Kal Penn: From 'White Castle' to White House and back

When Kal Penn worked in the White House, he sometimes briefed President Obama before meetings.

Yeah, the guy who plays the marijuana-craving Kumar in silly road movies was giving the commander in chief the scoop on matters of public policy. If need be, he could also have told the president how to deal with problematic raccoons and stoned cheetahs — among the bizarre plot points of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle."

"When you're working there, you always think, 'What is the best time to tell the president that you played a stoner who escaped from Guantanamo Bay?'" Penn said with a smile over a late lunch in Studio City this month, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap pulled down brim-forward on his head. "Is it before his national security meeting? Is it after the education meeting?"

The 34-year-old UCLA grad is back plying his craft in Los Angeles after a two-year sojourn as a mid-level staffer in the White House, complete with a security clearance and a $41,000-a-year salary. On the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," Penn has a guest role this fall as a shrink who falls for Robin (Cobie Smulders). He's developing a workplace comedy set at the United Nations for NBC, where he has a deal. And next month comes the release of the third installment of the movie series that gave him his claim to fame: "A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas," which Penn filmed last year during a hurried sabbatical from his White House duties.

"I think there's always a risk that goes with taking time off," Penn said. But "no actor in their right mind moves to either L.A. or New York … because you think you're going to have job or financial security. That's just stupid. This amazing opportunity came along, and what are you going to say — 'No'?"

Maybe so, but it's still striking when a rising young actor goes to Washington to scratch a public-service itch, toils quietly in the bowels of the Eisenhower building and then reemerges a couple of years later with no apparent damage to his performing career. This is not something today's image-obsessed young thespians tend to do, whatever lip service they might pay to campaigns against allegedly harmful vaccines, school bullying or restaurants that make you wait too long for a table.

Penn's is an intriguing tale, one involving not weed-smoking cheetahs but rather labor unrest, a fictional suicide and one dissatisfied talent manager.

Carter Bays, the show runner on "How I Met Your Mother," said he'd always wanted to work with Penn after seeing the "Harold & Kumar" movies (which also feature "Mother" star Neil Patrick Harris). Penn played Kumar Patel, the lazy, wisecracking Indian American college grad resisting his father's attempts to pack him off to medical school. "But Kal was always unavailable for various reasons, whether it was starring on 'House' or working at the White House," Bays said. "This was just this great, serendipitous moment" for the guest spot this fall.

Penn comes by his political conscience honestly; family lore holds that his grandparents marched with Gandhi during the road to Indian independence in the 1940s. His parents emigrated to the U.S., and Penn — his birth name is Kalpen Modi — grew up in suburban New Jersey. At UCLA he mixed sociology with a film and theater major. In his spare time — have we made the point that his serious-mindedness is a rarity in Hollywood? — he has been pursuing a grad certificate in international security from Stanford.

He's also a self-described independent with a professed distaste for the extremism that dominates much of the political debate these days. So Penn was receptive to the speech at the Democratic convention that vaulted Obama onto the national stage in 2004 — ironically, the same year the first "Harold & Kumar" movie came out. The rising politico from Chicago, Penn believed, was changing the status quo.

"The thing that drew me to his campaign was that he wasn't taking lobbyist money; he actually opposed the Iraq war early on; he had a plan for a lot of things that a lot of other folks just seemed resigned to doing," he said. Needless to say, Penn in person is a lot more serious-minded than the movie character who made him famous.

His pro-Obama sentiments might have remained admiration from afar had it not been for the fall 2007 writer's strike, which paralyzed much of Hollywood. Penn — who'd just gotten a plum job on the cast of Fox's hit medical drama "House" — figured he wasn't working anyway, so he packed off to Des Moines to help the Obama camp get ready for the Iowa caucus in January. At the time, Obama looked like a long shot, at best, behind Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Penn's arrival at campaign headquarters made a bit of a stir. Not just a celebrity was in their midst, but one who'd made his name off something more glamorous than, say, a piece of innovative tax legislation.

"Everybody knew 'Harold & Kumar' — absolutely!" said Paul Tewes, with a chuckle. Tewes was Penn's boss in Iowa and now runs a Washington consulting firm.

But the actor quickly won co-workers' respect. "There was a selflessness about it," Tewes said. "He was there for the right reasons. He believed in the candidate, he believed in the cause. He was approachable, he didn't put on any airs. And he loved to work hard.… We'd take him to five, six college campuses a day, and he'd never complain.… You could have asked him to do anything — go lick some stamps, he would've done that."

Unfortunately, this career turn was driving someone back in Los Angeles nuts. His manager, Dan Spilo, would call Penn and remind him that he could still work in films that were written before the strike. "What are you doing?" Spilo would ask, referring to the Obama work, according to Penn. "The guy is down 30 points in the polls. It's not cute anymore!" (In an email, Spilo said he merely asked Penn to make sure he really wanted to take a complete hiatus from acting and added that he later met Obama himself and "was completely sold.")

Once the strike was over, Penn did return to his job on "House," playing enthusiastic young doctor Lawrence Kutner. But not for long. He still traveled all over the country to help the campaign on weekends or at other times when he wasn't shooting. And after Obama's victory in November 2008, Penn asked Spilo and his agent whether they thought the show's producers would give him a break for a year or two to go work in the White House. They said no.

"I've always wondered," he said wryly, "did they ever actually ask?" (Spilo said he had a "number of conversations" with the producers on the subject.)

Penn approached the show's executive producer, David Shore, and explained his plan. According to Penn, Shore was supportive of the move — although he and the writing staff then decided for story purposes to have Kutner commit suicide.

"I'm like, 'Oh, man, there goes the 'If you ever wanna come back' conversation," Penn said.

He was hired to work for Valerie Jarrett, a top Obama adviser, doing outreach to arts and minority organizations. The money was hardly great, but savings from "House" had enabled him to keep paying the bills. Government worked in ways that took some getting used to, however.

"I got calls from friends of mine in L.A. saying, 'Dude, so the FBI just called me; do I need to be worried?'" Penn said, adding that such contacts were merely routine background interviews for his security clearance.

At work he would run into the president "on occasion," but their contact sounds fairly succinct and professional. Even so, the glow from Obama's candidacy never faded for him. "It made me more inspired," he said of his service.

However, his manager can rest easy. He said he may volunteer for Obama's reelection campaign but otherwise Penn seems to have worked public service out of his system. He may be a little adventurous, but he's not stoned-cheetah crazy.

"There's no big plan to run for office," Penn said. "To be honest, I don't have any desire to really get involved with politics."

scott.collins@latimes.com

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