Following the publishing of actor Kal Penn's memoir You Can't Be Serious, he stopped in Chicago on Nov. 6 to discuss his Hollywood and White House careersand the news of his coming out.
Co-founder of Vice Media Suroosh Alvi engaged him in conversation, starting with a question about the media attention surrounding his coming out and engagement to his long-time partner.
"I'm obviously very happy with all the love and positivity," he said. "But I'm also appreciative of conversations like this, where we can talk about the full story."
Penn reflected about his start in Hollywood and the systemic racism he's faced. He said that when he was in college, his friend offered for her manager to watch Penn's audition tape and give him feedback. But after seeing the tape, the manager said he didn't want to meet with Penn.
"He said he didn't think that somebody who looks like [me was] ever going to work consistently enough in Hollywood for it to be worth his while," he said. "I was confused about what I was supposed to do, because there was nothing I could do differently."
Penn said he tells these stories not to be negative, but to show the amount of progress that has been madeand how much more needs to still be done.
Penn also spoke about his time in the White House, when he served as associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison.
One of his first tasks was overseeing an executive order regarding Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach. As people debated whether a particular agency should be included within the order, Penn took pages full of notes. When the time to decide came, Penn thought that surely, there was another adult to make that choicethen realized it was his job.
"If you're a West Wing fan, you view politics the way a lot of people view Hollywood: a model where the people who work there possess a skill that a lot of us don't have," he said. "What I found was actually the contrary."
After working in such a diverse, progressive atmosphere, Penn said returning to Hollywood was a rude awakening. He'd been offered an audition for a Denzel Washington movie, but the film team decided they didn't want another person of color in the film.
"If the real first Black president of the United States had no problem hiring a real brown guy to work for him, maybe like a movie studio shouldn't worry so much about a Brown guy playing a pilot," he said.
But Penn said he still has hope for the industry, especially in streaming platforms that aren't as beholden to the networks' perception of what sells.
The discussion went overtime. Despite no planned Q&A, they took a few questions from the audience. Longtime fan Neelesh Nadkarni said that the first film he watched with Penn was American Desi in 2001. He asked how Penn feels about his career now, 20 years later.
Penn said that he never expected his name to be splashed across magazines. He just wanted to be able to pay his billsand looking back, he said he's grateful for the love he's received from the South Asian community and the impact he's been able to make in return.
"I feel incredibly blessed, especially [because] the community really came out to support those movies," he said. "They've really had our backs."