Comic policymaker extraordinaire Kal Penn visits the Hilltop

Kal Penn with Jeff and Naomi Silk of the Silk Speaker Series. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF OFFICE OF MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS

Telling low-brow jokes about weed and fornication on the big screen may not be the typical career path to becoming a White House representative, but actor and comedian Kal Penn made the adjustment in time. Penn spent decades building his career in entertainment, then in politics, never being bogged down by a belief that he needed to commit to only one venture. 

Penn is the latest of Silk Speakers to grace USF’s campus. In entertainment, he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the titular Kumar in the “Harold and Kumar” stoner-comedy trilogy. Penn has also starred in the “Van Wilder” series, “House,” “Designated Survivor,” and most recently hosted Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” 

In the political sphere, Penn was the associate director of White House public engagement during the Obama administration, sometimes leaving this post for acting jobs. Multifaceted as his resume is, Penn spoke about his career journey, the tribulations of being a South Asian-American actor in a white-dominated field, how frustrating yet rewarding policymaking can be, and the incredible changes he’s seen in both politics and the entertainment industry in recent decades.

Penn recounted his time in undergrad at UCLA, balancing his budding acting career with academics. “I would sacrifice a class a quarter to go on auditions. If you look at my transcript, it’s like A, A, D — I had to pick which class I would have all my auditions during, which class I would repeat.” 

Dr. Sadia Saeed, sociology professor and director of the peace and justice studies program, moderated the talk and asked Penn, “Desi to Desi,” what his parents’ expectations of him were and how they’ve responded to his success and career path. “My parents did not move to America for me to smoke weed in three movies,” Penn joked. “Being an artist is insanity. If you’re doing art professionally, it’s because you have to,” he said. Saeed agreed, “It’s like a calling.”

Penn said he struggled early in his acting career due to racism in the industry, unable to land agents as quickly as his peers, even after several years in the industry. Stumped, Penn turned to a friend who worked for a then-A-list manager for help. Penn’s friend took his resume to her boss, who responded that he was “really good.” The inevitable “but,” the manager continued, was that despite Penn’s talents, someone who looked like him was simply not going to be cast as often and book enough work to be worth an agent’s time. The feedback hit Penn hard. “I had a lot of vodka,” he said. “You only hear that so much until you start drinking or getting very angry.”

The agent, Barbara Cameron, eventually took Penn on as a client, managing to book him an audition for his first role in Hollywood — an 18-year-old virgin named “Taj Mahal” who desperately wants to get laid. The character, Penn found, was somewhat of a caricature. “He doesn’t even have a human name!” he exclaimed. His manager encouraged him to take the role, because the credit on his resume would let him audition for bigger roles.

The other person who came to the casting was a white man in brownface. “It wasn’t uncommon at the time,” Penn said. “It still isn’t.”

Penn’s grandparents marched with Mahatma Gandhi, and frequently told him stories about their activism at the dinner table. Their stories created an interest in politics for Penn later in his formative years. “In my home, the idea of standing up for what you believe […] was always in the context of doing what’s right,” he said. “That’s what it meant to be alive.”

“I don’t view [politics and theater] as mutually exclusive,” Penn said often in his talk. Penn insisted the jump was not as abrasive as “journalists” often make it out to be.

Penn got his start in politics after being asked to volunteer at an event for the Obama campaign. “At the time, no one knew who Obama was,” he said. Penn explained that, when you’re working for a campaign during its infancy, you’re directly working with the candidate, and gradually given more responsibility. 

After Obama became the president-elect, Penn, along with others who had worked on the campaign for a while, was emailed a link to a change.gov application asking to apply for positions on-staff in the White House. He described sheepishly filling out the change.gov form instead of reaching out to people on staff who he had worked with. “I didn’t want to rock the boat. I had a bit of imposter syndrome,” Penn said. 

He didn’t hear back about thes change.gov application, but he still managed to snag the job after running into Michelle and Barack Obama, who connected him with someone to pull his application from the website. At the time, the last open staff position was associate director of White House public engagement. 

Penn brought an easy balance between jest with USF students, and thoughtful reflection on his experiences and the current political sphere. “People who are doing public policy that aren’t necessarily doing shady work or sexy work, but that are doing important work, they inspired me,” he said, noting that he finds inspiration from those who do critical, yet less publicized work.  

When asked what advice he’d like to relay to students, Penn said he doesn’t think things are going to change dramatically until we understand each other more. He recommended “talking with people with whom you might disagree” and “not taking social media bait.”

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