Kal Penn Comes to UCI

Despite easily garnering laughter and instant recognition for his roles in the “Harold & Kumar” film series, “House,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Namesake,” Kal Penn spent the majority of his visit to UC Irvine  speaking to students about his political work with President Obama’s administration last Wed., March 5.

Sanne Bergh | New University

Sanne Bergh | New University

During the speech, Penn recalled his apprehension of having to decide whether or not an agency would be a beneficiary of  Executive Order 13515 — an Order that established the Commission and Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2009. The Order sought to rectify the historically unmet needs of AAPI communities by facilitating access to and participation in federal programs.

As liaison for the youth, arts and Asian American & Pacific Islander communities, Penn was initially unsure of why the president had chosen him to be a part of the advisory commission. Hanging up the call in the middle of the agenda immediately after giving his input, Penn ran through the West Wing to confirm with his boss whether he had made the correct decision.

“Yeah, great. That’s why we hired you,” she said, merely looking up from her desk.

“Yeah, no, I know. I just figured I’d tell you, you know. Why email you this information when I can come over here and share it with you?” Penn joked.

Sanne Bergh | New University

Sanne Bergh | New University


Penn admitted that, before his involvement with Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, he was a cynical independent voter. In fact, it was Olivia Wilde, who he was then working with on “House,” who put him onto one of Obama’s pre-campaign events in California. Discovering similarities between his own politics and those of then-senator Obama, Penn volunteered to speak at several Iowa universities for Obama’s campaign. The following year, due to his outreach work among youth, Penn was appointed by Obama as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Among his projects were the repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and increasing financial aid for higher education.

Recounting his experience in the entertainment industry that led up to his political involvements, Penn noted that his favorite film to work on was Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake.” Penn recalled that it was actually during the production of the first “Harold & Kumar” movie when John Cho gave him what is now one of his favorite books.

To get the role of the second-generation Indian-American protagonist Gogol, Penn lobbied Nair for months. When he finally showed up for the audition, Nair told Penn that the only reason he had gotten the call, aside from his own calls and letters, was due to her son’s lobbying efforts. A fan of Penn’s comedic work, Nair’s son and his best friend persuaded her every night before bed to give the part to Penn. The two of them showed Nair clips of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” which, upon viewing them, she admitted only hurt his case.

During the question and answer portion, students asked Penn for selfies and inquired about his experiences as an Indian-American in the entertainment industry. Students also asked questions regarding the actor’s former controversial stance on New York City’s stop and frisk policy.

The policy effectively allowed New York City Police to racially profile about 684,000 people in 2011, most of which were African- and Latino-American individuals, under the rhetoric that they were the most likely suspects for criminal activity.

When asked about why it is imperative for Asian-Americans to oppose discriminatory policies like stop and frisk, Penn largely avoided an answer revolving around the particular role of Asian-Americans, preferring to frame his responses around broader coalitions of people.

Penn did admit frankly that he didn’t properly understand the policy when he tweeted in support of it. He was thankful for coalitions including and beyond Asian-American communities who reached out to him saying “Hey you’re tweeting crazy things. Why don’t you sit down with us and we can explain to you what [stop and frisk] really means?”

He went on to say that he learned how the policy was both ineffective in stopping crime and demoralizing to the people it targeted.

Before concluding, Penn rejected what he considers the media-fueled myth of political apathy among youth. Penn asserted that “this is the most innovative generation that we’ve ever seen.” He also noted that statistics have shown that youth will have more in common with each other across political party lines than with older individuals within the same party. Connecting the two claims, Penn challenged students to talk to those that disagree with them so that they might come together on mutual ground.

Penn urged students not to think of their futures in traditional terms and to define success for themselves. Encouraging students to remain fluid while navigating careers in both the private and public sectors, he cited that most of the people he’s met during his political involvement forewent conventional career trajectories. These people, according to Penn, didn’t have traditional answers to the question, looming for many students, of what they were going to do after college.

“They didn’t climb any sort of ladder. Certainly not a ladder that anybody else had climbed up before.”