Pay your dues, follow your dreams, actor advises
It was not Kumar Patel, stoner hero of the R-rated scatalogical “Harold and Kumar” comedies, who appeared before a student audience at the UIC Forum Friday evening.
Instead, it was actor Kal Penn/former White House adviser Kalpen Modi who showed up and — along with a few pot references — dispensed advice about the importance of hard work, paying your dues and following your dream.
Penn was chosen by student vote to give the first Student Activities Board-sponsored Fall Lecture. He said he’d followed the discussion on Twitter and read some of his favorite tweets to the crowd, including one grousing that Common wasn’t picked.
“I was asked to talk about civic engagement and politics in general, but that’s a little heavy for Friday night,” Penn said, then went on to talk about those topics anyway, interspersed with anecdotes about the “Harold and Kumar” films, working in the White House and appearing on the television medical drama “House.”
Born in New Jersey — “I was an average kid, not good at math or science, which for a brown dude was really weird” — Penn majored in film and sociology at UCLA. He worked odd jobs while going on auditions where he was complimented on his English or asked to wear a turban, he said.
“At first, it really bothered me, the representations of diversity in the media,” he said.
“There are not a lot of characters who necessarily look like me. It gave me a lot more motivation.”
His first major movie role was in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” where he played a character named Taj Mahal — which, Penn said, he initially found so offensive he had to be talked into auditioning.
But that role led to “Harold and Kumar,” which led to the critically acclaimed “The Namesake,” directed by Mira Nair and based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.
“The director’s 13-year-old son was a big ‘Harold and Kumar’ fan,” Penn said.
Which illustrated his first piece of advice: sometimes you have to work at something “less than ideal” to get to something better.
“Try to enjoy doing the things you don’t necessarily want to do,” he said.
Penn became a supporter and volunteer early in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, returning as co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
“I’d read his books. I did some research: the Democrats didn’t like him and the Republicans didn’t like him. He was against the Iraq war. I thought he was the real deal,” Penn said.
In 2009, Penn left “House” to become associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
“I applied for a job at the White House, got it, quit my job on ‘House,’” he said, “sat at a desk, drank lot of coffee, shared an office with five people, got fat and got robbed at gunpoint.
“Then I went back to LA.”
Actually, during his three-or-so years at the White House, he focused on outreach to youth, the arts community and the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
“I was working in a very official capacity,” Penn said, recalling a phone conference where, for the first time, “I made a decision on behalf of the president of the United States.”
Which led to another piece of advice: “If you’re meeting your boss, dress appropriately and shave,” Penn said.
Apparently, like many other White House staffers, Penn adopted a casual appearance for work. No one seemed to care; when he passed Obama in the hallway, the president just nodded hello.
Then Penn met with the president for a personal briefing.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, look who decided to shave today,’” Penn recalled, still embarrassed.
Three little-known facts Penn also mentioned:
• He’s never read any Harry Potter books.
• His biggest inspiration is his grandparents, who marched with Gandhi.
• He loves playing Kumar, who is “way cooler than I will ever be. I wouldn’t mind doing Harold and Kumar when we’re 60.”
And some final advice from the actor, who recently completed a graduate certificate in international security from Stanford University:
“It’s OK if people call you crazy,” he said, citing friend and Olympic speedskater Joey Cheek, who left competition to go to college, then start a nonprofit foundation.
“I’ve never had a friend who was called crazy who didn’t also do something awesome.”