A Conversation with Kal

Actor, producer, and Barack Obama’s Associate Director of Public Engagement Kal Penn sat down with our Editor-in-chief Jen Lassen ’15 and News Editor Kerong Kelly ’16 to talk about his interesting career path and his cherished college experience…all, of course, with witty humor and down-to-earth honesty. 

Kerong Kelly: We’ve seen you in the television and film world but also in the political world. How and when did you start to develop the Kal Penn that you are today?

Kal Penn: None of it was particularly planned out. I didn’t have the “after college five-or 10-year plan.” My focus was in film, television, and theatre at the time. After the six to eight years of eating Ramen and beans out of packages and cans and saving up enough money for gas to go on auditions, I thankfully was able to start working as an actor. But I’ve always had an interest in public service through my grandparents and growing up. That was always there, and there was no real calculated reason why I decided to support the president; I liked what he had to say. I’ve been a political Independent, so I’ve never been a registered Democrat or Republican. I really liked what the president had to say very early in his campaign in Iowa, which is the first state to have their version of the Primary. There was a writers’ strike in L.A. at the time; I was on a show called “House” and we weren’t able to shoot anything because of this strike. So I went to Iowa for what was supposed to be three days, and then I ended up staying for about a month and a half and continued on the president’s campaign as a volunteer. I was working on youth issues, so I reached out to young Americans, the arts community, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. He ended up winning, so I ended up serving for two years.

Jen Lassen: How does acting for film versus television differ for you?

KP: [In television], you don’t necessarily know a lot about your character before you start shooting something. With episodic television, the audience learns more week to week as do the actors. So very seldom does the team of writers share with you what’s happening with the character that week; a lot of times, writers write a character from week to week. With a movie, you know from start to finish what the arch of a character is going to be, and the end is actually an end point, at least for that story. You have everything spelled out for your character right in front of you. 

JL: How would you summarize your college experience?

KP: I went to UCLA, and what I liked about UCLA was that it had a really good balance between a great academic sector and a really good social sphere. I liked that it had that balance, where you could study as hard as you wanted and party as hard as you wanted. You could do both, and you could have a full college experience.

JL: If you could give advice to young college students, what would you tell them?

KP: I would say just don’t worry as much. You’re gonna graduate … I mean, probably going to graduate … fingers crossed. I just wish I had worried much less than I did and had more fun.

KK: What is it like addressing a college audience?

KP: It depends on the setting, but I really like college audiences in particular, especially when we’re talking about civic engagement. You’ll get people from all different political viewpoints. Every few years, the news cycle will report on how they’re “not sure that young people will get engaged in the upcoming election.” And then they’ll run some shocking story about how young people actually came out and voted. That’s sort of a broken record; nobody talks about how thoughtful students are and come to something like this to stick around and ask questions.

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