When the script writers elect to kill off a popular television series character with a suicide instead of a car crash, you know that somebody needs to make an exit that’s fast -- and within budget.
That’s exactly what Kal Penn, a member of the ensemble cast that has helped make “House” such a hit for Fox, needed this week when he announced he is putting aside acting, at least for now, to become an associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. His job there, he said on a conference call with reporters, will focus on outreach to young people, arts professionals and the Asian American community. In fact, the 31-year-old Indian-American heartthrob is thought to be the first of a number of Hollywood figures who will be added to the office, as the administration moves to cement President Obama’s ties to the entertainment industry.
Hollywood played such a major role in Obama’s election that many in town have been wondering just how he planned to use the entertainment industry. It now seems clear that Obama intends to sell his programs to the country in a kind of permanent campaign, with town hall meetings and speeches on factory floors. And Hollywood talent will be playing a part.
So look for the appointment of a range of activists, like Penn, who can connect with people at the grass-roots level. By the end of this term, a lot of actors may be able to claim the role of community organizer on their IMDB profiles.
Penn, whose breakout role was as one of the stoner costars in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” was part of the large contingent of Hollywood stars and executives who went beyond fundraising for Obama and hit the campaign trail on his behalf during the run-up to the Democratic National Convention.
The actor said he was a “cynical independent” when he met then-candidate Obama at a 2007 fundraiser and decided to enlist in his cause, mainly as part of the campaign’s effort to turn out younger voters. The experience touched something deep in Penn’s consciousness (or, perhaps, karma, since his grandparents marched with Gandhi for India’s independence) and reminded him of the taste for issues he’d developed while studying international security at Stanford.
He first raised the idea of joining the new administration in a brief personal conversation with Obama during the inaugural festivities in Washington. A conversation with trusted presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett followed, then came the job offer.
At that point, the New Jersey-born Penn did what any good actor would do: He thought the new role over and talked the whole thing through with his manager, agent and accountant. “This is really what I want to do,” he told them, “but am I crazy?” Maybe not, but assuming he’s making something close to the $50,000 per episode that’s standard on shows like “House,” somebody’s percentage is going in the toilet when he begins collecting the circa-$70,000-a-year salary his new gig pays.
It also wasn’t easy to leave the role of Dr. Lawrence Kut- ner on the hit Fox series, Penn said. (For the record, the show’s producers say they’re “thrilled” that their actor will be working at the White House.) “I was having a great time” on the show, Penn said during the conference call. “The word I still use to describe it is bittersweet. It’s not like I’m retiring from acting; I certainly intend to come back at some point. Right now, I just felt like my calling was in public service.”
The move was immediately applauded by politically active members of the Hollywood community.
“Appointing Kal Penn is a wise and strategic move that should foster a strong and productive relationship between the White House and Hollywood,” said industry political advisor Chad Griffin. “Not only is it beneficial that the White House liaison to the creative community is a member of that community, Penn is very smart and well-versed on policy and politics.”
Griffin added: “He combines the advantages of having access and of being able to clearly and convincingly communicate the White House’s and the industry’s priorities.”
Penn won’t be accepting any acting jobs during his White House stint, which he expects to last for two years or so. Although he hasn’t lived in Washington before, he says that he’s “definitely looking forward” to being part of the inside-the-Beltway social swing, which is as intense as Hollywood’s -- though with worse food.
That leaves him with one more decision: what to do with his L.A. home? Prices of sublets in D.C. are falling, but surely that agent and manager told him nobody but the desperate sells in this market.
Who knows? By the time the White House casts the rest of its Hollywood ambassadors, Obama’s stimulus package really might have taken hold.