Closing the Gap
From His Infamous “Kumar” Role To His Eminent White House Gig, Social Activist And Actor Kal Penn Mellows Out With A&U’s Dann Dulin As He Helps Pull Generations Together And Reveals How A Laugh Can Be Serious
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Adam Bouska
Wrap the rod before pleasing the bod #WorldAIDSDay
“Don’t Be a Fool, Wrap Your Tool” #WorldAIDSDay
Garnish your oak…before you poke #WorldAIDSDay
Kal Penn sent these Tweets on World AIDS Day last year. They’re bold, brave, and even “busty!”—a word he uses to describe himself. “I’m a fan of using humor to get a more serious conversation going or just to convey a point,” he says deliberately about the tweets. “We all seem to think that we’re somehow so completely different if we’re voting for somebody different or if we’re speaking a different language. You know what? At the end of the day we’re all human.”
But Kal seems to be superhuman—an über-multitasker, a Renaissance man. Just look at some of his accomplishments: film actor (the Harold & Kumar trilogy, The Namesake, Superman Returns, Epic Movie), television performer (24, House, M.D., How I Met Your Mother), producer (Van Wilder 2), civil servant (associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration), professor (adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania in the Asian American Studies Program), student (working toward his graduate certificate in International Security at Stanford), and currently co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign. Egads!
In 2009 when he was appearing on House, M.D., and teaching at U Penn, he’d finish filming on Friday night, depart LAX on Saturday, prep on Sunday, teach Monday and then fly back to L.A. on Monday evening to be on the House set by Tuesday morning. Today, after recently returning from a second stint in Washington, D.C., Kal is settling back into Los Angeles life and presently into an overstuffed leather chair in the living room of a friend of this journalist. We’re in North Hollywood, not far from where Kal resides and in kissing distance of the Warner Brothers lot where the Harold and Kumar movies were filmed. My friend is at work, so Kal and I finally have found a peaceful spot.
Just an hour before, we were traipsing around Toluca Lake in the San Fernando Valley at high noon, searching for a place to interview. The coffeehouse that we originally agreed upon was just too noisy. “Would Bob’s Big Boy restaurant across the street be quiet enough?” “How about Starbucks over there?” As we began walking to these venues, I remembered my friend’s place just blocks away from where we were. Kal enthusiastically agreed.
From our first handshake on the street in front of the loud java house, Kal was disarming and warm, and, throughout our time together, I feel like I’m with an old college buddy. Indeed, he’s dressed like a college dude, sporting a 5 o’clock shadow and wearing loose fitting denims, a gray T-shirt with an opened big-checkered gray and red shirt, and black hi-top Pumas. He wears a USO bracelet and a “Red, White, & Blue” wristband from Starbucks, the word “indivisible” engraved on it. It cost him $5. “I was skeptical when I first saw it,” explains Kal, “‘What is this?! Another one of those things?!’ I did a bunch of research on it and found out it was legit. The money goes into a fund that gives low cost loans to start up businesses. It’s their way of helping jump-start the economy for local small businesses.”
Kal is keenly aware and sensitive to public affairs. His education about AIDS came from growing up in New Jersey, close to New York City, where the epidemic
was widely publicized. He remembers seeing Keith Haring’s iconic drawings, some of which were about safe sex, plastered throughout the subways in the eighties. And by attending The Fine and Performing Arts Academy in Farmingdale, New Jersey, during his freshman, sophomore, and junior years, the topic of AIDS was fiercely prevalent, savagely penetrating the world of entertainment at the time. “By being a theater/film kid, and by just watching the news with my parents I was exposed to the epidemic,” explains Kal, coolly fidgeting with the big-faced watch he’s wearing. “Now that I think about it I first heard about it in sex ed class in sixth grade. No one had to sit me down and tell me about AIDS. It was very vivid—and you knew why it was very vivid.”
Though Kal’s position in the Obama administration was not directly related to the epidemic—he focused on outreach to youth, arts professionals, and the Asian American community—the topic of HIV/AIDS surfaced. (While at the White House, he used his birth name, Kalpen Modi.) “Having worked in advocacy, I came across the struggle for funding, recognition, and awareness, and then [discovered] the really courageous ways in which communities come together and tie those lines that need to be tied between raising awareness and getting research dollars from the base level. I see that in the HIV/AIDS community as well, and I’m aware of just how far folks have come since the era of the seventies and eighties.”
“Over the past several years while I was working at the White House, most of the people I spoke with engaged in safe practices and knew the risks,” he insists. Then he adds, “This conversation can almost be endless because it depends on which communities you’re talking to. I may have been in a bit of a bubble with the folks I talked to, who were from advocacy groups. They’re usually intensely aware.” He ponders, his big, expressive bronzed-sparkling eyes looking off toward the front door. “If you’re going to a bar and you poll a hundred young people, how many of them are going to have a condom on them? I don’t know,” he contemplates earnestly. “But that would be an interesting experiment.” I challenge Kal to do it and he invites me to participate. He adds, smiling with willing devotion, “So we’ll check back in a year and see how that went….”
He reaches for a glass of purified water that sits on the coffee table and takes a sip, which he does quite frequently during our time together. He rears back into the chair, crosses his legs and gently grabs his pant leg. “It’s so interesting to see that when you talk about HIV/AIDS what a difference there exists between the generations. Talking with young people about healthcare reform, I found that they don’t argue about issues like research dollars and awareness,” attests Kal. “The stigma that exists in older communities is much less among the young. And this younger generation doesn’t understand today why you have Republican members of Congress still talking about restricting access to safe sex practices both educationally and in terms of condoms. They don’t understand why there’s a debate amongst the older folks, particularly members of….” Kal halts and inserts, “the average age in the Senate is something like sixty-three, which is fine and there’s a lot of wisdom certainly that comes out of those life experiences, but then when it comes to something like safe sex you’ve got a lot of people who are looking at Congress, particularly the House and House Republicans, and saying, ‘Why are we having a conversation about something that we thought was resolved in the eighties?!’”
Kal’s passion about social issues developed during his childhood. He grew up in the beaming shadow of his grandparents who marched alongside Gandhi, and their values were firmly instilled in him. “Everyone’s grandparents, if you’re fortunate enough to be around them when you’re a kid, always have to coax you into eating your vegetables, so they usually tell you stories to get you to eat your vegetables. I didn’t realize the significance of those stories until I was a little bit older,” he admits, explaining, “it was never called public service; it was just that you contribute in any way you can. You can do it from time to time but you should regularly do it as part of being in a community.” He pauses, then adds in velvety stillness, “My grandparent’s legacy is something that I will always take with me.”
In the early nineties, the summer after Kal completed tenth grade, he read a flyer about an international study program in Kenya. He approached his father, who was interested; however, due to the high cost, $5,000, his father suggested that Kal go instead to India where his father’s friend was running an NGO. The organization, Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH), was located in Western India in a remote village in the state of Gujarat and focused on education, environment, and healthcare. His dad said he’d happily buy the plane ticket, which would be much cheaper than the trip to Africa. Kal was excited and thanks to his grandparents, he could speak the Indian language, which would facilitate greater emersion into Indian culture.
“This NGO had an incredible educational program on HIV/AIDS,” he exclaims energetically, “and in those communities there was a lot of stigma and confusion about how it was passed on, what the causes were, and a lot of folklore around who gets it and why.” India was several years or more behind the U.S. in their prevention campaigns.
“I was too young to understand the implications at that time…That was another experience,” he realizes, recalling with slight amazement. “Seeing all this at a young age, another side of the epidemic, and having had to travel abroad to discover this….”
Kal was drawn into politics when his co-star and friend from House, M.D., Olivia Wilde, asked him to attend an Obama rally in 2007. He accepted because he had friends who were in the military and others who couldn’t afford healthcare or college tuition. He was also interested because Obama opposed the Iraq war and he didn’t take money from lobbyists. “Having somebody as rare as the President actually running for the Presidency made me focus on the political aspect of it,” notes the registered Independent. “I believe very deeply in the President and I think he’s accomplished a lot of great things. Hopefully he’ll continue to for the next four years.”
The Director of the White House Office of National HIV/AIDS Policy, Grant Colfax, has this to say: “This Administration is extremely dedicated to fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the United States, we are continuing to implement the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the Nation’s first comprehensive plan to fight the domestic epidemic. The Strategy provides a roadmap for moving the nation forward in addressing the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic with clear and measurable goals to reduce new HIV infections, increase health outcomes for people living with HIV, and reduce HIV-related health disparities.”
One might have the mistaken notion that Kal, as a White House staffer, was regularly consulting with the President in the Oval Office. He has a good chuckle over this and clarifies. “I was a junior staffer sitting there in a crowded office elsewhere!” His tone is frivolous as he pokes fun at himself, though he appreciates the flattery.
Kal recalls when the President was still a Senator. “He and Michelle visited Kenya, the President’s ancestral homeland. They both took a public HIV test. They did it because they knew that cameras would follow them, it would be a big story, and would help reduce the stigma. Even at the very basic level I know that it’s something very much in his psyche,” he says flatly with conviction. “He’s also got some incredibly aggressive policies that he’s been working with. I don’t mean to minimize those, but I just think in terms of character…it’s pretty clear.”
Kal has the highest praise for groups that “shift the conversation” because “they make one think.” Having worked closely with the Asian community during his White House tenure, he acknowledges such agencies as SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), Organization of Chinese Americans, Asian Pacific Islander (API), and Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT) that are briskly helping to change HIV/AIDS stigma. “They have been changing the conversation so much,” he elates, pulling his shirtsleeve up his arm. “It’s just refreshing these organizations exist!”
“You know I make stoner movies and love making people laugh, but at the same time I love making people think,” asserts Kal with exuberant genuineness, faintly googling, hinting of that familiar spirited “Kumar” gaze. “It’s great when artists can put meaningful conversations into a fictitious piece to help them better understand serious subjects.” He’s now fervent and gently revved. “If you’re a tourist in New York and you’re able to see a play like RENT, that may be the first time you’re coming face to face with something outside of a USA Today article. And for the first time you’re understanding what life must be like for somebody in that situation.”
Until November, Kal is serving as Obama’s campaign co-chair. He’ll travel around the country holding youth rallies. Don’t be surprised if he appears at your front door for support or if you see him at your local Whole Foods signing up people to vote. “A lot of the progress that Obama has made isn’t often talked about because it’s not particularly a sexy news story. For instance, the President raised the American opportunity tax credit, which gives more money back to you if you’re trying to pursue higher education. He also increased the Pell grant for low income people who couldn’t otherwise afford college.”
He sits up, holding the glass of water in one hand and remarks, “I’m not an alarmist by any means but I was a little bit or…,” he stops and corrects himself, “a lot
upset to see that the entire platform of the Republican party was to roll back the progress the President’s made on marriage equality, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, healthcare reform…everything.” He arches his thick brows, briefly peers out the picture window onto the neighbor’s roof. “They’re talking about getting rid of access to healthcare for two and a half million young people and millions of women. Well, what’ya going to put in its place?!,” he declares with restrained passion. “These are folks that can now afford to see a doctor and they’re in better health because of it. You’re going to kick them off of their plans? ‘I’m sorry that you have cancer.’ ‘I’m sorry that you’re HIV-positive.’ ‘You’ve got to fend for yourself.’” He shakes his head, replaces the glass of water and slowly scoots back onto the edge of the chair. “Having these conversations at the community level, I think, helps a lot of folks decide who to vote for. We’re just encouraging folks to understand that those are the stakes right now.”
A thoughtful look comes across his face. It fleetingly reminds me of Gogol, the rebellious coming-of-age character he so brilliantly played in the critically acclaimed film, The Namesake. Kal twists in my direction and props his hand up on his thigh. He eyes me directly. “I’m hardly an expert when it comes to HIV/AIDS. I’m hardly involved, and I should be more so,” he confesses, “but I have to say, ‘Hats off’ and props to the older folks for their advocacy. The younger generation has that to be thankful for. Some people I know are course and surly but are involved in their own way, even if it’s something as small as a Tweet. It’s that much in our psyche that it’s in everyday conversation.”
Kal smiles softly, his head nods in stern assurance, and he leans in closer. “That’s a great testament to the folks that have done the work to save lives up until now….” Releasing a short sigh, he concludes “…and simultaneously a testament to all the work that still needs to be done.”
KICKIN’ IT WITH KAL
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
New York—and it’s my favorite city, too! [He smiles.]
What do you do to stay in health and harmony?
I to be vegetarian and I used to go to the gym six days a week. Then I worked in D.C. for two years, sat at a desk, and gained weight. Now that I’m back in L.A., I’m trying to work it off! So I’m going back to the gym and eating healthy; it’s much easier to do once you get a routine going. I like working out. You sleep better, you’re more creative, and you’re more driven. I like to run, too, around neighborhoods, treadmills, hiking and so on.
What’s your screen saver picture right now?
A photo of friends.
What do you believe happens after we die?
Oh my goodness. I don’t know. I don’t want to make something up. I think about it obviously…a lot.
Boxers, briefs, or thong?
Boxers. [Then Kal immediately asks] How about you?
Do you eventually want to get married, have kids …?
Yeah, I would love to have kids. I would love to get married. Right now, just having been in both of these worlds: D.C. for a couple of years, teaching before that, now back in L.A. my focus is…I’m so thankful that I can be creative now. I absolutely what I was doing in D.C. and was very thankful for being there. I’m getting older now and I do want to put down roots, but before marriage and kids, I want to navigate my life back to New York so I can be with my family. If I had a kid right now I’d be the worst father in the world!
Name one of your bad habits.
[He ponders.] I need better discipline in what I eat. [He nods.] Right now there are two pints of ice cream in my fridge. It’s terrible, I know. It’s not always there, but …
What’s your favorite film of all time?
I don’t have an all-time [favorite] but Dead Poet’s Society is in my top five.
What’s your favorite physical asset above the waist?
Name your favorite physical asset below the waist?
Knees. I have goofy looking knees. The knees are a hilarious part of the body, aren’t they?
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out the most?
My grandparents—definitely. Their legacy is something that I will always take with me.
Kal reacts with one word upon hearing the name of his friends
Lisa Edelstein: strong
Kevin Spacey: fun
Olivia Wilder: brilliant
John Cho: hilarious
Ryan Reynolds: hilarious
Brandon Routh: warm
Barack Obama: inspiring
Ben Affleck: smart; well-read
Martin Sheen: incredible
Ashton Kutcher: hilarious & thoughtful
Neil Patrick Harris: awesome…awesome!
Hugh Laurie: eloquent
Jennifer Coolidge: loving
Keifer Sutherland: badass
For more about Adam Bouska’s photography, please visit www.bouska.net.
Grooming: Angela Peralta
Dann Dulin interviewed Gregory Jbara for the May cover story.