Talk to any Asian or Middle Eastern actor and chances are that they’ve been asked to audition for a role that was some kind of awful stereotype of their culture. Whether it’s egregious accents, hyperbolic costumes and traits, or personalities so ill-judged that the character serves as a walking slur, many actors find themselves with no choice but to take on these roles in order to have a livelihood.
In more recent years, actors have felt more empowered to openly discuss the horrible roles they’ve been sent to audition for, and today, Kal Penn is going all in. The actor, who is currently on Designated Survivor, has been posting photos of old scripts for auditions he has done and roles he has taken, giving us a very stark glimpse into exactly how Hollywood has portrayed people of Asian descent.
I remember the first time I saw Kal Penn. He was in a 2001 movie called American Desi, about an Indian American college student who tries to distance himself from his heritage only to wind up living with a bunch of Indian dudes. (Penn’s character was Ajay, an American Indian kid obsessed with black culture, probably a conversation for another time). It was one of the few times I had seen South Asian characters treated normally and not completely mined for jokes in an American context—a rare gem. Judging by all of these crappy, accent-laden roles, it was clearly a rare gem for Kal Penn back then too.