A lot of people first became acquainted with Kal Penn after he starred as a stoner with a serious case of the munchies in the cult classic “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” But in the years leading up to his breakout, he, unlike most struggling actors, faced an added layer of difficulty: Most roles were stereotypical parts that entailed heavy accents and broken English.
Penn aired his early career grievances on Twitter after he stumbled onto some scripts from his younger years.
He wanted to avoid having to do accents, but casting directors would insist.
“Tried to convince them to let me speak without an accent & make it funny on the merits (was told no),” he tweeted.
He also said that when he was asked to make his accent “more authentic,” it “usually meant they wanted Apu,” as in the immigrant Kwik-E-Mart owner from “The Simpsons.” The parts entailed cologne jokes and profuse sweating, not to mention names like Ravi Tulu Singh Shankar Ramanji.
Penn has had a varied, successful career since playing Kumar, and he’s managed to mostly avoid stereotypical Indian characters. He was a series regular on “House” and “How I Met Your Mother,” and he’s currently starring opposite Kiefer Sutherland on “Designated Survivor,” playing the White House press secretary. But he had to weather quite a few indignities to get where he is. And he’s not alone. His experiences mirror those of actor Aziz Ansari, who mined his early career obstacles for comedy on his Netflix show “Master of None.”
On that series, Ansari plays Dev, a struggling actor. At one point, he’s trying out for a bit part as a cabdriver on a cop show and the casting director tells him to read his lines with an Indian accent. Dev refuses, even though he knows he’ll lose the part. Later, he complains to his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel), who’s also an actor but doesn’t mind putting on an accent to get a paycheck.
“Isn’t it frustrating so much of the stuff we go out for is just stereotypes?” Dev asks Ravi. “Cabdriver, scientist, IT guy.”
Meanwhile, back in the real world, many non-stereotypical roles for actors of color are being given to white actors — think of Scarlett Johansson cast in the adaptation of the manga series “Ghost in the Shell” or Rooney Mara as Tigerlily in “Pan.” Ridley Scott claimed he had to hire big-name actors to get financing for “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
“I can’t cast Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott famously quipped.
But, as Ansari’s “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang explained to the Hollywood Reporter, the only way for Asian-American actors to make it to A-list status is for someone to take a chance on a non-A-list Asian-American actor.
“I understand the argument that the business is risk-averse, but that’s just an excuse to be cowardly,” Yang said during the interview. “(Hollywood) cast Chris Pratt in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Jurassic World.’ He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”
Penn took a break from acting for a while to serve in the Obama administration, so he isn’t shy about politics. This also isn’t the first time he’s openly discussed discrimination. Earlier this year someone left a hateful comment when Penn posted an Instagram that was critical of the travel ban.
“You don’t belong in this country,” one commenter wrote. (Penn, by the way, is from New Jersey.) The actor responded by starting an online fundraiser to benefit the International Rescue Committee, titled, “Donating to Syrian Refugees in the name of the dude who said I don’t belong in America.”
He was hoping to raise $2,500. He managed to pull in more than $860,000.