He was among the first of his kind for the Indian American community. And he was a success.
For the parents he was good because he had a degree from UCLA. For the younger ones there he was on screen, looking and sounding exactly like them in that great hit, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
At 42, Kal Penn is an established name, also known for his big screen roles in “Superman Returns” and “The Namesake.” His characters in “House” and “Designated Survivor” on television are seminal ones – he looked Indian but neither bore a name that gave that away nor dwelled on it.
Then, undaunted by the fact that he was doing really well and that in his industry visibility is important, Penn chucked it all to take on his other passion – politics. His grandfather was a Gandhian and he has said that influence might have engendered his interest in politics even while growing up in New Jersey.
Penn went to the White House to work for President Barack Obama. Never shy about his politics, he is a familiar face on Democratic campaign trails and has been vocal about the current administration. He quit the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities calling the Donald Trump government “dysfunctional.”
Now, he is back as a creator and actor on a sitcom that streams on Hulu. “Sunnyside” centers around immigration in a fraught time but doesn’t take it up as an issue. It satirizes the topic and features a group of immigrants fighting to get their citizenship in Queens, New York. The show has to be among the most diverse seen yet, with Dominican, Korean, Chinese, and Ethiopian characters, and underlying all of it is the glory that is America. The actor plays Councilman Garrett Modi. Born Kalpen Suresh Modi, this is the first time he has taken on his real last name.
Penn was in Los Angeles recently and talked to India-West about his show and a bit more. He came across as he does on screen – relaxed and friendly. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: When we travel the world, we realize we may sound and look different but all of us want the same thing. “Sunnyside” has several stories and what seems to tie them all are common aspirations. Everything is humanized. Is that a takeaway you were looking for?
A: That’s definitely one. The thing we were going for was to be funny, diverse, patriotic and aspirational. I wanted a show that does not cut people down. “Harold and Kumar” did that well. It elevated humor. I love comedy in general and I loved “The Daily Show” but once you shut off the TV you felt bad about the world. I did not want that feeling. This show is not cynical and is about hanging out with friends, all of who have common aspirations.
Q: Who are you trying to reach? The ones who already know or the ones who need to know what is involved in immigration?
A: Good question! In an ideal world, both. Only in America can a group like the one in our show come together. We are not a documentary or a drama but there is the character Brady who doesn’t realize he is undocumented. The viewer learns the process along with him. We are also careful about representing each immigrant experience. Many of them are based on people we have all come across and that gets on the show.
Q: Couched in all the humor there is obviously pain. Does much of comedy come from such a place?
A: Depends on the nature of the comedy. Many of the best comics have written about pain. In our case, we wanted to layer the stories. I have seen the show with some of my friends – documented and undocumented – and they have become emotional. They relate to the pain. From within that pain we want to tap out hope. Comedy can bring people together.
Q: You play a “disgraced” politician. In the current political climate you think feeling shame even happens?
A: Interesting! My character has been caught giving a bribe to a cop. In the first few episodes he really only cringes about it and is only sorry about getting caught! Definitely aspects of the climate we live in now. The Garrett character, though, was not based on any one person. Check out YouTube and see the politicians. They can’t help themselves; they just go off. The character has the Anthony Weiner effect…a slow car wreck. We have some jokes on Beto (O’Rourke) where we start with “That Guy!” and then go to, “Oh, that guy.”
Q: After “House” and “Designated Survivor” are the scripts that come to you less clichéd?
A: It still happens. I would like to ask the younger folks coming to Hollywood how it is now. There is a difference between tokenization and representation. They can still tell you to take off on another ethnicity. On our show we are very careful that representation happens and it is done right.
Q: For that did the script have to fit the actor or actor fit the script?
A: A bit of both. We have a Korean American and a Chinese American. Traditional Hollywood would say they look alike, make them the same ethnicity. Or, it would be since they look alike, just get one actor. We wanted the best actors so we had both of them on and created as bizarre a story as possible – not only do they remain Korean and Chinese (laughing), they are twins born to different mothers at the same time in the same hospital to an Icelandic father.
Q: What has caused the spurt of Indian Americans in comedy?
A: It’s amazing! I love it! Our parents came to fill the labor shortage as doctors and engineers. The next generation is looking at arts and theater. It’s just great!
Q: So you think it’s because we are a maturing community?
A: Yes, that and the parents. Most immigrant parents are worried about job stability and that’s tough to explain away for someone who wants to make a career as a comedian. In most parts of the world all this can only be a hobby. Thankfully we are in a place where we can make it happen.
Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Indian American community when you were the assistant director in the White House Office for Public Engagement?
A: Nothing per se…wait! A lot of groups had organizations lobbying for them but the Indian ones were divided in so many sub-groups that you could not reach out to anyone as a representative of the entire community. I was surprised that an organization like SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), who do tremendous work, did not have financial and moral support from the community. If they did, the community would have a stronger place at the table.
Q: Why do you think Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal don’t resonate widely with the community?
A: Hmmm. Don’t they? Identity is a complicated thing. I have read Haley’s book and apart from her mischaracterization of our former president, I found it insightful. She talks about being brown, her family background and doesn’t shy away from things the way Bobby Jindal might. They also represent rural, red states.
Q: Did you have a model for playing press secretary on “Designated Survivor?” Can you rate the ones Donald Trump has had?
A: I got a chance to shadow Josh Earnest (Obama administration).You can work in the same building and not know about another person’s job. So this was a great opportunity. Rating the press secretaries (Trump’s)? All of them took joy in lying so how do you rate that?
Q: Who do you want to see in the White House?
A: I don’t know, haven’t picked one yet. I like a lot of what (Bernie) Sanders and (Elizabeth) Warren are saying and what Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) was saying in the early part. As things go along, things tend to firm up and candidates include the ideas of others. I worked for Bernie in the primaries and Hillary (Clinton) after that. Their positions consolidated and Hillary picked up Bernie’s college plan after the nomination.
Q: Any political aspirations?
A: No. I am a way too selfish artist. I mean, I loved the two plus years in the White House and the eight years of that administration. Maybe in another time with another person in Washington, there might be things to do.
Q: What’s Indian about you?
A: Everything! Who gets to define what being Indian is? I remember growing up and being told that I could not get a B in math because I was Indian! Really? I obviously was not a good Indian because I was terrible in math!
Q: Another Harold and Kumar for us?
A: Hope so. John (Cho who played Harold) is busy with a Netflix series and the makers are also busy on another project. As soon as we can all get our schedules together we want to make it happen.
Having the same last name as India’s PM: Coincidence.
John Cho: Brother
Hamburgers: Impossible burgers. I am vegetarian.
India: Big hug. I think family.
Impeachment: Hopefully soon.
New York or Los Angeles: New York.