It was in the fall of 2017, while studying acting and theater at Temple University, that Kalen Allen first uploaded videos of himself reacting to videos of other people cooking recipes — only these recipes were strange.
As Allen, now 24, reacted to ketchup cake and apple Twix salad being prepared, his video views grew into the millions, catching the attention of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Two months later, Allen was invited to make an appearance on the show and accepted a deal to use her platform for his recipe-reaction video series, “Kalen Reacts,” which has racked up over 56 million views so far.
Since then, he’s become a regular guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, hosting on- and off-site segments. Last year, the Kansas City, Kan., native walked in a New York Fashion Week show for designer Christian Cowan. In 2018, he covered the MTV Video Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards.
Now Allen is making his film debut in An American Pickle, starring Seth Rogen. The movie, which premieres Aug. 6 on HBO Max, is a comedy that follows an immigrant pickle factory worker from the 1920s who’s accidentally preserved for 100 years and wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn.
The Inquirer talked to Allen about working on An American Pickle, rubbing elbows with celebrities, and how he’s spending his time quarantined from the coronavirus.
This week, multiple news outlets reported that The Ellen DeGeneres Show has become the subject of an internal investigation by WarnerMedia following numerous accounts of workplace problems, for which she apologized in a letter to staff on Thursday. When asked about reports alleging racism and intimidation on the show, Allen was not allowed to answer as instructed by his representative.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about the character you play in this movie.
I play the role of Kevin, who helps get the pickle business started. Kevin is in a relationship with Christian, and Christian is kind of like a YouTube blogger. One day we’re walking down the street and we see this man selling pickles on the corner. We stop and see what the pickles are about, and from there we come up with the idea to help him build this pickle business. We go through a lot of ups and downs ... It is very interesting and very fun.
How did the opportunity come about?
In my first year [in Los Angeles], once I started working for Ellen. I ended up getting agents. I studied acting in college, so it was important for me to continue to hone that craft. So I went on an audition, and I knew it was a Seth Rogen film. I went in, and I was so nervous for the audition. I did it and the very next morning my agent called me, and she was like, “They gave you the role.” I was shocked. I thought maybe I would get like a callback or something. I literally had just did it 12 hours ago. Then we started filming around Halloween time [in 2018].
How is working in film different from television and theater?
Oh, it’s very, very, very, very, very different. When you’re on the stage you get one time. You get one shot to get it right. But when you’re on film, you get many times to get it right. It was weird for me because I came in off-book, I only needed one take. I was ready.
The other big difference is that you don’t have an audience. When you’re doing a stage performance, it’s about the energy that is taking place on stage but also the energy that’s given out from the audience. But in this situation, it’s just you and the camera.
Working on the Ellen show really gave you a lot of exposure very quickly. Did that feel jolting?
Very much so. It was only a matter of a couple of months. I made my first video in November, and then the Ellen episode aired in January. I really had to do a lot of soul searching very quickly. I had to figure out what I stood for. I had to make sure I knew where I wanted to go, so I had to do a lot of growing very quickly so that I would be able to move to Hollywood and be able to sustain myself and sustain a career but also stay humble and grounded in who I was.
What are some of the things that you stand for?
I definitely stand for representation and visibility [for marginalized communities]. Everything I do is for that purpose. I stand for what is right, not what is convenient. And I also stand up for change. A lot of times, we look at change as a bad thing, but I think change is inevitable. It is just so important for us to always continue to grow and become better versions of ourselves.
Who’s been your most memorable celebrity encounter?
There’s two. I would have to say my best celebrity greeting would be Michelle Obama. But my favorite celebrity that I’ve worked with would be Mariah Carey. I’ve always been a lamb, I’ve always loved Mariah Carey. I remember being in Philly and she had a show with Lionel Richie. Tickets were on Groupon, and I remember going down to Wells Fargo Center to get the tickets.
I really connect with her music and her story. And I just think she’s an icon as a songwriter, as an artist. I put her on the same level as Whitney Houston, and to be able to just be in the room with her and to see how collaborative she was … There were times when we were filming stuff, and they would be like, “Does that work with you, Mariah?” And she would be like, “Does that work with you, Kalen?”
How are you spending your time quarantined?
It’s interesting. I think this quarantine time has been a time of self-reflection. It’s been a time of growth. Especially with the #BlackLivesMatter movement happening at the same time, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the content that I make and figuring out what makes me happy and figuring out how to be better with my platform. Figuring out how to influence more people and to uplift marginalized communities. I’m excited to see how my content shifts and elevates.
Are you still cooking? What’s been your go-to dish lately?
Well, everybody knows I make a mean peach cobbler, that’s my signature. Recently I’ve been making chicken and dumplings, and Chrissy Teigen, now she makes my recipe. There are many different things that I’ve started to learn how to cook since I’ve been home.
I collaborated with Tabitha Brown, [a vegan social media influencer and actress], because I don’t eat vegetables. So I’ve been making Brussels sprouts and carrots and green beans. I’m like, “Who am I? Who have I become?”
Are you ready to get out of the house?
I am, but I’m OK with it as long as we are trying to keep everybody safe and healthy. I will stay in the house as long as I need to.