Actor Kal Penn has played a doctor on “House,” a therapist on “How I Met Your Mother” and a stoner craving tiny burgers on “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” But based on roles offered to him early in his career, you’d think the only character in Penn’s acting range is Stereotypical Indian Guy.
The characters available to Penn were painstakingly stereotypical, including a “Gandhi lookalike,” a “quirky, Indian lab buddy” whose “language is peppered with Indian cultural references” and “Careem” with “a slight Hindi accent.”
“Found a bunch of old scripts from some of my first years trying to be an actor,” Penn wrote in a series of tweets.
“They were awful,” he added. “’Can you make this accent a little more AUTHENTIC?’ That usually meant they wanted Apu.”
Penn said he fought back against some of the typecasting, but he was apparently never successful.
When he auditioned for a TV pilot for the role of Parmesh, a “quirky Indian” in his early 20s, Penn tried to persuade casting to let him try the character without an accent. (His request apparently was denied.)
Penn even tried to reason with a very popular ABC show: “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.”
“We got INTO it about why he had to have an accent,” Penn said of the popular mid-1990s sitcom. “I’m laughing about it now but they were such dicks.”
He also admitted that the stereotyping ruined for him one of his favorite shows, CBS’ “The King of Queens.”
“There are too many in this stack to tweet,” Penn admitted after sharing 10 scripts.
Penn may have just been a budding actor when he was offered those cartoonish roles (new actors typically don’t have the privilege of cherry-picking their auditions), but his experience being typecast as an Indian-American actor sheds light on how Hollywood treats diversity.
As revealed by Penn’s scripts, Indian actors are usually placed in roles that perpetuate, usually negative, stereotypes about Indian people. (See: the sweaty “Pakistani computer geek” and Abdul with an accent and too much cologne.)
Aziz Ansari, comedian and creator of Netflix’s “Master of None,” explained in a New York Times essay that, despite all his success, he’s still offered roles that are “often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.”
“Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy,” Ansari wrote. “But a straight white guy is not every man. The ‘everyman’ is everybody.”
“There were also some wonderful 1st audition & work experiences!” Penn wrote.
He named shows that offered him roles with more depth, including a Steve Harvey show (though he doesn’t specify which one), “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “24.”
And what happens when shows cast diverse characters outside of stereotypes? According to the ratings for Penn’s episodes of “House,” more viewers.