There’s a thin line between comic characters and racial caricatures—and actors of color know that all too well.
In a tweetstorm on Tuesday, the American-born actor Kal Penn unearthed a pile of audition scripts from his early career, likely before his breakthrough role in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. They include casting calls for ”Gandhi Lookalike, Snake Charmers, and Fire Eaters.”
The 39-year-old actor, who took a hiatus from show business to work for US president Barack Obama’s administration, is not the first Indian-American actor to chafe at the expectation that he put on an “Indian” accent like that of the convenience store-owner Apu from The Simpsons or Raj from Big Bang Theory.
In a much-talked-about episode of his show Master of None, comedian Aziz Ansari’s character does not get a callback for the role of an “Unnamed Cab Driver” after refusing to fake an Indian accent—a stance the actor and writer has taken in real life. Quantico’s Priyanka Chopra and actor-writer-producer Mindy Kaling have also made a point of playing original characters who aren’t defined first and foremost by their ethnicity.
In his tweetstorm, Penn is at his candid best, at times even revealing the show the script was for—King of Queens in one case, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch in another. He also called out MTV.
In one instance, Penn remarked that the writers didn’t even bother giving the “Foreign Student” character a name. Upon second inspection, however, Penn sarcastically added, “Oh wait yes they did” and showed a piece of dialogue in which the character says his name, “Ravi Tulu Singh Shankar Ramanji…” Another character cuts in, for comic effect, to say, ”I’ll just go with Ravi.”
Penn’s auditions appear to be for bit roles, but other actors have complained that even meatier roles come with the baggage of stereotypes. “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative,” the actor Riz Ahmed wrote in his powerful essay, ”Typecast as a terrorist,” excerpted from the book The Good Immigrant and published in the Guardian.
Penn suggests he could have gone on longer on the topic, but he ended his tweetstorm with words of praise for several shows which he said did a better job: “Steve Harvey, Buffy, Angel, 24.”