Kal Penn kicks off Asian Pacific American Heritage Week


Penn discussed his career and the role of diversity in the media


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Actor and producer Kal Penn, speaks to a crowd of 600 at Irvine Auditorium. In 2008, Penn lectured in the Univeristy’s Cinema Studies Program. He is also co-chair of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Photo by Amanda Suarez


The lights dimmed, the stage was set and students anxiously fill the seats of Irvine Auditorium last night.

To kick off Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, actor, producer and Obama co-campaign manager Kal Penn delivered his keynote address to 600 students.

Penn’s vibrant and enthusiastic energy showed while he discussed the sociology of the media and his experiences working in Hollywood as a second-generation Indian American.

“My parents definitely did not want me to become an actor. They thought I was crazy,” Penn said. “They were finally okay with it when they saw that I played a doctor on ‘House.’”

Penn also discussed the tough experiences he encountered in Los Angeles during the start of his career and the dangers of being typecast as a “stereotypical Indian.”

He was never eager to audition for shows and films because he didn’t want to play one-dimensional roles. However, Penn vividly remembers a piece of advice he has not forgotten to this day.

“Every actor when they are starting out will be typecast, that’s just how Hollywood works,” his agent once told him.

Penn’s first feature film role was as a stereotypical Indian exchange student named Taj Mahal. “I was talking to my agent and was explained that the character’s name I would play was Taj Mahal and I hung up,” he said. “I was like, ‘No way, I do not want to play this role.’”

But, Penn said, “If I didn’t compromise on certain roles in the past, I would not have had the opportunity to star in the film ‘Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.’” He was able to beat out four other actors for the role of Kumar precisely because he had decided to play Taj Mahal in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.”

“Kal Penn’s diversity made him a great keynote speaker for Asian Pacific American Heritage Week,” Engineering senior Andrew Liang, APAHW programming tri-chair, said. “Since this was our 20th anniversary, we wanted someone who could reach out to not only the Asian community but to Penn’s campus.”

Penn also discussed the ironic role that diversity plays in 21st-century media.

He explained how the media is owned by five major companies, therefore causing a decrease in diversified media content. He said there are many shows that have similar plots, characters and are of similar content with just different titles like “Honey Boo Boo” and “Toddlers and Tiaras.”

“Television doesn’t depict what America really looks like,” Penn said.

However, he argued that in the past five years there has been much progress achieved in terms of increasing diversity of contact, plots and characters due to new forms of media avenues such as YouTube.

He explained that such an increase in diversity has come from diversified audiences playing a larger advocacy role in terms of defending what they want to watch on TV and in movies.

“The audience is what made ‘Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle’ a success,” Penn said, “Audience reaction is huge.”

Back in Irvine Auditorium, Penn’s philosophy proved true. He kept the audience on their toes, discussing everything from his stint in the White House to getting started as an actor in Los Angeles and even led the 600-person audience in singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a student in the crowd.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but his speech turned out quite well,” Engineering freshman Fabian Toro said. “I wasn’t expecting so much depth. He nailed it.”

This article has be updated to reflect that around 600 students attended the event, not 300.

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