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Kal Penn on Being a Riotous, Eclectic, Gay South Asian Actor and Wonk

Kal Penn's new book You Can't Be Serious and an image of Penn
Image provided; Photo by Maarten de Boer

The actor and author of a new book wears many hats and no turbans.

I first met Kal Penn at a Christmas party thrown by a mutual friend who worked for President Obama. I didn't recognize Penn at first, because what I immediately noticed was a guy in a wild holiday cap with a string of lights over his upper body. He was definitely the most eclectic person in the room.

After we introduced ourselves, he pointed to the guy on his left side, clad in a Boston Red Sox cap, and said, "This is my partner, Josh." Because I'm always the last to know, I said, "Nice to meet you, Josh." And assuming it had something to do with "work" -- given the number of Obama people in the room -- I asked, "What do you guys do?"

They looked at each other, and then Penn said, "He's my boyfriend." And wow, did I feel like an idiot! We ended up having a rousing time that day and night, and when I woke up in the morning feeling overwhelmingly hazy and hungover, at some point I said to my partner, who couldn't make the party, "Kal Penn is gay."

It was never a secret to Penn, but it came as news to me, so when he "came out" this week by way of his new book, You Can't Be Serious, it might have been a surprise to many since that was the headline the media took away from the memoir.

Penn has had a storied career. He came to fame in the cult classic as Kumar in the Harold & Kumar film series. He went on to star in several television shows including House and Designated Survivor, where he prophetically played a White House aide. Penn went on to work in the Obama White House.

Former President Barrack Obama with Kal Penn

In his book, he introduces readers, briefly, to Josh (who, by the way, is a great guy), and announces that after more than 10 years together they are engaged. But the headlines about "coming out" only describe a fraction of what Penn writes about. He's had a diverse career, spanning years in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. And he's also dealt with being stereotyped as a South Asian person of color and an assumed "closeted" gay man in Hollywood.

The story he tells in relation to his attempt to come out, in an industry where men who are gay are perceived to be secretive, is both funny and shocking. "When I first came to grips with my sexuality, I asked friends, 'How do you meet a nice guy in Hollywood?'" Penn tells me. "One of my friends suggested that I have dinner with a certain manager, so I did. And when I asked this manager the same question, he said, 'I have a list of guys I can give you, and you can trust them, they are discreet and won't say a thing, and they're cheap and super-hot.'"

Penn was taken aback by the response. "I told the guy, nothing against sex workers, because they have a tough job, but I wasn't looking for an escort. I meant, How do I find a guy to have a real, meaningful relationship with? And he didn't have an answer for that. I guess he assumed I wanted to stay in the closet."

John Cho and Kal Penn on set of Harold and Kumar film

That isn't the only assumption that Penn had to deal with while making his way in Hollywood. The color of his skin and his South Asian background had many casting directors mistakenly assume Penn was, as he says, "like Apu from The Simpsons. I went on one audition, and one of the folks behind the desk said, 'Oh, wow, you speak good English. Do you have a turban?' And when I said no, they said 'Can you go home and grab a bed sheet and maybe put that on?'"

Even more cringeworthy was his audition for the sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch. "I got a call from my agent that they were looking for a character to be a part of Sabrina's study group. So I created a backstory about this guy that he was from Seattle, liked coffee, and listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam."

Penn showed up for the audition, read the sides, and left. As he was walking out the door, a producer ran after him and said that they wanted to see him again. "I walked back in, and they said, 'Can you do it with an accent?' And I said, 'Sure, I can do Italian, Spanish, whatever you like.' And they replied, 'Why don't you just stick to Indian.' So I reluctantly did what they asked."

Later, Penn's agent called and said he got the part. "Normally, when you get a part in a recurring role in a sitcom, it's a moment for celebration. But I didn't feel that way, because feigning that accent really bothered me. I showed up on set, pulled the director aside, and asked if I could forgo the accent since it was personal to me because I never saw someone like me reflected in Hollywood who wasn't stereotypical. I explained that I thought it was reductionist because the accent would inevitably be the butt of a joke."

The director was having none of it. "She said, 'No, you're doing the accent because it's funny.' My belief is that racism comes from ignorance. So I pushed the director a bit more and said, 'You know, I have cousins who are 9 and 10 years old, and I think it would mean the world to them to see me portray someone who looks and talks just like them."

That's when the director went for the jugular. She told Penn that he and his cousins should just feel lucky that he was on TV in the first place.

Cast of Sunnyside

Penn has more than made up for those early, discriminating days. "Those stories of racism were 10-20 years ago, so the industry has changed, and thank God for streaming services, which have really opened the door for more representation."

Hilariously, Penn explained that telling his South Asian parents he was gay was a piece of cake compared to telling them that he wanted to be an actor. "My parents and grandparents were part of a law created in the 1960s when the U.S. government was looking to fill labor shortages by looking for doctors and scientists to come to the U.S., so that's why so many from our culture are in those professions. So when I said I wanted to be an actor, my parents couldn't understand it and wondered why I didn't want to have a safe career in math or science."

When it came time to tell them he was gay, the only thing they wanted to do was try to understand him better. "They went to the library and took out books, and I always felt grateful that I grew up in a liberal part of New Jersey, because I'm sure the books in the libraries there were the right ones, compared to somewhere else in the country where the books might have been less forgiving," Penn jokes.

In addition to having access to the right books, Penn says his family was always surrounded by a diverse group of people while he was growing up. "That definitely helped my parents and grandparents be a bit more open about accepting my sexuality."

Kal Penn and his family on a family trip

I asked him how the reaction to his coming out has been. "It's been great. I wanted to write something that would resonate with younger people, particularly those of color. And I wrote it in a way that would be like sitting down and having a beer with me. You and I have had beers together, so you might know what that means personally. But I wrote it to be humorous and somewhat serious. And honest. And the reaction has just been overwhelming."

What will people come away learning about you? I asked Penn. "Probably that I'm a gigantic juvenile man-child," he jokes. "Seriously, it took me four and half years to write this book. I wanted to show how someone could go on to have a wide-ranging life and career and follow their passions like I did, working in Hollywood and in politics, and not niching myself. Then the pandemic hit, and now you're reading about people quitting their jobs to follow their life's passion, and those are the people who will really appreciate this book."

Penn also is anxious for readers to learn about how he met Josh, their relationship, and how much he and Penn's family mean to him. "We have so many wonderful people in our lives. So I'm excited for people to learn about them. It's funny, I'm obviously an extrovert, and my parents and Josh very much shun the limelight. When we go to a premiere or an event, they usually enter the side door, grab their popcorn, and go to their seats discreetly while I'm on the red carpet showing off."

What did he think was the most surprising revelation in the book? "Oh, how my sense of humor is so juvenile," he cracks. "I guess it's that I don't view the world as a binary thing. I can go from telling 69 jokes to talking about personality, issues of race, policy issues, and all of the really crazy stories and serious stories that show a pattern of being diverse and different and not afraid of trying new things."

I spoke to Penn after the news broke that Cardi B wants to marry him and Josh. How did that happen? "I was on the same flight as her last night, and I fell asleep and dreamed she married us, and she, Josh, and I walked out of LAX together. I posted about it, and when I woke up this morning, she responded by asking why I didn't come up to her, and that of course she'd marry us. The issue is a South Asian Indian wedding can go on for like nine days, so she'd have to leave a lot of dates open on her calendar."

I know one thing for sure: That wedding, with or without Cardi B will be an enjoyable event, because sitting down and having beers with Penn is an unforgettable experience, much like his book. The only issue I see is that it might take a month to recover from a nine-day hangover.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.