Kal Penn’s grandparents coaxed him to eat his peas as a child by telling him stories of the time they walked with Mahatma Gandhi for Indian independence.
“In our house, one of the values was public service. It was less about the partisanship and more about helping,” Penn told about 450 people at the Phillips Center of Performing Arts Wednesday night.
The talk, moderated by actor Malcolm Gets, was hosted by Accent Speakers Bureau. Penn, an actor, comedian and former White House employee, was paid $65,000 to speak, according to Alligator Archives.
The star of the Harold and Kumar comedy film series spoke about the challenges being a minority in Hollywood. He said one of his first roles was for a character named Taj Mahal from the film Van Wilder.
“I didn’t go to theater school to play a character named Taj Mahal,” Penn said.
He said his parents immigrated to the United States, and he grew up in New Jersey.
“They moved halfway around the world for a better life. I don’t think any immigrant moves to America to have their child smoke in a movie,” he said referring to his role in Harold and Kumar. “I don’t think that the American dre- actually that is the American dream, it’s just not why they come here.”
In 2007, Penn joined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. His work on the campaign got him a job in the White House Office of Public Engagement after Obama won. He was tasked with reaching out to college-aged citizens and getting them involved in government.
“It was getting behind collectively what people wanted to see done,” he said.
Penn was one of 17 members of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities who resigned in an open letter to President Donald Trump after Trump’s comments on the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, according to TIME Magazine.
“Siding with terrorists in Charlottesville was not something we saw coming and something we thought was un-American,” Penn said.
When Penn brought up the Richard Spencer speech that is scheduled for the same venue on Oct. 19, the audience booed.
“I think you have another special guest who is gracing this stage next week,” he said.
Although Penn wouldn’t tell audience members if he thought they should attend the speech or protests, he encouraged members to sign up to register voters with Chomp the Vote after his talk.
“I would love to read that you registered 10,000 black voters in the name of that guy,” he said referring to Spencer.
Candice Luc, a UF civil engineering senior, said she knows Kal Penn from his role in Harold and Kumar but not from his political career. Luc and her friend came to understand Penn’s activism role better.
“We know his characters, but we are going to get to learn more about him,” the 21-year-old said.
Diana Castiblanco, a UF economics senior, liked how Penn told the truth about trying out for roles with racist or offensive casting descriptions.
“I just liked how open and honest he was,” the 23-year-old.
Accent’s chairwoman Shelby Buchanan announced that the next Accent speaker would be Goosebumps author R.L. Stine on Oct. 24 in University Auditorium. Doors for the talk will open at 7 p.m. and the event will begin at 8 p.m. The tickets will be distributed a day before at the venue, she said.
Buchanan said Penn connected with Accent’s mission.
“Kal Penn has a very unique story. He’s definitely someone that appealed to a lot of students,” she said. “He was insightful and inspiring.”