Building Bridges ~ Creating Community
An Evening with Kal Penn
Commentary on An Evening with Kal Penn
by Katie Bloom
A big event came to Montana State University this past Spring entitled An Evening with Kal Penn, an actor who is know most famously for his movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle where he played a stoner on a crazy adventure to get a burger from White Castle. More recently he is know for playing a doctor on the popular television show House, where his character unexpectedly committed suicide. Not only has he made headlines with his movie and television roles, but now he is making headlines as he is a new liaison to President Barack Obama (announcing the news the week he arrived in Montana). His position at the White House will be associate director in the Office of Public Liaison, his specialty dealing in the arts and Asian-American Affairs. He is excited at the prospect of working in an office that allows American's voices to be heard. He said that that he only wanted the position if it was based on his own educational and personal achievement merits, not because he was a big-time Hollywood star.
Kal Penn's visit to Montana was a full schedule for an all-day experience headed up by the MSU Leadership Institute and ASMSU, with co-sponsorship by ASMSU Lectures and Lively Arts and the Diverstiy Awareness Office. Shortly after he arrived, he was interviewed but the local television station, brought up to KGLT for a radio interview, lead a Masters Class seminar to a small group of lucky Montana State University students, ate dinner with the sponsors, and finished off his day giving a lecture to 1,000 students cheering and supporting the actor.
Those taking advantage of the Masters Class seminar he led were able to see inside Hollywood. The Diversity Awareness Office proudly sponsored five students to attend. The stories Penn told of how simply changing his name from Kal Penn Modi (his birth name) to just Kal Penn nearly doubled his callbacks and how giving into stereotypical roles (like Taj in Van Wilder) was a challenge for him. This allowed students to understand a little bit of what type of discrimination and stereotyping Hollywood supports. Those that are not the typical middle-class, white male characters have to constantly struggle with finding challenging roles. Penn discussed how his role in The Namesake was his favorite, and most rewarding. Roles that show Asian-Americans in a different light than the gas station owner is empowering. He also discussed his how he hopes to help the future generations of America now that he is been lucky enough to work in the White House. It was an enlightening discussion that enabled students to see into the life of someone else; see the struggles, the ups, the downs, and see the future.
That same evening, Kal Penn lectured to nearly 1,000 students. He was able to expand more on the same experiences he discussed in his Masters Class, especially about being an Asian-American in Hollywood, overcoming many odds, how he has enforced and disproved many common stereotypes, and how he challenges himself day to day. He explains that his life and career is best described as "a roller-coaster ride". The world he lives in today is very different that the world he lived in ten year ago, and it is amazing to have been able to see the progress one person can take while overcoming many obstacles along the way. He wants people to challenge stereotypes, influence the media, and strive for more equality to be seen in all aspects of media. With a message of anyone can change the world, his lecture concluded with the idea of anything is possible.
“Our generation tends to think outside the box. The entertainment industry, and society in general, really only change through the actions of individual agents.” -- Kal Penn
Wednesday, April 8th, 2009
MSU Strand Union Ballrooms
Called "The Next Tom Hanks" by The Boston Globe, Kal Penn is the star of The Namesake, the Harold and Kumar franchise, and a co-star on Fox's House. Penn is a rising star in Hollywood -- but what sets him apart is his off-screen eloquence, his depth of intention, and his passion for the intersection of popular culture, politics and race. Penn is leading a new wave of performers who are subverting stereotypes and changing the racial and ethnic landscape of Hollywood.
Penn will speak about how the intrinsically political nature of pop culture affects our political landscape, and he will also provide a glimpse into the darker side of the entertainment industry, full of prejudices and comically misguided casting agents ("Where's your turban?"). One of the few Indian-American actors -- so far -- to break into Hollywood, he looks at how pop culture can reinforce, but also challenge and overturn, racial stereotypes. With an actor's grace and an activist's unbridled passion, Penn shows the audience the visionaries working to broaden the racial and cultural experience in movies and on television.
In May 2007, Penn, whose real name is Kalpen Modi, received the Asian Excellence Award for Outstanding Actor for his performance in The Namesake. He also appeared in a 2007 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and currently plays Dr. Lawrence Kutner on the television series House.
The 31-year-old actor also has a B.A. in sociology with a specialization in theater, film and television from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently working on a graduate certificate in international security at Stanford University. Named one of People's Top 50 Bachelors, Penn also taught two courses at the University of Pennsylvania.