Kal Penn’s co-starring performance with John Cho in the 2004 stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle showed that Asian males could keep audiences rolling in the aisles as leading men, not merely as the butt of racial stereotypes. In 2009 Penn was named the incoming Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison in the Barack Obama administration.
Kal Penn was born Kalpen Suresh Modi on April 23, 1977 in Montclar, New Jersey. He was raised by an engineer father and a mother who works as a fragrance sampler for a perfume manufacturer. Since elementary school Penn felt outraged by the stereotypical portrayals of Indians, especially Short Circuit, in which Caucasian actor Fisher Stevens plays the Indian-American Ben Jabituva for embarrassing comic relief. Penn vowed to break this mold.
Penn joined his school drama team despite snickers from peers and went on to amaze everyone with his performance in the school production of The Wiz for which he received a standing ovation. He trained as a dramatist on the Manhattan theatrical circuit before attending UCLA on a drama and sociology double major. While studying at UCLA Penn managed to land bit parts in TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Spin City.
He changed his name to Kal Penn after friends and family persuaded him that an anglocized name would appeal more to a white-dominated industry. He says he agreed reluctantly just to prove his friends wrong, and discovered that audition callbacks jumped 50 percent. Penn still prefers his birth name, stating that he uses “Kal Penn” only for professional purposes.
Penn’s big break came when he auditioned for the lead in Harold and Kimar. It took multiple auditions over three months for Penn to get the part. He was relieved to play a character devoid of the usual stereotypes. Penn and co-star John Cho play roommates who embark on a mission to satisfy a ferocious case of the muchies specifically for White Castle hamburgers. The film’s box-office success propelled Penn to star status.
From 2003 to 2006 Penn appeared in seven or eight first-run features per year. He landed a supporting role in the blockbuster Superman Returns as Lex Luther’s henchman, and appeared in the NBC drama Homeland Security. In January 2007 Penn appeared in a few episodes of 24 as a teenage terrorist. He says he almost turned down the role due to racial profiling issues. “It was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage,” he recalls. “As an actor, why shouldn’t I have that opportunity? Because I’m brown and I should be scared about the connection between media images and people’s thought processes?”
In fall 2007 Penn became a regular on the Fox medical drama House. He stayed on the show until he was offered the position as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Liason to the Obama administration. In his new position, Penn will serve as a liaison with the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. His House role was disposed of via suicide in the episode “Simple Explanation”.
In spring 2008 Penn was a visiting lecturer in Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, lecturing a course entitled “Images of Asian Americans in the Media.” Penn is currently working to earn a graduate certificate in international security from Stanford.