Kal Penn spends his days at the fictional White House on ABC’s “Designated Survivor.” But the actor took to Twitter on Tuesday to remember the days when his acting career’s survival meant auditioning for a number of offensive roles.
“Found a bunch of old scripts from some of my first years trying to be an actor,” Penn wrote before sharing pieces of scripts in a series of tweets. “They were awful. ‘Can you make his accent a little more AUTHENTIC?’ That usually meant they wanted Apu.”
The character Penn referenced was named “Careem,” who was described as having a “slight Hindi accent.”
Apu is an Indian animated character on “The Simpsons.”
Another script described a character named “Parmesh,” who is a “quirky, Indian lab buddy” whose “language is peppered with Indian cultural references.” It was for a pilot called “The Stones,” according to Penn.
“Tried to convince them to let me speak without an accent & make it funny on the merits (was told no),” he wrote.
Penn also shared a peek at a script from a commercial where he played a “Pakistani computer geek” and another project where the character, named Rajid, talked about “elephant dung.”
He also highlighted problematic characters he auditioned for on shows like “Smart Guy” and “King of Queens.”
Penn was offered and accepted the role of Prajeeb on “Sabrina.”
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch! Man. We got INTO it about why he had to have an accent,” he wrote. “I’m laughing about it now but they were such d—s.”
All of those series noted by Penn ran in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
More recent years have seen Hollywood – in particular television – showcase actors of Indian descent in roles that broke aged and harmful stereotypes.
Last year, Aziz Ansari became the first South Asian actor to be nominated in the lead actor category at the Emmys for his work in Netflix’s “Master of None.”
Penn doled out praise for series like “The Steve Harvey Show,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “24,” and other “really smart, creative people who didn’t have to use external things to mask subpar writing.”
He also praised “House” creator David Shore, saying his “largely color & gender blind” storytelling led to a “more interesting” show and good ratings.
Penn played Dr. Lawrence Kutner on “House” from 2007-09.
Willing to call out racist behavior – be it in Hollywood or online – Penn recently raised more than $500,000 for Syrian refugees after he received a hateful message on Instagram saying he didn’t “belong” in America.