EXCLUSIVE: While he left the White House to return to Hollywood, Kal Penn is not leaving politics completely behind. Penn’s new project for NBC will be a single-camera workplace comedy set at the United Nations, with Penn playing …
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.