Actor Kal Penn--of Harold & Kumar stoner-fame and the hit TV show "House"--is taking a desk job at the White House? We talk office politics, hoops, and making his parents proud.
TNR: You're going to be the associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. That's quite a career change.
Penn: I guess it might seem weird to people who don't know my interests. My two passions from the time I was in high school were film, obviously, and then public service. I remember when I applied to college I had academic ADD and I applied to, like, fifteen schools. Half of them were for film and the other half were for sociology and poli sci. And then I ended up going to UCLA in film but then switching my major to sociology. And about two or three years ago I sort of quietly started this part-time grad program up at Stanford. I told a couple friends and my parents but I didn't want it to distract from the acting career. So I always tried to pursue my interest in public service simultaneously.
Back during the writers' strike in 2007, we couldn't shoot any episodes of "House" for a few months because we had no scripts. I signed on to the Obama campaign as a volunteer in Iowa and went out there for a couple months. My political background is as an independent. I've voted for both Republicans and Democrats and I've never seen the kind of integrity that I saw out in Iowa. So I stayed for a while, then went off and taught a class in media studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
When we went back to "House," I was really excited to get back to filming but always in the back of my mind was that--if Obama were to win the nomination and the presidency--it would be incredible to serve in some capacity. I tossed the idea around to a couple of friends who were organizers on the campaign and folks who I worked with on "House." I spoke to David Shore, our show creator. He said, "Are you telling me you want to get off the show because you secretly want to be on 'Desperate Housewives'?" I said, no, no. But it's just not something that my heart was fully into at that point. And if the opportunity came to go into public service--and I made the point that this was not some Joaquin Phoenix-style retirement; I'd definitely go back to acting--I wanted to take it.
TNR: So, Day 1: what are the issues that you'd like to focus on?
Penn: Right now, I should point out that the Office of Public Liaison is fully operating and has been and they have an incredibly talented team of which I will be one member. The two areas that I'm going to be the point person on are Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and arts issues. The start date hasn't been set yet. People are particularly interested at the moment because my character suddenly offed himself on the show. All of that is in the near future, though. I don't want to be presumptuous about what the day-to-day will be like, especially going through a career transition. That would be something that the training phase will point out. Ultimately, the Office of Public Liaison makes sure that the ordinary American has a seat at the table. They engage constituency groups to make sure they're adequately represented and, especially given how many people were engaged in the campaign and the movement for change, they want to make sure those people stay engaged.
TNR: Do you think you're going to get flak for being a celebrity cum politico?
Penn: In nearly two years of campaign work, I really can't remember an instance where folks weren't completely focused on the task at hand. Obviously I enjoy being an actor and working in the film industry is a lot of fun, but I think people realize that there's a time to be serious and, especially after the last eight years, I think that time is now. I don't think it's going to be an issue.
TNR: You'll be working pretty closely with Valerie Jarrett. Is that daunting?
Penn: I've met with her once already. We have some meetings coming up. My impression of her is that she's incredibly intelligent and gifted at conveying a whole slew of ideas. You're really struck by her presence and her ability--this is gonna sound cheesy--but to do the right thing. That's one thing I was struck with back in Iowa. There's this great integrity about Obama. And he surrounds himself with people like that.
TNR: Do you think they were hesitant to hire a stoner?
Penn: (Laughing) You would have to ask them, but I'd imagine not and I'll tell you why: Everyone is very focused on the issues. I also told them, "I want to be sure that if I'm given a job, I'm not treated differently because of the industry I'm coming from." And they said, "Well, we want you to know that the only reason we'd give you a job is if we think you're qualified. And those qualifications would have nothing to do with the fact that you used to work on a TV show." I'll follow that up by saying: Everyone knows the actor who plays Superman doesn't fly.
TNR: You're not seriously still contending that you don't smoke pot?
Penn: I don't! I don't smoke pot! And Anthony Hopkins presumably doesn't eat people in real life. It's almost flattering--artistically speaking--that people believe that. I don't eat meat so I never even ate real hamburgers during the filming of the first movie either.
TNR: Obama went on the record against legalizing pot in a recent online Town Hall he conducted. Next, you'll be telling us you have no thoughts on that one either.
Penn: I have none. Seriously. I have no personal opinion because I don't smoke and I never bothered reading up on the issue. Whenever you do a movie like Harold & Kumar, people expect you to have something lengthy to say on the subject and I just didn't want to have to pretend.
TNR: Sounds a bit like Harold and Kumar logic.
Penn: Ironically, yes.
TNR: Have you managed to get in on a pickup game with the president?
Penn: I am a horrible basketball player. I'm a pretty decent trash talker. I'm okay at free throws but that's about it.
TNR: But basketball can get you face-time.
Penn: I'll need a little practice before I can play the president.
TNR: Most people who move to from L.A. to D.C. talk about how crummy it is. How do you think you're going to like it?
Penn: I have a lot of friends from high school and college who are in D.C. I disagree with any notion that D.C. would be lacking in culture in the same way that I disagree with anyone that says L.A. lacks culture. D.C. has so many thriving communities, not to mention the museums, monuments, libraries. And there's an incredible music scene. I'm really looking forward to that.
TNR: In your film career, you've played around with the stereotypes of young Indian-Americans. Do you think your parents feel like they've finally made an honest man out of you?
Penn: Any parent is going to question one's choice to be an actor, not just Indian immigrant parents. They're both incredibly American so they're definitely proud of this. My grandparents were activists and marched with Gandhi in the Independence Movement in India so that's another reason this is so important. I had the chance to read a Dwight Eisenhower quote at that concert before the inauguration. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. My parents and my brother were there. Afterward, my mom came up to me and said, "Your grandparents would be very proud of you today." It was an emotional moment.
TNR: Obama has said that America's relationship with India is a "top priority." Is that an issue you're particularly interested in emphasizing?
Penn: In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. My parents came from India post-1965 and, presumably my political interest in India has to do with my grandparents as well. I'm also deeply, deeply patriotic. To be the first son of immigrants, to really be able to live in this country and enjoy everything that it has to offer is something I recognize as a great privilege. But, um, it's a tough question. I still have family roots there: cousins and aunts and uncles. I've done some service work there. But as far as my loyalties go, I'm obviously a patriotic American. I guess what I'm trying to say is: I'm not torn by any means, I just don't want to piss off my parents.
Hilary Elkins, a writer living in New York and Birmingham, Alabama, works for GQ magazine.
By Hilary Elkins