Kal Penn now boasts an impressive resume, having balanced a role as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration, with a successful TV and movie career.
Penn is currently starring in ABC political drama Designated Survivor, where he plays a White House speech writer who worked for the previous president's administration. But an overnight thread on Twitter shows that he wasn't always offered those kinds of roles.
Penn took to social media to post photos of scripts and audition notes from when he first started out as an actor, all of which cast him as an often-nameless Indian man. In these roles, he was expected to adhere to demeaning stereotypes and racist parodies of Indian people and culture. Several of the scripts relied heavily on caricaturish Indian accents, and some also included jokes about Indian names.
His thread highlights the racism and bigotry that exists on Hollywood's casting couches, presented with Penn's inimitable brand of humour. For example, captioning one image, "Jeez I remember this one! They were awful. "Can you make his accent a little more AUTHENTIC?" That usually meant they wanted Apu[.]"
"'Can you make his accent a little more AUTHENTIC?' That usually meant they wanted Apu."
After tweeting a small selection from his "stack" of early audition scripts, he then went on to deliver his message: people do not have to play stereotypes for shows to be successful.
Penn has spoken out about racial stereotyping in Hollywood before, when he explained why he chose to accept a role as young terrorist attacker Ahmed Amar in 24. He told New York Magazine he considered turning the role down, saying, "I have a huge political problem with the role. It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling. I think it's repulsive. But it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage. 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?"
He's also spoken out about choosing to anglicise his name on professional resumes, as a test of the industry's discrimination towards Indian actors: "Almost as a joke to prove friends wrong, and half as an attempt to see if what I was told would work (that anglicized names appeal more to a white-dominated industry), I put 'Kal Penn' on my resume and photos. Auditions did increase, and I was amazed. It showed me that there really is such an amount of racism (not just overt, but subconscious as well)." The actor goes by Kal Penn professionally, but has said that he prefers his birth name, Kalpen Modi.