‘I wanted to tell my story in the most truthful way’: Kal Penn on his memoir ‘You Can’t Be Serious’

While it made headlines, following the launch of his memoir ‘You Can’t Be Serious’, the Harold & Kumar star says he is glad his queerness resonated with many

Updated - December 21, 2021 04:47 pm IST

Published - December 17, 2021 06:57 pm IST

Actor Kal Penn

Actor Kal Penn

Over two decades ago, Kalpen became Kal Penn. This choice of a stage name leaned into the American proclivity for monosyllabic names, without forsaking the Indian roots that bind it. Actor Kalpen Suresh Modi or Kal, who grew up in New Jersey, has a clear vision of his hyphenated Indian-American identity: “Having stronger roots makes me feel more American and interesting.”

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While working — in a brief sabbatical from acting — in the White House Office of Public Engagement under Barack Obama, he had placed in his office a portrait of Gandhi he received from his grandfather, who was an active participant in the freedom struggle. It was in this role that he helped organise the first White House celebration of Diwali by an American president in 2009.

In his memoir, You Can’t Be Serious (Simon & Schuster), Penn, 44, speaks to this hyphenated existence, his years in Hollywood, the casual racism in casting rooms, and the explicit stereotyping in the roles offered, along with his years in the Obama administration. He is best known for starring in the Harold & Kumar franchise, that rewrote how representation on screen can be irresponsibly fun and cuttingly irreverent, and Mira Nair’s The Namesake , based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel on an immigrant family’s coming-of-age in a gently fraying America.

The book cover

The book cover

In a Zoom interview, edited for brevity and clarity, Penn discusses the memoir, whom he wrote it for, and what the path ahead looks like.

Why a memoir now, when you are fairly in the thick of your career?

I wrote the book with two sets of people in mind. One was the 25-year-old version of me, a young Indian-American guy trying to break into Hollywood, while also being interested in social service. There was never a podcast, a book, or a movie that could guide me then. The second group are those that have different passions they want to pursue in life. See, right from the aunties and uncles to the guidance counsellors, everyone told me to do one thing. But now people are embracing the fact that the world isn’t made of mutually exclusive choices. You could have a job, like working on these ridiculous comedies in Hollywood, and then take a sabbatical to work for the first Black president of the United States of America. To your question, I do hope to continue doing a lot more, but I am excited to share this part of my story right now.

Your relationship to queernessit is not something you delve into in your book, and yet you introduce your partner.

I just wanted to tell my story in the most truthful way. The two things I wanted to share were how I met Josh — we have been together for 11 years, engaged for three years — and about my dad. Both are incredibly private people, and I wanted to be respectful of their experiences. Josh and I come from completely different worlds. He grew up in a rural town in Mississippi and I am the son of Gujarati immigrants who grew up in New Jersey. We didn’t grow up with a lot of money; my dad came to America with $12 in his pocket. So, I wanted the story to be about things that brought us together, to be mindful of growing up in a place that was left-leaning and open-minded, with a supportive community.

A still from ‘Harold & Kumar 2’

A still from ‘Harold & Kumar 2’

Did you think there was too much attention given to your queerness in the headlines post the release of this book? DidBelated, where you are playing a middle-aged married man with two kids, coming out, happen becauseof this churn?

While writing that chapter about Josh, I naively thought it wouldn’t be of much interest. I am glad it resonated with so many people. They were congratulating me on Twitter for being engaged. The thing is I have been engaged to Josh for three years. This has just made my mum go “ Kya re ? When are you actually getting married?” That was unexpected [laughs]. You just never know what will resonate with people. Belated , I am very excited about. I play a trauma surgeon, who has been with his wife for 20 years with two beautiful kids. He goes on a business trip, has a couple of drinks with a guy whom he ends up hooking up with and realises he needs to let his wife know he is figuring things out. But like a Ted Lasso or a Ramy, this is just the set up.

What is your relationship like with India?

Because of growing up in New Jersey — a fairly diverse place with a huge Jewish and Italian community — I used to speak both English and Gujarati. My Hindi is still questionable, but I am working on it. So I just assumed that everyone is from somewhere if you are American. It just underscores how American you are if you speak more than one language. Besides, summers were spent in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Baroda visiting the grandparents and masis . Then, as an adult, I keep coming here to pitch shows and work here; one of the reasons I am trying to improve my Hindi.

You write that you make playlists for all your characters, like a Dr Dre playlist for Harold & Kumar. I’m curious, what was your Namesakeplaylist like?

Gogol’s music choices are in the book. Jhumpa’s writing is incredible, intimate, and accurate — from his ATM code to the room in Yale where he lost his virginity. Part of my research was finding the dorm in Yale and just knocking on the door, forgetting for a second that I was a recognisable actor and that this was a super creepy thing to do.

Kal Penn with friends

Kal Penn with friends

You spend a lot of time in the book discussing your Obama gig. Was it the Obama nostalgia during the Trump years?

Anybody who has had the honour of working in a place like the White House recognises the incredible opportunity to serve the country and do the right thing. As a mid-level staffer, you feel the work you do is sometimes bureaucratic, sometimes reactive. So many of the things we did were not sexy enough to make it to cable news, but it is what impacted lots of people, making their lives better. It was really inspiring to me.

There’s a constant tension with merit in your book. You keep asking if you deserve what you got or if you got it because you were Indian. What is this unease?

I don’t think it is unease. I write about struggle because I love what we do for a living. Hollywood has changed so wonderfully in the last decade, with streaming. This was why I spoke about the barriers to entry. But you are right because we do talk a lot about imposter syndrome. It is less about whether I deserve to be here as opposed to I can’t believe I’m here.

Kal Penn

Kal Penn

In 2007, when you played a teenage terrorist in24, you had said, “I have a huge political problem with the role. It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling... But it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up... As an actor, why shouldn’t I have that opportunity?” That’s a fascinating dilemma, between wanting to be an actor who does exciting new things and being a brown person in Hollywood who has a fair share of responsibility. Do you still face that?

I am glad you asked that so I can throw New York Magazine under the bus. I definitely didn’t say it that way. I was a little bothered it was written that way. 24 was a cool opportunity. But in terms of reality, we had not had the kind of home-grown radicalisation that has existed since. There was nuance there. One of the first times I had seen brown people on screen with depth and flaws was Mississippi Masala . The family members were not blameless, they were racist. I remember some people not liking that depiction of the Indian community. But what does that mean? The fact that there are flawed, fully-fleshed characters? You just always want more nuance. Hopefully, with streaming, your question will be irrelevant in the years to come. The audience is bored with lazy stereotypes.

What are you working on next?

Hot Mess Holiday releases in India on Comedy Central, I think on Christmas Eve. It is a Diwali/Christmas diamond heist movie I co-produced. Then there is the Nav Bhatia biopic. He [a Canadian businessman and superfan for the Toronto Raptors basketball team] has an incredible story I am excited to tell. I have been a fan of ‘The Superfan’ for a while. I remember seeing him at the games, on the jumbotron thinking, “Who is that uncle on the courtside? This uncle is amazing.” There is also Belated , which starts shooting in February.

You Can’t Be Serious is priced at ₹699, and is available at all leading book stores.

Take a tweet hint

Key points from the book, going by Kal Penn’s Twitter thread:

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