kal penn
Two sides, two names, two passions. (Illustration by James O'Toole, Grand Valley State University)
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kal penn

The multitalented Indian American was incorporating activism into his acting long before it was cool.

From a young age, Kalpen Modi had a passion for politics. Back in the 1930s, his grandparents walked with Gandhi during the independence movement in India, so he credits them for fostering the appetite for politics.

Modi also excelled in the arts, participating in many productions at his high school, Freehold Township, and played the saxophone in his hometown of Montclair, New Jersey. When it came down to deciding what he wanted to pursue collegially, Modi chose both and pursued film studies and sociology at UCLA, graduating in 2000.

Now, many people may not know him as Kalpen Modi, but they probably recognize him by his stage name — Kal Penn.

Why didn’t he just stick with his birth name? What’s really in a name? Well, apparently in Hollywood, everything. Modi quickly learned that only way he got any auditions was if “Kal Penn” was attached to his headshot and resume, so he changed his name to blend in with the white-dominated industry, a trend that many other actors are following to make it in the business.

Post-college graduation, Penn worked on some movie projects and guest-starred on a few TV shows, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “ER,” but his first big break was when he got the role of Kumar Patel in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” For Penn, playing Patel was enjoyable, and that’s why he didn’t hesitate when offered a contract for two more films.

Before the next few “Harold and Kumar” films were made, Penn also played roles in other genres: playing wide-ranging characters from Gogol in the Indo-American drama “The Namesake” to Stanford, a villain in “Superman Returns.”

Penn doesn’t limit himself; he’s had his fair share of the big screen, but nowadays, audiences mostly see him on TV. His first full-time television character was Dr. Lawrence Kutner on “House,” but after performing on the medical drama for two years, Penn decided to take a break from acting.

He returned to being Kalpen Modi, but this time as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for the Obama administration. While working with the president, Modi focused on communication with Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities.

The actor-turned-politician was known as Kalpen Modi for some time, but upon returning to acting, it was back to Kal Penn. After his hiatus from Hollywood, Penn guest-starred on TV shows again, this time for “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and he also starred in a few films like the historical drama, “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain” and “Dementamania,” a British horror flick.

Even while taking on acting roles, Penn stayed active on the political scene. In 2013, he was appointed to serve the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and just a year later he was the master of ceremonies at the White House Student Film Festival. Even while juggling political events and acting gigs, Penn served as a guest lecturer for film and media classes at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, Penn stars as Seth Wright in the TV political drama “Designated Survivor.” Penn’s character is the White House secretary, so he’s still playing an active “role” in government. Originally the series aired on ABC, but Netflix picked up for a third season after the network canceled the show.

Besides filming “Designated Survivor,” Penn has a few more projects he’s working on this year, one of which is his own show. Alongside Penn are Michael Schur and Matt Murray of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The Good Place” and “Parks and Recreation,” executive producer and screenwriter for the show, respectively. The series follows Garrett Shah (Penn), an ex-New York City councilman whose life gets turned upside down when six immigrants come to him looking for help fulfilling the American Dream.

Considering Penn’s time at the White House and his experience acting in “Harold and Kumar,” it’s no doubt fans will get an interesting show. With “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation” under their belts, Schurr and Murray are expected to deliver their best in terms of script and overall production.

Along with Hollywood, Penn has also shown interest in Indian films, to stay in touch with his Gujarati side. While Penn remains busy, guest-starring on shows and creating one of his own, he still manages to stay up to date on politics. He’s especially active on Twitter, often retweeting NASA’s President Trump quotes with an original comment.

Nowadays, it’s rare to find someone like Penn. Although many celebrities have opinions about politics, they aren’t always willing to pursue action, but in Penn’s case, he knew he wanted to be a part of the change, so he joined the White House team to see what he could do. He’s also raised money for various causes, such as when, in 2017 when he raised $500,000 for Syrian refugees.

Even though Penn may not always have a lead role, but he still knows how to make his voice heard. He’s one of the few people in Hollywood who has shown that even if you have a different name, you’re still the same.

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