Actor Kal Penn on Obama, Asian Voters

Kal Penn, center (Obama for America)
Kal Penn, center (Obama for America)

(The Root) — Actor-activist Kal Penn fits the dual description better than most. The 35-year-old star of films, including the Harold & Kumar comedies and the acclaimed drama The Namesake, left a recurring role on TV's House for the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he worked on the Obama administration's youth outreach. Penn, an Indian American born in New Jersey, was also a liaison with the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. Penn's White House duties lasted from 2009 through 2011, with a break in 2010 to film A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.


Now Penn is back on the campaign trail he traveled in the last presidential contest, recently stopping in North Carolina to talk with the young voters President Obama counted on in 2008 in order to narrowly win the battleground state, and whose votes he needs for a 2012 repeat.

Though Penn still juggles acting and politics and will be working on a TV pilot called the Ex-Men for CBS ("It's not a superhero project; it's about four guys who get dumped by their girlfriends"), his current focus, as a co-chair of Obama's re-election campaign, is winning a second term for the president. The Root caught up with him earlier this month at an Obama for America office in Charlotte, where he will return next month for the Democratic National Convention.

The Root: How do you generate the enthusiasm of 2008 among young voters?

Kal Penn: We're making sure they're properly registered, making sure they have resources like knowing about the GottaVote website, knowing what events we have coming up if they want to get more involved … If last night was any indication, we had a field office open in Raleigh, and it was standing room only, no room in the parking lot, and it was mostly young people.

They understand the importance of all the successes we've had under the president. A lot of times, [those successes have] been underreported, too, so they're really learning about it through word of mouth, through Twitter, through social media.

TR: What are young voters concerned about, and what is your message to them?

KP: The top things that we're hearing are, obviously, jobs and the economy, and the recovery has been important to them. But their friends are now home from Iraq; the marriage-equality piece was hugely important to young people on both sides of the aisle; 3.1 million of them now have access to health care … And then the driver behind all that is education; they don't want to move backward. The president was able to double the Pell Grant, create the American Opportunity Tax Credit [a credit for post-secondary-education expenses]. Young people seem to be very keenly aware of the stakes.


TR: Republicans are courting the South Asian vote, with conservative GOP governors of South Asian descent — Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — acting as visible and prominent Mitt Romney surrogates. What is President Obama's message to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities?

KP: The president's record speaks for itself. The Asian-American, Pacific Islander community is widely diverse — 60-plus subgroups and languages of origin. You've got economic diversity: Indian Americans who came in the post-'65 immigration wave … might be very well off, some of our highest-earning groups. Juxtapose that with Hmong Americans or Cambodian Americans, who have been struggling. They've come as refugees in the '80s, and it's very different.


One of the things the president did was set up the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which has a community as well as a federal-agency component so that it could bridge the gap between all the services that were falling through the cracks for these communities.

About a third of the fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are Vietnamese American, so after the BP oil spill, they were being handed documents by BP in English that they couldn't understand, and essentially being told that they had to "sign this." We were able to deploy folks to go down there to help translate, to mediate some of these conflicts in some underserved communities. Their livelihood might have been destroyed, not just by the spill but by these corporate interests.


TR: And your parents are … ?

KP: … Obama supporters. That makes dinnertime conversation a lot easier.

TR: You've gone back and forth between acting and public service. Why did you choose that path?


KP: [When I joined] the campaign in 2007… I was supposed to be in Iowa for about three days on a volunteer-surrogate swing and ended up staying for three months. I had friends in Iraq; I had friends who were discharged because of "Don't ask, don't tell"; I had a buddy in college who had to decide whether he was going to get eyeglasses to see the board or buy textbooks that semester. He didn't have health care and he didn't have enough financial aid, so he had to choose between the two.

In the White House you have hundreds of people who have taken a leave from their private-sector careers. They were doctors or professors or law partners or whatever it was, and they're all working there for next to nothing for one or two or four or hopefully eight years. It was really inspiring to be around those folks. I know that there is some undue attention because I am an actor, but that's not an uncommon story at all.


TR: While working in the White House, you used your given name, "Kalpen Suresh Modi," but you use "Kal Penn" as a stage name. Why?

KP: When I started acting, talking to agents and folks, I [heard that] something like just over 50 percent of actors have stage names or screen names, so I adopted one and it seemed to work out. When I worked at the White House, because of all the background and security checks, you've got to go by your birth name, the name on your passport. All my friends have always called me Kal since I was little.


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog, The Root, Fox News Charlotte and Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.

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Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.