This week, actor Kal Penn left Washington D.C. after serving two years as White House associate director in the Office of Public Engagement. In D.C., he used his real name, Kalpen Modi, and worked in the Barack Obama administration after persuading the producers of House to kill off his character so he could pursue a path that was not without risk. Penn is half of the Harold and Kumar stoner duo that is a contemporary answer to Cheech and Chong, but in real life he’s a bright guy who’s working on a graduate certificate in international security at Stanford and who once served as a visiting lecturer in Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn will now try to reclaim his career with A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas coming this fall, a stint on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother and a permanent place (he hopes) as the star of a sitcom vehicle he’ll create for NBC with Dan Spilo. He spoke to Deadline about his detour and why interrupting his momentum for two years was worth it.
DEADLINE: Putting your career on hold to work in the White House has to bring a fear you might be forgotten. What does it mean to you to return with a stint on How I Met Your Mother and this NBC deal for your own show for next fall?
PENN: I was completely floored by the opportunity to develop and produce a half hour comedy for NBC. When I was starting out, what I always wanted was to be able to become a producer and take a risk, find a setting and a spin on it that’s funny, and hope it catches on. The shows I’ve most loved in the last couple of years were the NBC shows 30 Rock and The Office. Whether it’s astronauts going to the moon or something else, I hope we can find an underlying theme and make it hilarious. With 30 Rock and The Office, the humor comes from the characters and the writing and I’m excited to do something creative like that. How I Met Your Mother will be about five episodes and it will be fun to work again with Neil Patrick Harris after three Harold and Kumar films.
DEADLINE: It’s unusual to see a young actor drop his career for public service. How hard did your reps and peers try to talk your out of it?
PENN: The role of a good agent and manager is to dissuade you from doing something like this. And there was that attempt to dissuade me, which I respected. But remember, I’d worked on the president’s election campaign and made relationships with people who’d done the exact same thing, from all different walks of life. People who had kids and spouses at home in Chicago or San Francisco. I thought of myself as a young guy moving to DC, and it felt worth trying to be part of such a pivotal moment in history. It helped to have people around like Eli Attie, a writer on House who’d been one of Vice President Gore’s speech writers. When I asked him what he thought, the inevitable questions came up. Are you done with acting? Have you lost your passion for it? The answer very clearly to me was, no. To me, this wasn’t different from when I put things on hold to teach a semester of college. Eli was very supportive. The real pivotal point came when I talked to David Shore, who created House. I told him this opportunity presented itself and I felt like I couldn’t say no and how much it would mean for me to serve in the White House. I said, I know I’ve got a contract with the show and I love playing this character, but… He told me, “I was at a law firm, and everybody told me I was crazy when I wanted to move from Toronto to LA with a script, and try my hand at creating a show. I had to do it even though they thought I was crazy, so who am I to tell you what you’re doing is a little bit crazy? You have my blessing.” And let’s face it, people don’t go into acting for the career stability. You do it because you’re passionate. I found the same true about public service.
DEADLINE: What put this move into your head?
PENN: The impetus was 2007, when I started volunteering for the president’s campaign and working on his arts policy committee. The arts policy side was something I was studying in grad school, I was doing a graduate certificate program in national security. What interested me most was cultural diplomacy. In volunteering, I would hear the same stories I’d heard from my friends in New Jersey, some of whom went on to serve in the military. I’ve tried to do a USO tour once a year and you meet these kids who serve overseas. Some of them couldn’t afford college and others got kicked off their health insurance plans. My situation was similar to a lot of volunteers. When he got elected, you just wanted to stay with it. Every other White House staffer in that building took a leave of absence from the private sector. Some were law partners, doctors, academics, professors, people who ran their own companies. They all put their careers on hold for between six months and four years, to serve the president. I can understand why this would seem unusual because I came from the arts world, but what I did was not unique at all. When you are there, you see the sacrifices made by people who give up everything to serve, to be part of a very unique place in American history.
DEADLINE: TV is instant gratification, what you shoot today airs within weeks. Politics moves at a snail’s pace and everything’s a struggle for compromise, as evidenced by partisan negotiations to raise the debt ceiling that went right to the wire. What most surprised you about the reality of politics?
PENN: How much I grew to appreciate the fact that things don’t change by pushing a button or flipping a switch. I served as a liaison speaking to young Americans, and you see that everything’s this laborious back and forth. I found beauty in that, a reminder that it’s the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy, and why the founding fathers designed the system to have all this pushing and pulling. There was another surprise. We went around the country and I would hear from young Americans the things they cared about most. It was so different from what you see on the TV news shows. What they cared about was, access to education, their friends coming home from Iraq, jobs and the economy. Whether it’s Fox, CNBC or CNN, that’s not what they cover. It’s who’s up by 10 points, which senator was yelling at the other senator, all this nonsense that was completely disconnected from what Americans and young Americans in particular wanted solutions on. That was jarring.
DEADLINE: Why the disparity?
PENN: From working in the media, I get it. You’re putting together a half hour TV show, whether it’s a sitcom or a news segment, to set up the Ford commercial or the Coors commercial during the advertising blocks. But selling that advertising space doesn’t mean you’re telling the stories that young Americans care about. There was this whole separate narrative on TV that surprised me.
DEADLINE: What accomplishments were most gratifying to be part of?
PENN: Health care reform was the biggest thing for young people who can now stay on their parents’ plan until they are 26. The reforms also got rid of what they call preexisting conditions. All this helped a lot of artists as well. There was also the increase in the Pell Grant that provides funding for lower income folks go to college, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives a $2500 tax break for anyone who pursues a higher education. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and bringing our people home from Iraq and Afghanistan. These were all reasons I got involved in the president’s campaign to begin with, when I saw friends from home who couldn’t access college going to serve over in Iraq. These things were inspiring, especially when you would hear from the people impacted by it.
DEADLINE: Did you grow up in a politically conscious household that pushed you toward this path?
PENN: It was more socially conscious than political. We didn’t grow up in a partisan household, but there was always this notion of service. At the dinner table, my grandparents would tell stories about what it was like when they were younger, and how they marched with Gandhi in India. I didn’t realize the significance until I was in high school when I thought, wait a wait a second, this was a huge deal. My grandparents marched with this guy whose nonviolent disobedience example became the framework for our own civil rights movement? I started asking more and more questions and realize now that what my grandparents taught us, inadvertently, was that there is an opportunity to serve and give back that can exist outside of the partisan political process. Politically, I am an Independent, and I never registered as a democrat or republican. The point was, you can actually make a difference.
DEADLINE: There is apathy among many young people who feel you can’t.
PENN: The nature of a democracy is that we never get 100% of what we want. If we are only talking with people who agree with us, then the political process is always going to seem disappointing. It’s like how you can look at energy and the environment. The president has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, clean technology and green jobs, especially green jobs for young people. You could look at it overall and say well, we only got 70% of what we wanted. Some would say we didn’t get what we wanted, but I have learned an appreciation for getting 70% in an environment that is a constant push and pull. But that push and pull prevents knee jerk goals. In 2008, there was this poll done with young progressives who skewed way to the left. Their top five issues were: jobs and the economy, access to education, poverty, climate change, and Darfur. There was another poll with young Christian conservatives, and their top five issues were exactly the same. Then you turn on any of the major news networks, and it’s a bunch of folks yelling at each other about things that don’t represent the shared experience and what young Americans really want the most. It’s easy to lose track of the positive accomplishments, unless we really talk to each other.
DEADLINE: How does a serious detour influence your return to comic acting?
PENN: Right now, I’m just excited and feeling lucky to be able to jump back in and develop that show with NBC. When I left, I didn’t think that was going to be a possibility. Experience always influences the work of artists and actors, but more than anything I feel an appreciation to be able to go back to this work. My interest in the last two years was cultural diplomacy and I’d love to stay involved in that, too.
DEADLINE: You can always steer your political ambitions to running for office in the Screen Actors Guild…
PENN: [Laughs] No, no thanks. The development process is protracted so the show is hopefully for next fall. I’ve got a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother, and Harold and Kumar 3 comes out in November. I’m very eager to dive in and work and I still have a semester left on that graduate program that I need to finish. And I want to help as much as I can in the president’s reelection as well. I was able to have that balance in 2007 to have that balance, when I lived in Iowa for months during the writer’s strike and when that ended, the folks at House let me work a schedule that allowed me to work a few days a week on the campaign and then come back and shoot. I don’t know what the schedule will be 12 months from now, but I hope this partnership with NBC leaves a role for both of those.
DEADLINE: It’s never fair, but we tend to categorize actors based on how we see them onscreen. You’re a very serious young man for an actor best known as the pot-smoking Kumar.
PENN: Well, hopefully I am not boring. I remember when that movie first came out. I went to a bank in the San Fernando Valley, and the woman behind the counter, who must have been 65 years old, reaches across and whispers to me, “I love your Harold and Kumar movie.” People always surprise you and that’s what I like about this business. You just never know what you’ll do that people will enjoy and relate it to something in their own lives.