, said he was struck by what he saw – someone who was not particularly liked by either the Democratic or Republican establishments, but who was “the real deal.” Penn put his own life on hold to work on the campaign, following Obama to Iowa and joining his youth outreach team. 

After the election, Penn applied for and received a job in the White House, where he worked principally on Asian-American and Pacific Islander outreach, youth outreach and arts outreach.

In his second day on the job, Penn was placed on the phone to determine whether an agency should be included in an executive order. Though the White House had already decided not to include the agency, when it came time to officially pronounce the decision, Penn fell silent.

“I thought to myself, surely there’s an adult on the phone,” he said. 

Youth interests are particularly underrepresented in media coverage of politics, he said. For instance, when he spoke with young liberals and conservatives, both groups identified jobs, poverty, climate change, education and Darfur as their top five political concerns. Both said they viewed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a civil rights issue. 

But from watching news coverage, he would never have guessed it, he said. In particular, Penn attributed the discrepancy in coverage to the amount of money older interest groups have to influence politics – the American Association of Retired Persons, for instance, has a budget in the billions, while youth interest groups only have a few million each. 

Penn said he has often been asked about the transition between life in Hollywood and life in Washington D.C. But he said for him, the two lifestyles are not mutually exclusive.

Media has played a role “in socializing in how we look at our political system,” he said. And going to D.C. reminded him that “being crazy is probably a little bit good.” 

“Regardless of your major or what your interests are or who you bone – hopefully diversely,” this is the most innovative generation the world has seen, he said. 

The event, sponsored by the Brown Lecture Board, was followed by a brief question and answer session.

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