A few days ago, Kal Penn posted a series of 14 tweets that chronicled a few of the scripts offered to him early on in his career. It wasn't a sweet throwback moment, Penn pointed to these scripts to shine a light on the racism and discrimination that he faced as a person of color trying to make it in Hollywood. In a new interview with Vanity Fair, Penn goes deeper into his motivations to relive (and share) those early days, and to show just how far the industry is from real inclusivity.
"I was cleaning out scripts and I saved some of the ones that I thought, Wow, this is crazy. Maybe in like 50 years when things change, I can do something fun with this," Penn said of what prompted him to post the scripts to Twitter. "I don’t remember why I decided to [post them now]. I thought it could be fun, because we have come a very long way — but we still have a long way to go."
Penn explains that the stereotypical roles offered to him — and the expectations that he'd play them in stereotypical, sometimes racist, ways — were totally normal. He adds that he received tweets explaining that not much has changed for people of color, non-average sized actors, and those with disabilities. They still face discrimination and stereotyping, even though Hollywood is patting itself on the back for making strides.
"People generally think of Hollywood as forward-thinking or liberal, and it’s not. People who work there definitely consider themselves to be liberal or whatever, but a lot of the things we sometimes unfairly assign to people who don’t share our political beliefs are things that we need to look in the mirror for as well," Penn explains. "Obviously, it has gotten better, right? I think that’s a given. But in some ways also, I think for a lot of people the glass ceiling has just moved."
And though it has gotten better, Penn said that he's faced auditions where casting agents asked him to put a towel on his head or exaggerate an accent. He explained that for his role on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, the producers asked him to use an "authentic" Indian accent. He's not proud of it, but he says that it was what he had to do, especially since he knew his family watched Sabrina and he wanted to be on a show his little cousins loved.
Penn also added that during the audition for his latest role on Designated Survivor, the process was totally different. Although the role called for a Mormon doctor, men and women of all ages and ethnicities were reading for the part. Penn explains that everyone thought they were in the wrong place, because the experience had never been like that before. He's hoping that it becomes the norm, not an exception to the rule.