Kal Penn has been kicking around in Hollywood for a long time — since many years before the 2004 movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle made him famous. As his new NBC sitcom Sunnyside, which he co-created and stars in, makes its debut (September 26th at 9:30 p.m.), we caught up with the actor to learn more about his road to success.
He reveals what it was like telling his parents, immigrants from India, that he wanted to be an actor (noting sympathetically that it was “very scary” for them to hear “that the whole reason that you came to America might be out the window, because something other than financial stability might make [your kid] happy”), and reminisces about his countless hours spent working as an extra on movie sets while attending UCLA. On one film, though he was in a sea of nearly 5,000 extras, he got to meet Robin Williams as the comedian improved “a bit about circumcision” for the crowd during downtime. (Penn calls the legendary actor “as cool and awesome and gracious as I expected.”) On another, Wes Craven’s Wishmaster, he was plucked by the director to puke blood — what turned out to be his first “half-second” appearance on the big screen, one he witnessed with satisfaction in an otherwise empty theater.
Penn also reflects on his favorite TV shows as a young man — The Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, Seinfeld — and how their sensibility informs Sunnyside, which follows a disgraced New York City politician (Penn) who tries to rehab his image by helping a group of immigrants through their efforts to gain citizenship. And, he reveals a few more guilty pleasures from his youth. Penn’s first concert: a joint show featuring Young MC, Seduction, and… Milli Vanilli. “I had a great time,” the actor says in defense of his 12-year-old self. “I had no idea they weren’t singing.”