The recently-departed actor from the Fox series talks about the series and his new post with the Obama Administration
Kal Penn has gained much popularity through his comedic film roles in such films as National Lampoon's Van Wilder, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo and his role on the popular Fox series, House. Viewers were shocked on Monday when Penn's character, Dr. Lewis Kutner committed suicide. The next day it was revealed why Penn was leaving the show, because he was hired on by President Barack Obama as a liason to cultural and arts groups. We were in on a conference call with Penn who talked about his time on the show and his new gig in Washington D.C. Here's what he had to say.
Now, I know that you had requested to leave the show to go work for the White House, which is awesome. I just wonder; were you taken aback at all when they said that they were going to kill you off I mean because it does rob you of the opportunity to ever return to the show. Were you taken aback at all?
Kal Penn: I think everyone is always taken aback with every episode on that show to be perfectly honest. I know in this case they're unique circumstances because the character is actually being eliminated. But I feel like House is one of those shows, at least from the actor's perspective, when we get each script every week, we really don't know what's going to happen and that's on a page-to-page basis partially because obviously the writers are so brilliant in creating and crafting these characters, but also the character of House, it's virtually impossible to get into his head. So, we're sort of used to going page-to-page and going, "Wow. Is this actually going to happen" and that goes for any episode. Obviously, yes, you're connected to the character. I love playing "Kutner" and so, there's a little bit of shock and loss- more than a little bit of shock and loss when I found that out also, but I think that's sort of, plot-wise, what they were going for as well. So, yes, I was probably as shocked as the audience was when I first found out.
I was just wondering was there any discussion of you appearing in that final episode in any capacity?
Kal Penn: I was there when Olivia and Omar shot that scene, where they discover "Kutner".
So, those were your legs?
Kal Penn: They were. Greg Yaitanes directed that episode and, even though we were being shot from way back in the other room, he wanted it to be as authentic as possible. So, we were fully in that moment.
I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your decision to leave the show and how long this has been in the works and if your managers and agents are telling you you're crazy for walking away from such a successful show.
Kal Penn: Well, I think I've had people tell me I'm crazy from the time I was 17 and said, "I want to be an actor." So, that's nothing new. I think every actor has been told they were crazy. This was a very unique circumstance. Growing up, I always had two interests and two passions; one being public service and the other being the arts and acting. So, it's always been on my mind. I always try and engage in different public service projects. In the last 18 months, having had the opportunity to serve on the Obama campaign, I certainly started thinking about that possibility and then when that opportunity opened up, I went to (executive producers) David (Shore) and Katie (Jacobs) and sort of talked about it. I mean it is a little insane in the sense that this is an incredible show to have been part of. There were certainly no problems. If anything, I was having a great time. I have a tremendous respect for the writers and the other actors and obviously, David and Katie. So, it was tough all around. The world that I still use to describe it is bittersweet because it's not like I'm retiring from acting. I certainly intend to come back at some point. But right now, I just felt like my calling was in public service and so we moved forward with that.
When do you start your new job?
Kal Penn: It's kind of up in the air right now. There are a couple of things that I need to finish up, but I'm going out to D.C., I think, next week to do some apartment hunting.
Would the actor in you, the showman in you, the ego in you, have liked to have gotten a big showy performance and farewell death scene, or do you like the way it happened?
Kal Penn: I like the way it happened. The thing that I enjoy about being an actor and the thing that I enjoy about the arts in general is the ability to make the audience feel an emotion that they weren't intending to feel before they went in. I think that Greg who directed the episode, and obviously David and Katie, did that in such a great way that people did feel the types of loss and anger and confusion about this fictional character. I don't know that you would have gotten that same sense if it were some sort of a very "Kutner"-heavy episode where you see the trials and tribulations. I think part of the loss that the team on House feels from what he did is transitioned over into what the audience feels because there was no explanation. I'm sort of glad that we didn't have a big kind of "Kutner" dramatic scene to wrap it up.
I'm quite sure there's no way to document how many people will see the episode, read the information at the end of the show with the phone number, who to call if they're in a suicidal condition and make the call and save their lives, but how does it feel for you as an actor and as a person to be able to do some work that puts that information out there in such a big way?
Kal Penn: I'm really glad that the producers and Fox decided to put that on the end. I know all of us, unfortunately, know folks who have taken their own lives and you always go back and think about what you could have done differently. You realize that in a lot of cases, there wasn't that awareness or there wasn't that recognition of what to look for, how to look for it, how to reach out to somebody who you think might need that help. So, I'm glad they mentioned it on the website and there are a number of resources online. I hope people do take advantage of them because I'm sure, sadly, out of the 18-plus million viewers that we have every week, I'm sure some folks might be struggling and I definitely hope they take advantage of websites like that.
Well, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if somewhere along the way, years from now, weeks from now, somebody reaches out to you and says, "This happened because of that episode." I hope so.
Kal Penn: Well, that would be something good to come of it.
I have two questions for you. One is it's a big lifestyle change, particularly after the success you've had as an actor, to be coming to live in Washington. I'm kind of curious about your view of the place culturally; not arts particularly, but just living in this city and what that's going to be like and how much you know about it. The second question is who at the White House and in Washington did you talk to before making this decision? I don't know if you talked to the President himself as part of this or the Chief of Staff. I'm kind of curious to see who you talked to and what convinced you to make this move. I know the public service part. So, I'm looking for the other aspect of it.
Kal Penn: Sure. Well, let me address the first question first then. I grew up on the East Coast; I grew up in New Jersey and so, D.C. was always accessible to us during high school. We would come down frequently. My two interests, like I said, were public service and the arts. So, I would always take advantage of both New York and Washington. I have college friends and certainly friends from a number of the presidential campaigns who are in Washington, who have worked there for years. While I haven't lived there before, I think I have a pretty good sense of what D.C.'s all about and I'm definitely looking forward to being part of it. The second part of the question; this was unexpected in the sense that if you had told me two years ago when I started on House that I would even be considering a move to public service, I probably would have said you were crazy. I remain an independent. I'm not a democrat or a republican. When I started working on the Obama campaign, on the Arts Policy Committee and as a surrogate, one of the things that struck me the most was that the majority of folks who we were meeting around the country, and this is particular probably to the three groups that I reached out to the most, which I think were artists, Asian Americans and youth vote, so under 35. A lot of those folks in all three communities shared that sentiment of not really being entirely democrat or entirely republican, but their concerns were what were overwhelming. And so, to see that there was a candidate who was reaching out to those folks, kind of transcending those lines that you think of when you think of politics was incredibly moving, especially with regard to a lot of these kids who either couldn't afford college or were in college and worried about student loans or the economy. The types of change that President Obama had campaigned on and now the opportunity to bring those changes to fruition was something that was so incredibly moving that after he won and after having had the chance to talk about a potential opportunity with some of my fellow campaign staffers, the President, some of his aides, I reached out and said that this was something that I really wanted to do and I'm deeply honored and feel deeply privileged to have this opportunity now.
I wanted to be a little clearer on what exactly the job is, why you want that job and who offered the job to you.
Kal Penn: Sure. Well, the job itself is that I will be an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Liaison. What the OPL does is similar in a sense to what I was doing on the campaign in that now that it is the actual Administration, what they try and do is take the Administration itself out of Washington. So, they go into communities across the country, continue the sorts of dialogue that people had started during the campaign and basically assure that a bunch of different citizens' views about their elected officials, about their government are all happening, they're working effectively; make sure that a lot of these new voices that have emerged, especially during the campaign season, are brought to the table - democrats, republicans, everyone in between - and to build those relationships and kind of embody the types of changes that President Obama had run on. The reason that was appealing to me simply is because I have friends who are in these sorts of situations. I know folks who were over in Iraq. I'm 31-years-old, but I still have friends who continue to dream about going to college and just don't have the financial opportunity. Like I said, I'm not giving up acting; I'm not retiring, but since this seemed like the opportunity that presented itself and it seemed like something that I would enjoy doing and be honored to serve at, I figured it was something to do.
Who offered you the job?
Kal Penn: There was a bunch of discussions. I don't know that there was any one point person. My point folks in the Office of Public Liaison are Mike Strautmanis, Valerie Jarrett.
Does this mean no more Harold & Kumar movies?
Kal Penn: That's probably true, yes.
You said you're not retiring from acting. Does this job allow you to do any acting projects at all, or is this it for a specific amount of time?
Kal Penn: I won't be acting while I'm working at the White House, no.
Do you know how long? Is there a certain amount of time that you're going to do this for? Are you going to do it while Obama is in office, whether it's for this four and possibly eight?
Kal Penn: There's no set limit. I mean I definitely intend to go out there for at least a year or two and figure it out. There are certain financial concerns to consider with all of it. There are career, both public service and arts-related, concerns to think about. So, we'll see. The reason that I say I'm certainly not retiring is I'm not packing up and saying I'm leaving Hollywood and all this sort of stuff. It's just pursuing another passion right now. I'm equally as passionate about the arts and will also continue to be. But right now, I wanted to pursue this sort of thing and we'll see for how long and under what circumstances.
Would you have made this decision and done it, do you think, if it had been any other president than Obama?
Kal Penn: I don't know. I certainly don't think so. Like I said, this wasn't the intention. This was not part of any master plan for the last couple of years. It was something that I was inspired by and someone I was inspired by. And again, formerly being a very cynical independent who agreed with both democrats and republicans on different things, it's really refreshing to have a president who is listening to all three of those parties' voices and I'm looking forward to this.
I'm just curious about whether or not you'll actually be traveling around the country to talk to people, or are you going to be staying most in Washington, D.C. during this time.
Kal Penn: I would imagine it would be a little bit of both. The Office of Public Liaison is known as the front door to the White House. Like I said, one of the things that they do is to really take the Administration itself out of Washington; so, the ways in which communities are represented. Often times, they have folks who come to Washington to meet with the White House or with Congressional representatives or what have you. By the same token, we also do go into the communities and work with them directly as well. So, I would imagine it's a fair amount of both.
So, I understand your job to be the associate director, one of the things is kind of being the liaison between various communities and the President. I'm wondering; are there any communities that you particularly would like to reach out to to kind of help the President accomplish some of his missions? I know you had a conversation with him and I'm assuming that came up.
Kal Penn: Yes. Well, two of the communities that I'm sort of going to be the point person for are the arts and Asian American folks. Part of that was during the campaign itself, I served on the Arts Policy Committee and a lot of the outreach we would do was to arts groups, students and under 35 voters and Asian Americans. So, two of those - the arts community and the Asian American community - are two of the groups who I'll be reaching out to. In particular, I think the feeling is that we want to make sure that everyone's concerns are heard, that they're familiar with the President's plans and proposals, but also even something as small as-- So many folks in Los Angeles usually donate money to presidential campaigns on both sides of the table, but they're not as engaged. I'm speaking from someone who has lived there the last 10 or 12 years. I know that my colleagues aren't as engaged frequently in the day-to-day on the outreach aspects of things. Hopefully that'll change. We'd like to include folks in the arts community. Part of the stimulus bill had a certain amount of funding for the arts and of course, the arts, especially in America, have always been extremely relevant to documenting history and providing educational opportunities. It's something that I'm really looking forward to. It's obviously a big shift from the last 12 years of my life, but it's something I'm looking forward to.
I know you said that you are an independent, but do you think you might switch over to being a democrat now? Has President Barack Obama swayed you at all?
Kal Penn: I don't know. Something that I really admire still is that in the White House, there are folks from both major parties and a couple of nutty independents like myself. So, we'll see. I'm certainly not getting any pressure to change my political affiliation; let me put it that way. Everyone's respectful.
Do you know of other people in the entertainment industry; are there other people that you talked with before you decided to make this decision? Are there people who kind of share the same passion that you do of wanting to work in Obama's White House?
Kal Penn: That's a good question. I think the folks who I shared it with; obviously, while it's a decision based almost wholly on passion and something that I want to do with my life, you can't ignore the other career-related aspects of it or the financial aspects of it or things like that. So, I obviously had a number of discussions with agents and managers and accountants and folks like that, as well as a number of friends who are in and outside of the industry to basically say, "This is what I really want to do, but am I crazy?" The caveat being, of course, I kind of talked about this a little bit earlier; the caveat being I don't think there's any actor who I know who wasn't told they were crazy when they were an aspiring actor moving out to California to follow some sort of a dream. And so, the way that I view it, it's a journey. I'm certainly not trying to burn any bridges and say that I'm never coming back to acting because it remains a passion. By the same token, I'm incredibly honored and privileged to be able to serve in the Obama Administration.
Do you have any plans to run for office yourself one day?
Kal Penn: No.
My question is what did your parents, family, friends think when you told them about the career switch and when did you tell them?
Kal Penn: I discussed it with them kind of off and on, I guess, maybe the last eight or nine months or so. I don't think it came as a surprise to anyone because when I joined the Obama campaign I wasn't as involved-- I think I joined in October of 2007 and then slowly became more and more involved through the Iowa caucuses during the writer's strike and ended up moving to Des Moines for, I think, that last month and a half before the January caucus. I think at that point, a lot of my friends and my family said, "Wait a second; what are you doing? Is this something that you're getting caught up in? Is this something that you're actually passionate about?" From that point, the discussion has always ensued. The folks who know me the best always have known that those have been the dueling passions, shall we say - the arts and public service. So, I don't think they were shocked at all, but it was certainly nice to bounce some ideas off of people about whether or not this was the best decision for me right now.
This was already asked and you kind of gave, "I don't think so;" but really no more Harold & Kumar? You couldn't turn this into something?
Kal Penn: I don't know. I certainly don't want to squash anyone's hopes or dreams of that, but right now I'm going to be moving to Washington to take on this position. I'm certainly not going to be acting while I'm serving in the White House. Who's to say what would happen three, four, five years from now. But at this point, it's not on my radar, no.
When you first met the President, did he mention he recognized you from any particular roles?
Kal Penn: I'm trying to think. I think the first time I met him was late in 2007. Yes, he did mentioned House actually, but it was a passing comment. I had met him at a fundraiser, the rope handshaking line towards the end. I introduced myself and he said, "Oh, yes. You're on that show. What show are you on?" I said, "I'm on House." He was like, "That's right, the doctor show. Nice work." I said, "Thanks" and that was it. I didn't really get to know him until later on during the campaign.
Did he ever or any of the staffers ever joke about Harold & Kumar or drugs or any of that sort of thing?
Kal Penn: No, no. This was probably one of the other reasons that I was so drawn to the campaign was the folks who were on staff even as early as pre-Iowa caucus back in 2007 were incredibly inclusive, incredibly respectful and also very driven by actual issues. I never had an experience where I thought anyone was distracted by anything other than getting people registered to vote, discussing issues with them, reporting those issues back. It was really quite remarkable to see how the whole operation was being conducted. There was never any conversation about any of the more frivolous items from any of us who came from different fields. There were folks who were formerly musicians or sports folks or teachers or whatever. We just didn't really talk much about that. It was very focused on the issues at hand, which was really nice. I had not had an experience like that before.
What did you think about suicide as a choice for "Kutner" to take after playing him all the time?
Kal Penn: I was shocked by it, but I think that was the nature of what they were going for. When we discussed or when they told me about it, I asked if there was anything in his background that would have indicated or if there were any warning signs beforehand and the answer was generally no, that this is something that was just as shocking to the team as it is to the audience and it's something that nobody sees coming. It's kind of tough to wrap your head around that, especially as the actor who plays the character, to know that he was obviously tormented about something, but didn't share it with anyone. I think that's indicated pretty well at the very end when House goes back into "Kutner's" apartment and starts going through photos, searching for some sort of an answer and he sees pictures that we had never seen a side of "Kutner" before. We never knew that he had a girlfriend. We never knew that he hung out with his college friends at the beach regularly. That last picture that he pulls out right before the episode airs is of "Kutner" looking very different than we've ever seen him before. The look on his face is so completely different from him being kind of jovial in the hospital or even saving somebody's life. It's this distraught look that we just don't have an answer to. He didn't leave a note. He never discussed it with anyone. For the first time, House doesn't have an answer to something. So, it was disturbing to me as an actor, but recognizing that that was also kind of the journey that the audience would go through made it disturbing and also a little bit strange because I wasn't allowed to talk about it with anybody. So, at least when the audience gets to see it, they can talk about it with their friends and watch it, but there was a lot of Peter Jacobson and Olivia Wilde and I going, "Isn't this insane? Wow. This is so sad."
Well, were you said that you didn't get to portray that other part of him, of having a girlfriend and all that?
Kal Penn: No, because I think you saw the different layers to all the characters. We rarely see, with the exception of House of course and a little bit with "Taub" and his wife, the characters - you don't see them that much outside the hospital. Most of the plot ends are based there. Despite the fact that they're all based around medicine, you know an incredible amount about these characters and a lot of their back story really informs their behavior and informs how they deal with patients. So, I definitely don't regret that because I don't think it's really that type of show. If anything, I think it accentuates the shock and the anger and depression that the rest of the team feels surrounding the way in which he passed away.
Are you a little nervous about going from the set to going to a 9 to 5 desk job?
Kal Penn: Not really. I've had experience in that field over the last couple of years. It's something I'm actually looking forward to. I'm incredibly honored to have the opportunity to do it and we'll take it from there.
My question is just going back to the shock of the suicide and finding out, how many episodes did you shoot after you found out that this is how "Kutner" was going to end, but before the actual final episode? Did that affect your performance at all?
Kal Penn: I think I found out while we were shooting episode 17. It was - I'm trying to think. I think it was episode 17 or maybe halfway through 18. It was probably halfway through 18 actually and no, the performance didn't change. That was the first thing that I asked David Shore was, "Do you want me to change anything? Do you want this to be informed that he's struggling with something?" The answer was, "Not really." This is something that really does come out of left field in episode 20 and we don't want to lead anyone on. We also don't want to mislead anyone. It just is what it is and there's no explanation for it.
So, the audience shouldn't go back to the last couple of episodes and try to look for a sad face somewhere or something like that?
Kal Penn: No. I mean by all means watch the episodes again for enjoyment, but no, there was nothing hidden in there. There were no codes that we put in for people to decipher.
You mentioned earlier in the phone call that you talked to the President about the job. Can you just relay a little bit more expansively what that conversation was like and what he said to you?
Kal Penn: Sure. We talked about it briefly during the Inauguration. I spoke at the Staff Ball backstage very briefly, had mentioned that I was looking to work for him and we sort of talked a little bit about what sorts of areas I might be able to hopefully serve in. There were no huge discussions at that point, but obviously there are a number of folks, like Tina Chen and Mike Strautmanis who deal with a lot of this stuff. So, I had some follow-up calls with them afterwards and also a number of friends who worked on the campaign to try and figure if in fact I would be a good fit and where.
You mentioned a couple of times on the phone call that there were going to be some financial repercussions here. Can you be a little bit more explicit - how much you're going to be making at the White House and how does that compare to what you're making now?
Kal Penn: Sure. I won't talk numbers right now, but obviously going from a private career where you're working for a big company to a public service career, there's a huge pay cut. So, the concern with that, quite frankly, is I own a home. There's a terrible housing market and my concern is the same as everyone else's concern. If I'm moving to a different city, can I sublet my house? Can I sublet it for the same price that my mortgage is? Can I refinance? It's the same thing that everyone else is going through - similar concerns. So, we'll see. It's not something that I've entirely figured out just yet to be perfectly honest.
On behalf of Harold & Kumar, what's your position on legalizing marijuana?
Kal Penn: Oh, I don't smoke weed in real life. So, it's honestly not something I've given much thought to. Those movies are all very frivolous and fun to do. I remember somebody wrote some article when we shot the first one. When we shot the first movie, I was also a vegetarian. So, there was this mini uproar amongst stoner White Castle fans - "How can you hire a vegetarian who doesn't even smoke weed to play this character in the movie?" I know that it is a serious issue, especially in California - legalization of medical marijuana and questions about taxation and things like that. But sadly, that's not my area of expertise at all and admittedly, I probably didn't try and learn about it because I knew that people would ask me about it.
Kal, is there any chance that they'll be having you do commercials or public service spots on behalf of the Administration?
Kal Penn: I don't know. That's not something that we discussed. I would imagine that my role is not going to be any different than the other talented staffers who are already on that team. So, I would imagine not, but I don't know for sure.