Penn got his start in stoner comedies, then took a hiatus from acting to work for the Obama administration. He shares stories from his life and career in the memoir You Can't Be Serious.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As you probably know by now, Sidney Poitier died Thursday. He was 94. He was the leading Black actor of his generation. I had the luck of speaking with him in 2000 after the publication of his autobiography. We're going to feature that interview tomorrow.

Our guest today is actor Kal Penn. He has a new memoir called "You Can't Be Serious" which covers his career in film and television, as well as his time as a staffer in the Obama administration. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: In 2009, Kal Penn did something unexpected as an actor. He decided to leave his job as a cast regular on the popular TV show "House" to make an unusual career change - working as a staffer for President Barack Obama. At that point, he had already made a name for himself in comedies like "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" and "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," as well as the Mira Nair film "The Namesake." The acting hiatus could have affected his career. But he was OK with taking that chance, like the one he took to become an actor in the first place as a kid who grew up in New Jersey, the son of immigrant parents. Even back then, he told his high school guidance counselor that as an adult he wanted to be an actor and filmmaker, as well as do something social justice oriented. The counselor laughed at him at the time. But he showed her. He worked in the Obama White House for two years. Kal Penn has since returned to acting. His new memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious."

Kal Penn, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KAL PENN: Thank you for having me - very excited to be here.

BALDONADO: One thing that you spend a lot of time on in the book is talking about auditioning for parts as a young actor just out of college in Hollywood. And I want to ask you about one of your first big auditions. It was for a small role as a classmate of the main character, Sabrina, in the ABC sitcom "Sabrina The Teenage Witch." What was the part you were auditioning for?

PENN: (Laughter) "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" - I should say before walking you through that story that one of the reasons I wanted to tell all of these stories from early Hollywood is severalfold, you know. And it kind of goes into why I wanted to write the book to begin with, which was that, you know, when I was a, I want to say, kid, but really my early 20s, there wasn't really a book that talked about what it was like to navigate Hollywood as a young man of color - but for that matter, really any - how to navigate barriers to entry in any profession. And so I started putting these stories together mostly because of how happy I am that things have changed so much in Hollywood.

But the "Sabrina" story I tell in detail because it kind of summarized, probably, gosh, I would say, you know, maybe a hundred auditions that were very similar, but parts that I didn't end up getting in. And in this case, you know, there was a guy in Sabrina's study group. And for people who are not familiar with the show "Sabrina The Teenage Witch," it's about a bunch of witches in the suburbs with a talking cat (laughter). It was essentially - it was a kids show. It was a kids sitcom.

And I remember getting this call from my agent saying, hey, it's a really cool bit part. It's just a couple of lines. But it's the part of a kid named Prajeeb who is part of Sabrina's study group in college. And so I got the sides, and, you know, it really was only a handful of lines. And so what most actors do, and certainly what I did at the time and I still do for auditions, is you craft a back story to the character. In this case, I'm like, OK, Prajeeb is from the Pacific Northwest. I envision him liking small-batch organic coffee and wearing flannels and liking Nirvana and Pearl Jam and kind of crafted this whole world that I thought would help kind of, you know, ground the character and ground some of the humor.

And I went in. I remember the audition was on the Fox lot. And I felt like I did pretty well. I thought I gave a good read. And I started walking back to my car, and the casting director came running after me. And he said - he's like, hey, they'd like you to do the audition again. And I said, oh, that's amazing. I mean, that's always a really good sign. So I started following him back into the audition room.

BALDONADO: Yeah. And let's pick it up from there from your book. This is what happens. They call you back right away to do - and auditioned again to read for more people. And I'm going to ask you to read from your book about what happened when they called you back in.

PENN: (Reading) Thanks for coming back, Kal. We'd like you to do it again, the main producer said with a grin. I'd be happy to, I said. This time with an accent. Oh, for f's sake. My game face was strong, though my blood boiled. By then I'd experienced this bait and switch many times before. You don't bring anything stereotypical into an audition, and the producers ask it of you. This request wasn't quite as bad as some of the auditions for Indian food delivery guys or store clerks that had been written in broken English. It wasn't as nauseating as the woman who suggested I tie a bedsheet around my head if I didn't have a turban to wear to an audition. Still, I decided not to give them the satisfaction of knowing the sudden rage inside me. This rage was based on two things. The first was a very clear flashback to David Cohen (ph) spitting on me in the middle-school bus after quoting Apu from "The Simpsons." The second was because I have a really low tolerance for stupid and boring things. An Indian accent, really? That's the most clever note a team of Hollywood producers could come up with?

(Reading) I was proud of the two rounds of auditions I gave as Prajeeb from Portland, Ore., who was super into camping and small-batch organic coffee. I wanted to play hipster Prajeeb. So if they wanted the kind of stereotypical accent that wasn't on my menu, I was going to make them feel uncomfortable. I was going to make them look me in the eye. I was going to dare them to say it right to my face by pointing out my talents so they could feel guilty and realize how terribly they were behaving. Hopefully, it would be enough to change their minds. What kind of accent do you want? - I said deftly. I can do Scottish, Irish, Southern, Italian, New York. Why don't we just stick to Indian? - they said.

BALDONADO: Now, what happens after that? What did you decide to do?

PENN: So the tricky thing about all of these situations - and like I said, it would happen with regularity - was I needed to figure out what I wanted to do, right? And I thought, well, if I do this, you know, I'm not going to feel great about myself. I'm not going to feel great about playing a stereotype. But my agent is probably right, that I really do need a credit on my resume, and beggars can't be choosers. Also, this job pays - have, like, 750 bucks, and my rent is 550 that month. So it gives me a chance to pay the whole month's rent and have some left over. You know, and for an actor who's kind of working odd jobs and juggling things, I decided I was going to do the accent just to see what would happen.

And I did the accent. And I remember their faces lit up with such glee. And I went home. And I called my agent. And she said, hey, honey, I was just about to call you. Congratulations. You've got this part in "Sabrina The Teenage Witch." And I said, you know, I'm thinking about whether or not I really want to do this. And I'm thinking I may not because, you know, of the accent. And I told her. And I said, is there any way you could call them and ask if maybe I could play the part without the accent, the way that I had first auditioned? And she gave me some great advice, which was - she said, you know, these conversations are often best had one on one, from, you know, creative to creative. She said, if you think - and I would encourage you to accept this job regardless, and if you think that that's what you might do, you might just have that conversation when you go into work that day. So I said yes to the part.

I went in a little early that day, the day we were taping. And I remember finding the director by the coffee cart, and I plead my case to him. I said, hey, man, I - thank you for having me on the show. Thank you for the opportunity. The show was so funny. I may have been embellishing there a little bit for his benefit. I said, your show was so funny. I was wondering if there's any way that I could play this part without the accent. And he kind of cut me off and was dismissive. He said, no, no, no, no, no. That's why we hired you. You're going to do that accent. It's funny. And I remember thinking to myself, you know, they say that racism comes from ignorance, so maybe I should educate him (laughter). And you know, here I am in my early 20s on the TV set, and I said, hey, if I could, you know - I have young cousins, and they love watching "Sabrina The Teenage Witch." And I know that they also hadn't - haven't had the chance to watch somebody who just looks like us as Americans on screen. I just thought it'd be a really cool opportunity if, when they saw this, they would see a character that's not a stereotype and was just funny based on the merits.

And I remember this so clearly. He looked at me, and he said, well, your cousins should feel lucky that you're allowed to be on TV to begin with and so should you. And he walked off. And so I kind of got a lesson in, you know - I think it's a bit of a misnomer that racism only comes from ignorance. It can also come from a conscious maintenance of power and a desire to sort of keep people down. Anyway, all of which is to say, I write about that chapter in the book because it's not a one-off, and it's not a one-off for me and certainly not for other performers of color.

BALDONADO: I would think that'd be so hard, you know, being a young actor on set, like, trying to stick up for yourself like that when you do go up to that director and try to kind of change his mind. That must have been so hard to do.

PENN: Yeah. Look; it wasn't easy, but I think, especially at that point, you kind of think, what do you have to lose by having the conversation? You know, in middle school, the only time I got to see brown characters on screen was either, you know, in a cartoon in white voice like Apu on "The Simpsons" or "Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom," where you had, you know, supposedly Indian folks eating monkey brains and snakes. And it's tough to explain to somebody who never saw anybody who looked like them on screen what that feels like. Yeah, it's a little tricky.

BALDONADO: There's also this fact that, you know, you need to work - that, you know, you need to take jobs sometimes and - to live, to pay rent. And you're really transparent, even giving info in the book about how much you made on jobs. Like, you know - and right now, in employment, as a way of ensuring that people of color get equal pay, there is this call for transparency. And so it's interesting to know these details like, you know, how much you got on a small role on a sitcom or that, you know, even when you're successful after a "Harold & Kumar," that you couldn't necessarily get a day job 'cause no one wanted to hire, like, Kumar to be a barista. Like - so I appreciate those details.

PENN: Thank you. I mean, the - you know, the - part of the people who I wrote this for were the 25-year-old version of me because in drama school, they never tell you, like, hey, you might get one of your big breaks - in my case, "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" - working on an incredible film that then turns into a franchise that you - you will be best friends with some of the people who you've worked on that with. But by the way, after that first movie, you're only going to be able to pay your rent for five months, and Starbucks isn't going to hire you 'cause you're too famous-looking. I mean, it's ridiculous and funny. But it's also this idea that you do have to pay your dues - right? - especially if it's a profession that's difficult to get into or there are certain barriers to entry or certain gatekeeping things that are not based on the race or ethnicity, but are based on kind of the sacrifice that everybody who wants something badly enough will go through. Getting paid a couple of hundred bucks on some of the early episodes of TV shows or, in the case of "Harold & Kumar," willfully signing an option contract like that, I knew what I was getting into, you know? And I knew that - but the hope was this will be successful enough that it launches another job for me.

And so I don't necessarily feel that those were cases in which I was - I or anybody was taken advantage of. These are all the - those are the breaks that you negotiate and that you sign up for. And I think sharing those were - because there is this idea of, oh, somebody did a TV show; they must have a bajillion (ph) dollars. And while we hope that's true of some of our favorite shows and our favorite actors, it's not always what we know when you start out with a career.

BALDONADO: My guest is actor Kal Penn. His films include comedies like "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" and "Van Wilder" and the Mira Nair film "The Namesake." His memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado. Our guest is actor Kal Penn. He's known for his work in films like "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," "Van Wilder" and "The Namesake" as well as TV shows like "House," "Designated Survivor" and "How I Met Your Mother." For two years, he took a break from acting and worked as a staffer for the Obama administration. His memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious." Now, you grew up in New Jersey. Can you describe the neighborhood where you grew up?

PENN: Yes. So the neighborhood I grew up, I would describe it as being - it was a predominantly white town but with a lot of diversity. And what I mean by that is it seemed like a lot of other kids at school spoke a different language at home. So there were a lot of Polish kids, Italian kids, only a handful of us who were, I think, Indian or Asian American. The town had a large Jewish population. There was - so it was - the idea of extended families, of close-knit families was something that was very much part of the people who I had grown up with. It was also a suburb of New York City. I was barely an hour south of New York City. So growing up in a place where many of our parents were commuters and would - you know, would commute into the city every day - a lot of our field trips were, you know, to the Met or the U.N. or the Natural History Museum. It was a pretty special place to grow up, I think.

BALDONADO: You write about these family gatherings that you had. And maybe this is a scenario that's familiar to people or to kids of immigrants, where family, friends or relatives would gather and they'd ask you what you wanted to do with your life. And that's when you would share that you wanted to be an actor.

PENN: (Laughter).

BALDONADO: What were those moments like?

PENN: The kid of most immigrants, I think, can relate to this where my parents would have their friends over for dinner, and it would be a group of, you know, 20 other - I call them aunties and uncles, which they - we were not necessarily related by blood. It just means that they - they also were Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. around the same time as my parents. And they sort of came up together in the states and also had kids around the same time. So, you know, we'd all be around in the living room and some of the aunties would ask the kids, you know, well, what are you - what was - what'd you get on your report card? What'd you get on your SATs? And by the way, what are you majoring in in college? Where do you want to apply to go to school? And I would dread this conversation because almost everybody else's kids were doing something traditional, so people would say that they were - there was a lot of, like, I want to go to Yale Med School or I want to go to - you know, I want to go to some Ivy League med school. And then there was - there were a few engineering folks. There was some economics and business contingent or I want to go to law school.

And then it would get to me and I would say, well, I really want to be a theater and film major, and I'd like to go to UCLA or NYU. And it was like - almost like out of a comedy. It was like either a record scratch or you could hear a pin drop silence. And I remember people going - my parents, by the way, say that I exaggerate this part of the story, but I remember it vividly where, like, aunties would go and, like, apologize to my mom. Like, I'm so sorry. I'll have my son, Neil, talk to him. Neil goes to Harvard Medical School. We'll talk some sense into him about not being an actor.

BALDONADO: Now, when did you realize that you wanted to be an actor?

PENN: There's no single point where I realized I wanted to be an actor. I always enjoyed what I recognize now to be storytelling or performing. But there were two things that happened kind of back to back in middle school. One was Mira Nair's film "Mississippi Masala," which was one of Denzel Washington's earlier movies. And it was the first time that I had seen brown people on screen who were fully fleshed out characters whose families were like mine but who you could identify with even if you weren't brown. And their story had nothing to do with kind of what they were. It was more about who they were.

So watching that movie, I remember seeing it in the theater with my cousin, my parents, and I thought, wow, if Mira Nair can make a film like this, maybe I actually could do this as a career. And around the same time, I played the Tin Man in our middle school production of "The Wiz," and that was not the cool thing to do. Drama club in eighth grade - I assume most people can relate to this - it was just not cool. So you had to have a certain amount of bravery or stupidity to be in drama club in middle school. And I and the other actors would get picked on after rehearsal on the late bus home by the soccer players. And I remember we put up three scenes from the play. We were forced to put up three scenes from the play, I should say, for the whole school. And we did it with a lot of dread.

And we got on the late bus that evening, and all the soccer players started applauding because they had really enjoyed the three scenes that we put up. And we had a conversation about it. You know, I was expecting spitballs and all sorts of things that middle school kids do. And I was really surprised that they honestly enjoyed the humor in something as innocuous as a middle school production of "The Wiz."

And that was one of the moments that I recognize now to be, wow, if you can change somebody's mind through comedy - right? - like, these soccer players hated us to our core and just watching, you know, seven minutes of scene work on a middle school stage made them change their minds, there's power and magic to this. So that happening around the same time as seeing Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala" was probably life changing for me.

BALDONADO: You won them over with your acting.

PENN: Yes. Yes. It was - we're on the acting. It was - that was the - look, it was that feeling, too, because the - and I remember what won them over was there was a line in the script where the Tin Man gets his heart and he looks at the audience, and the line that's scripted is all you fine ladies out there, watch out. And it's supposed to be very sweet. It's supposed to indicate that the Tin Man is capable of love. And instead - you might have heard actors say this phrase I was in the zone, meaning the character took over. I remember being on that middle school stage, getting my heart and saying, all you fine ladies out there - and then I did this massive pelvic thrust in front of the whole school. And then I just said with all this bravado that I certainly didn't have at 14, I just said, watch out.

And the crowd went wild and everybody started laughing and applauding. And that's, I remember, what did it. So it wasn't even the acting. It was just this weird feeling of being another person of being of confidence but telling a joke, telling a joke that wasn't even scripted - right? - improvising a joke that made people happy. That was the magic that I really gravitated towards. And, you know, in that moment, it seemed to also deconstruct people's stereotypes.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview actor Kal Penn recorded with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. His new memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious." After a break, he'll talk about taking a break from acting to become a staffer in the Obama administration. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of the interview our guest Kal Penn recorded with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. Kal Penn is known for his work in films like "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," "Van Wilder" and "The Namesake," as well as TV shows like "House," "Designated Survivor" and "Sunnyside." For two years, he took a break from acting and worked as a staffer in the Obama administration. His new memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious."

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about another role, your role in - and this is a big one, a big breakthrough for you. In 2001, your agents wanted you to audition for a role in a teen sex comedy called "National Lampoon's Van Wilder." And at first you were like, heck, no. Can you explain why?

PENN: Yeah. So the agent called and said, there's a huge audition for you. It's a supporting lead in this movie called "Van Wilder" with Tara Reid, who had just finished "American Pie," and Ryan Reynolds, who at the time, I think his only real credit was "Two Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place" (laughter). And they said, but it's a huge opportunity. And I went back and forth with the agent. I said, send me the script. What's the character's name? And she finally said - after begging me to just come to her office, she finally said, OK, I'll email you the script. And the name of the character is Taj Mahal. And I hung up the phone on her (laughter). And she called back and said, I knew you were going to hang up. And I was like, of course I hung - look, I'm not - I didn't graduate from UCLA's theater and film school to play a guy named Taj Mahal. Hard pass. Thank you so much. Let somebody else play that part.

And she then walked me through the reality, which turned out to be true, that - and I refer to it in the book as the Brown Catch-22, which was that she couldn't get me in the door for auditions that weren't written brown. And the only brown parts that were written were written to be fairly stereotypical. So her hope was that I would book a few of these in rapid enough succession that I could break out of the Brown Catch-22 and prove to the town that I had merits as an artist outside of the confines of these types of roles.

I ultimately decided to audition for this movie. Wasn't sure if I was going to take it if I got the part. And in the final callback - two things happened in the final callback. One, I walked into the audition room knowing that there was going to be another guy who I was up against. And I walk in, and it was a white dude in brownface. And that kind of caught me off guard. In those days, it was not uncommon, to be clear, to go to an audition and see white guys in brownface. I guess it's a little less common now, thankfully. But it, unfortunately, still happens. But I walked in there and saw - and as soon as I saw him, I thought to myself, like - my beef is never with another actor in this case. Like, I know the desperation of wanting to book a part. So I understood on some weird, bizarre level the desperation that he probably felt in wanting to book this part. But I also knew, like, bro, you're not allowed to play this part. You're just not. Like, I'm getting this part. You're not allowed to do this. So I had that motivation going in to the audition.

And then Ryan Reynolds was such a wonderful actor and so kind in that audition. He encouraged me to improvise. He's like, I can tell you're really funny. Do you want to just improv some stuff? And so he and I improvised a few of the scenes in that audition. I ended up booking it, and the agent turned out to be right. One of the reasons I booked the role of Kumar in "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" - you know, there was no shortage of brown and yellow actors to play the roles of Harold and Kumar, but relatively few of us who had had supporting leads in teen comedies before. And because I had done "Van Wilder," I think that really helped me push over the edge to get the role of Kumar.

And then my favorite film I've ever had the chance to work on was "The Namesake," which Mira Nair directed - the same Mira Nair who inspired me to be an actor to begin with. And one of the reasons that I got that audition was because her then-14-year-old son Zohran was a huge "Harold & Kumar" fan, and that was one of the reasons it got me in the door for "The Namesake." So essentially, had I not done this part in "Van Wilder," I may not have gotten "Harold & Kumar," and I may not have gotten "The Namesake." So that agent's advice actually turned out to be true.

BALDONADO: Now, when you were still trying to decide if you wanted to take the part in "Van Wilder," you got some advice from a network executive that you had met earlier, one of the few South Asian American executives or casting people that you had met. And you wanted to get advice about what to do about a part you thought was good - like, it was kind of integral to the plot, it moved the story forward - but there were still problematic parts about it. Can you tell us a little bit about the advice she gave you?

PENN: So there was one casting executive - one network TV executive who was Indian American. She's no longer in the business. She had said, call me if you ever need any advice. And so I called her when I was up for the part in "Van Wilder." They had offered it to me, but I hadn't accepted yet. And I said, I just can't shake the fact that the character's named Taj Mahal (laughter) and that there are things that are kind of reductionist and stereotypical in the script. What do you think?

BALDONADO: Oh, we should say that the character is a foreign exchange student and you would have to do an accent again.

PENN: The character of Taj Mahal is a foreign exchange student, heavily accented, and there are a number of stereotypes throughout the script. So I talked to this casting director, and she gives me the following advice. She says, how many things in the script do you think are sort of stereotypical? And I said, I don't know, like, 30. She's like, oh, wow, OK. I mean, that's a lot. I was like, well, I mean, his name is Taj Mahal, yeah (laughter). And she says, OK, are there any jokes in the script outside of those 30 that are genuinely funny on the merits of who the character is? And I said, oh, absolutely. I mean, his whole purpose in existing is actually not his ethnic background. His whole purpose in existing is that he's an 18-year-old college freshman who wants to get laid. I mean, that's his - it's - it is quintessentially every teen movie from the '80s onward is this character's motivation.

So she said, OK, so here's what you can do. You can go to the writers and the director and pick 10 of those things in the script and tell them that you have an issue with 10 of those things. And I interrupted her and I said, oh, my gosh. That's amazing. I didn't know that was a thing I could do. And she said, no, I'm not finished. You can pick 10 of those things, but you have to come up with 10 things that are funnier than what the writers came up with. That's your job. You have to understand that people are not set out to - with the purpose of degrading somebody else, that they're probably just trying to make somebody laugh. And for whatever reason, they've created this character the way they've created him. But your job, if you want to change those things, is to come up with 10 things that are funnier.

And so I had the chance to sit down with Walt Becker, the director, who was fantastic, and the two writers and I plead my case. And I came up with 10 things that were funnier than 10 of the things that they had picked out. And it worked out really well. I mean, look, there were still (laughter) 20 other things in the movie. Fine. But knowing how to have that conversation creatively and professionally, how to reclaim a certain amount of agency that I felt like I had probably lost over the years was so helpful. And I'm so grateful to that casting director for that advice.

BALDONADO: Now, one of your big breakout roles is the role as Kumar in "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," which came out in 2004. It's a role that you really wanted. Why was it so important for you to get this part? Why did you really want it?

PENN: I wanted to play Kumar in "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle" because it was the funniest script I had ever read in my life. I mean, I think that still holds true, actually. It was so funny, I laughed at every page. And I also was the right look or type for the part. I mean, it was a buddy comedy about two friends who go on this ridiculous quest for hamburgers after they get high. But also, it was - you know, it was the first time that a studio had cast or would cast two Asian American men as the lead in a comedy. So all of that spoke to me when I read the script for the first time, and I just - I knew I had to play this part.

BALDONADO: Just briefly, for people who haven't seen it, describe the plot of the movie.

PENN: OK, so the plot of "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," it's about two best friends - Kumar Patel, who I play, who is this fun-loving, underachieving - although he's brilliant - guy who doesn't really have a negative bone in his body, although he's not a pushover - he'll stand up for you - and his best friend Harold, who's, you know, very straight-laced, doesn't like to take risks, always plays by the rulebook. The two of them smoke a little weed one night and go on a road trip to find the nearest White Castle restaurant. And obviously, high jinks ensue, and everything goes wrong (laughter) in the process.

BALDONADO: Now, let's hear a little bit from the film. Here, it's the middle of the night. And you, as Kumar, and John Cho playing Harold are on a deserted street. And a cop comes up out of nowhere to stop you and give Harold a jaywalking ticket when he tries to cross this empty street. And you try to stick up for him. Here it is.


SANDY JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Give me some ID.

PENN: (As Kumar) Well, excuse me, how can you give him a ticket for jaywalking? It's 2:30 in the morning, and there's like - there's not a car around here. It's not like he was causing traffic...

JOHN CHO: (As Harold) Kumar, shut up.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) That's not the kind of tone you want to use on a cop who can bust your a**.

PENN: (As Kumar) Bust my a**?

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Yeah, Kumar, bust your a**. What kind of name is that anyhow? Kumar. What is that, like, five Os or two Us?

PENN: (As Kumar) No, it's actually one U.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Whatever happened to good, old American names like Dave or Jim, you know?

CHO: (As Harold) Harold (laughter).

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Harold.

PENN: (As Kumar) Are you kidding...

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Now, that's a great name.

CHO: (As Harold) Let me take care of this.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) You should be proud of that name, son. As you were, ladies.

PENN: (As Kumar) Two hundred and twenty dollars? Are you crazy?

CHO: (As Harold) Kumar, if you don't stop...

PENN: (As Kumar) No, I understand exactly what's going on here. Excuse me, officer?

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Yeah.

PENN: (As Kumar) Let me take a couple of guesses, huh?

CHO: (As Harold) I am really sorry.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Hey, get your hands down.

CHO: (As Harold) OK. All right. Yeah.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) No sudden moves.

CHO: (As Harold) All right.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Back it up.

CHO: (As Harold) All right. OK. OK.

PENN: (As Kumar) You were probably the big [expletive] in your high school, right?

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Absolutely right.

PENN: (As Kumar) You used to pick on guys like us every day, right?

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) With pleasure.

PENN: (As Kumar) And then graduation day came.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Yeah.

PENN: (As Kumar) And we went to college.

JOBIN-BEVANS: (As Officer Palumbo) Sure.

PENN: (As Kumar) And you went nowhere. And you thought, hey, how can I still give them [expletive]? Oh, I know. I'll become a cop, right? Well, congratulations. Your dream has come true.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." My guest is actor Kal Penn. His films include "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," "Van Wilder" and "The Namesake." He's been in TV shows like "House," "Designated Survivor," "Sunnyside" and "How I Met Your Mother." Back in 2009, he took a break from acting and served as a staffer in the Obama White House. His memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with our guest, actor Kal Penn. He's known for his work in films like "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," "Van Wilder" and "The Namesake," as well as TV shows like "House," "Designated Survivor" and "Sunnyside." For two years, he took a break from acting and worked as a staffer in the Obama administration. His memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious."

In 2009, you were a regular on a hit TV show, "House" and - or 2008, 2009. And you did something maybe - it seems a little bit crazy for an actor to do. You took a break from acting, and you joined the Obama White House. Can you describe what you did at the White House, like, what your day to day was?

PENN: So I had three jobs under this umbrella of being one of the associate directors of public engagements. So I was the president's liaison to young Americans. I was the president's liaison to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And I was his liaison to the arts communities. So what that meant was - the public engagement office is essentially the outreach office. So you communicate with the portfolios and the individuals that you are - to say in charge of is the wrong phrase, but for lack of a better phrase right now - in charge of or representing on the part - on behalf of the president. And it's kind of a two-way dialogue. You meet with them to talk about, for example, for young people, the provision in the Affordable Care Act to stay on your parent's health insurance till you're 26. Youth advocates wanted that number to be as high as 32 in some cases. Some of the other policy folks wanted it to be 24. And we were able to get the math to compromise on 26. So having meetings with those groups and Nancy-Ann DeParle on the health care team on that provision, for instance, would be one of the things that I was working on.

BALDONADO: And how helpful do you think it was to be you, like, a known actor doing that job? Or was - or did you - did it make things more difficult sometimes?

PENN: As Valerie Jarrett, one of my bosses, said to me in my final entry interview - I had this fear that I was being hired because of that. And I said, I just want to ask you, am I being hired in any way because of my background as a recognizable actor? And she, in true VJ fashion, gave me a look that we all know and love her for and said, I can assure you, you're being hired in spite of it (laughter). And (laughter) - and that was very meaningful to me. And as I learned, you know, both from - that had been, by the way, my hope because both on the campaign for the 18 or so months that I was working on the Obama campaign and in the White House when - what young people especially take full advantage of is that no matter who it is, if you have an opportunity to dialogue with somebody in the executive branch, you're not going to waste time asking questions about movies or smirking about somebody's job before they were in government. You're going to take full advantage of the limited time you have to advocate for what you want to advocate about. And I think even more than people who work in government, that's a story about young organizers and activists that I don't think they get enough credit for that when given the opportunity, they really jump in and want to talk shop as quickly as possible.

BALDONADO: What was the reaction of your parents and their friends to you working in the White House?

PENN: (Laughter) My dad - all right. So my dad, when I called him to tell him that I was going to take a sabbatical from acting and go work at the White House, he started laughing almost maniacally. And I was very confused and I thought, maybe he misheard me. And he keeps laughing and he goes, OK. And I said, what do you mean OK? What are you thinking right now? He goes, honestly, I'm thinking you're leaving a very lucrative and rare job on a hit network TV show to go and make very little money as a junior staffer for Barack Obama. And I said, yes. And he goes, well, I mean, I was wrong when I thought that maybe you couldn't be an actor. And so who am I to tell you what you should do? And he - you know, he just sort of - and then, of course, they were very supportive after the fact as well.

BALDONADO: When your book came out, there were all these articles that say that you come out in the book, you know, you reveal you have a partner for 11 years, that you're engaged and, you know, you talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way. But there are people who followed your career that maybe didn't know this. What did you make of, like, this narrative that you - in the book, you come out?

PENN: Yeah. Look, I certainly was not expecting all the love for Chapter 18 where I talk about my partner, Josh, and how we've been together for 11 years. And really, that story is about our, like, our bad second or third date when he came over to my apartment - this was when we were living in D.C. - comes over to my apartment with, like, an 18-pack of Coors Light and turns on a NASCAR race on my TV. And my first thought was, all right, this guy's obviously leaving in 20 minutes with 16 of those beers because this just isn't going to work out. But, you know, most of the thing - I think most of the press coverage around the book initially was that it was some sort of a reveal that we - I mentioned in that chapter that - at the end of the chapter, I said, you know, I have a newfound love of NASCAR through that and we're engaged and didn't think - I think obviously naively in retrospect, I didn't think that that would be kind of a newsworthy item, mostly because we've been together for 11 years. I certainly - there are things that I certainly haven't shared publicly in interviews out of respect to Josh because he doesn't love the limelight. He's very similar to my parents and my brother in that regard when, you know, we'd go to movie premieres or things like that, and all of them would always come to be supportive and always without fail go through a side door and say, go ahead, you do your red carpet stuff. We'll see you at the seats.

But I think because we've been together for so long, again, perhaps, naively, I just didn't think that that would be of interest. And I also remember, you know, when I made my speech at the DNC in 2012 and he and my parents were there and I talked about how, you know, it's - I'm very proud of the president and vice president at the time for their stance on marriage equality, you know. And I sort of half-jokingly said - I think the phrase I used was, you know, the president's cool with all of us getting gay married. You know, by all of us, I obviously meant myself as well. So I just sort of thought this was a fun story to share with people. I'm so glad it resonated, that people had so much love for that love. And I'm happy that it seems like it was meaningful to a lot of people.

BALDONADO: Kal Penn, thanks for joining us.

PENN: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Kal Penn's new memoir is called "You Can't Be Serious." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. Coming up, our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, recommends a new suspense thriller. This is FRESH AIR.

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