Before “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” Kal Penn was just another 20-something guy in Hollywood looking for a break.
Aspiring actors are subjected to no shortage of humiliating audition opportunities. But as a young actor of Indian descent, Penn was forced to subject himself to an extraordinary level of typecasting and stereotyping in order to work, at least according to a series of tweets the “Designated Survivor” star posted.
You can pretty much guess what some of the casting notices were like.
Penn recalled being asked to put on an exaggerated accent for comic effect more than once — though the casting people rarely admitted that’s what they wanted him to do.
Often, he explained in his tweets, the roles were one-note jokes — defined by little more than skin color and a “funny” voice.
The audition experiences even soured him on some shows he was a fan of before he became an actor.
Penn also included praise for some shows he auditioned for and worked on that “didn’t have to use external things to mask subpar writing” — including “24,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Steve Harvey Show,” and “Angel.”
Since the years when Penn was an up-and-coming actor, the TV landscape has diversified and opportunities for non-white actors have expanded, with shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Black-ish,” “Silicon Valley,” and “Empire,” featuring three-dimensional characters of color in starring roles.
Still, some evidence suggests that progress might be anecdotal. According to an analysis conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 72% of all speaking roles in film and TV were white in 2016, virtually unchanged from a decade prior. Only 28% of roles were from non-white racial and ethnic groups, despite the fact that these groups constitute almost 39% of the actual U.S. population.
Racist and sexist casting calls haven’t gone away. Recently, New York actor Audrey Alford was threatened with a lawsuit after she posted a screengrab of a casting call notice from an agency seeking “mainly caucasian actors” who are “gorgeous in a classic way,” to her Twitter page. In 2015, actor Rose McGowan leaked a casting call, purportedly for an Adam Sandler movie, encouraging female auditioners to wear something that “shows off cleavage” to the audition.
As a successful actor, Penn can use his platform to advocate on behalf of young actors of color auditioning today who might not be able to speak up for fear of reprisal.
More exposure probably won’t end the calls for South Asian actors to play convenience store clerks, terrorists, and nerdy one-note programers, but if it shames the people in charge of bringing movies and TV shows to life into making more creative choices and casting directors into searching talent, rather than ethnicity-first, than that’s a good first step.
Upworthy has reached out to Penn for comment.