Penn's known for his role as Kumar in the Harold & Kumar trilogy of stoner movies.
In the book's "Living the Dream" chapter, Penn writes glowingly about 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, which he calls "the funniest screenplay I had ever read.
"The characters were smart and hilarious, and the humor was grounded in friendship the title characters shared. The scenes were so absurd in all the right ways with the two leads getting super stoned and somehow hang-gliding and riding a cheetah on their quest for ham burgers.
"And of course the biggest surprise of all: Kumar and Harold happen to be Asian-American - without goofy accents, karate moves, turbans or any other easy stereotypes... This was the first time I had ever seen non-stereotypical Asian guys in lead roles, in any film script. Harold even gets the girl!"
A page later, Penn continues: "Opportunities like this hadn't just been few and far between for Asian-American actors, they were non-existent. This was the first."
Kal Penn: "I handled what should have been a series of apologies completely the wrong way because I still didn't fundamentally understand what the Stop-and-Frisk policy that I had tweeted in support of actually was."
Indeed it was and led to two sequels featurng Penn and John Cho (as Harold), Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay in 2008 and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas in 2011.
Penn (nee Kalpen Modi) moves quickly on to other movies like The Namesake and TV shows like House. He never discusses cannabis in any shape or form. A good part of the book is devoted to his year working in the Obama White House from 2009-2010.
In the "#SEXYFACE" chapter, Penn offers an interesting mea culpa about his initial support for the stop and frisk policy that led to hundreds of thousands of arrests (many for marijuana) in New York during the Bloomberg era. In 2013, he retweeted an op-ed by then Mayor Bloomberg that "at first appeared reasonable to me in outlining the merits of what he described as an anti-crime initiative that allowed cops to target violent suspects, called Stop-and-Frisk."
Penn goes on: "I retweeted the article along with misguided follow-up rants. I even grew arrogant and defensive when people tried to point out I was horribly, unquestionably wrong. I dug a deeper and deeper hole of idiocy until my phone rang off the hook. Advocates in Washington, DC, who I'd worked with, were confused and furious... That wake-up call came too late. I handled what should have been a series of apologies completely the wrong way because I still didn't fundamentally understand what the Stop-and-Frisk policy that I had tweeted in support of actually was. By the time I did learn... I hurt a lot of people. In the process, I'd given voice to right-wing zealots who scoured the internet for unlikely allies. To this day, I remain deeply sorry.
"The whole thing was inexcusable. A hurtful experience for many people, and though the phrase makes me cringe, a teachable moment in the end."
The tweet in question read: "great op-ed on the merits of ‘stop-question-frisk.' Sad to see such activist judges ruling against public safety.”
Penn replied to critics: “And who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”
Bloomberg's article defended the policy despite it being declared unconstitutional by a state court. Bloomberg appealed the ruling. When he was replaced by Bill deBlasio as Mayor, the appeal was dropped.
Some Personal Notes
I met Kal Penn on several occasions when I worked at High Times. The first time was in 2004 for a Harold & Kumar photo shoot, but only with him. I've previously written about this at CelebStoner:
"One of my favorite photo shoots was with Kal Penn for the first Harold & Kumar flick. Since the movie was about having the munchies and going to White Castle, I went to my neighborhood White Castle in Brooklyn the morning of the shoot. I told them I wanted the cups, wrappers, plastic silverware - just no food. I paid for everything and swiped a blue tray, then headed to the office. Art director Frank Max, working with a bagful of choice buds, did a great job making green burgers and sativa fries, and displayed them on the tray (see photo above). When Penn saw what we had in mind, he jumped at it. Funny thing was, Penn (at least at the time) didn't eat meat or smoke pot. But it was fun shoot nevertheless."
In 2005, Penn attended the High Times Stony Awards, where he picked up bong trophies for Best Stoner Movie and Best Pot Scene (for "Weedie"). He hit me up for several joints, though I can't be sure he smoked them.
At a junket for The Namesake, a dramatic film directed by Mina Nair starring Penn in 2006, I asked Penn about Harold & Kumar and playing a movie stoner. The interview appeared in my 2007 book Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language & Life (written with Shirley Halperin). "Harold and Kumar are stoners and they're also really smart guys," he explained, "which is refreshing for the audience whether you smoke pot or not."
However, we neglected to receive approval to use the interview in the book and Penn asked for it to be removed from future printings. So it only appears in the first edition. Pot Culture had 10 printings. Seth Rogen replaced Penn on page 126 in future printings.
I have not seen Penn since 2006. I'd still like to find out why he did that. It was just so uncool, like his bonehead support of stop-and-frisk.