Actor Says Hollywood Is Least Inclusive Industry

Kal Penn tells SHRM INCLUSION 2021 audience how stereotypes have dominated TV and movie productions

By Paul Bergeron October 25, 2021
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Actor Says Hollywood Is Least Inclusive Industry

AUSTIN, TEXAS — American-born actor Kal Penn, 44, spent most of his early years overcoming being cast primarily for his Indian heritage.

Penn was born in Montclair, N.J., to Gujarati Indian immigrant parents, and early on, Hollywood never let him forget that.

With the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, as moderator, Penn took SHRM's INCLUSION 2021 conference in-person and virtual audience behind the scenes with personal stories about how he encountered stereotypes and discrimination.

You'll Never Get a Role Here

Penn (born Kalpen Suresh Modi) is most recognizable for his roles portraying Lawrence Kutner on the television program "House" and the character Kumar Patel in the "Harold & Kumar" film series. He is also recognized for his performance in the film "The Namesake," among many other appearances since his 1998 professional acting debut, including roles on "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother," "New Girl," "24" and "Law & Order: SVU." His experiences with discrimination predated his first role.

"While I was studying theater at [the University of California, Los Angeles], I realized I needed an agent," Penn said. "A friend recommended one, so I met with her. The first thing she said to me was that no one who looks like you will get any roles in Hollywood, except maybe as a cab driver or a convenience store clerk."

Penn kept looking for an agent and met with others a year and a half later.

"When I arrived at their office, they must have thought I was deaf," he said. "They raised their voices when talking to me, [thinking perhaps that English was not his primary language]. 'Wow, your English is so good,' they said. Others asked, 'Where's your turban?' "

Penn said when you face those kinds of barriers to entry, take it as a challenge to see how best to handle it and to overcome it.

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Do It with the Accent

Perhaps worse for Penn was when he was called in 2000 for a role in "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" to play the character Prajeeb from Seattle.

"I prepared for it by showing up in a flannel shirt, a bit grungy and acted like I loved the band Nirvana," he said. "After I rehearsed, I found out they loved me. But when they followed up, they told me, 'Yeah, can you do the entire character with an accent?' "

Penn said he could tell where that was going.

"I didn't want to be disrespectful," he said, "But what I really wanted to ask them was, 'Which accent?' I just wanted to make them hear themselves say it to me."

After Penn told his agent, the agent suggested, "Why don't you go in and make your case and ask them if you could do the part without an accent?"

Penn did. The producer said, "No."

"I felt like maybe he didn't quite understand my point," Penn said. "So I explained, 'I have a lot of cousins who love your show. For them, there's nothing that would make them prouder than to see me in the episode as I am.' "

Again, the producer said "No. Use the accent. You and your cousins should be so lucky to see a person who looks like you in a show like this."

For that producer, Penn said, "his response was all about maintaining power; it was a way to dehumanize others."

Seeking Complex Roles

But that's the way Hollywood has been for so long, Penn said. "In the past 10 years, you've seen two approaches to content creation.

"For the major networks, they are driven by ad revenue and they have seen what worked in the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and so on, and the shows have mostly been the same because they are run by those from older generations who figure 'Why change?'

"Meanwhile, streaming channels like Netflix are subscription-based and don't have to follow that same formula. Their productions can be better, and you see that with them sweeping the awards shows. They are more engaging. People talk about their programs. Customization in programming comes from inclusion."

Penn said his goal as an actor was always to play a character who is complex and flawed. A person "who is like everyone else," he said, "having to deal with those tough things in life."

Empathy vs. Me-pathy

SHRM has focused recently on building empathy in the workplace, and Penn offered to Alonso his definition of empathy.

"Empathy looks like holistic conversations and nuanced conversations," Penn said. "Those aren't the kinds you can squeeze into your typical 45-minute department meeting. When speaking to those in your group, you have to show patience, understanding and love for the people you are working with and about what you're trying to accomplish."

Empathy is not "me-pathy," which is when one person engages another only if there's something beneficial in it for them. Inclusive conversations are not ones in which a participant tries to relate to another solely based on ethnicity or appearances.

Penn spoke of a time when he skipped lunch. When a co-worker came back from his lunch, Penn asked, "How was lunch?" His co-worker replied, "It was great. We went to a really good Indian place."

Penn said this was me-pathy. "I would rather exist as a peer than as someone who another person can engage with in conversation just so that person could feel good about themselves."

Another time, he was contacted by a production studio that was excited to make him a part of its program.

"They told me that they had designed a character to be included who was of Indian background and I would be perfect for the role. To me, that is gratuitous, and everyone sees it and knows it. It actually makes the program worse, in my opinion."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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