Kal Penn surprised everyone a few years ago by announcing he’d be taking a sabbatical from acting to work for the Obama administration in the White House Office of Public Engagement. (His character on House, Dr. Kutner, was fittingly killed off.) More surprisingly, though, would be Penn’s return: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. Yes, there’s a third one. The film’s just as silly and self-aware as the others — Neil Patrick Harris returns as his womanizing “self” — and Penn eagerly embraces Kumar’s dry wit and inability to grow up. We called Penn on the set of How I Met Your Mother (where he’s in the midst of an eight-episode guest arc) to talk about his stint on the sitcom, his journey to and from the White House, and stereotypical casting.
What has been your experience with being an Asian-American actor? I read somewhere that once you started using your stage name, you got 50 percent more auditions.
I did, yeah. Half of it was curiosity to see if it would make a difference, and the other half was as a joke to friends of mine. We read something, I think it was a Screen Actors Guild thing, that said that 40 percent of actors have screen names, and we were sitting at this place called Jose Bernsteins, which is a kind of a hole-in-the-wall taco joint in Westwood next to UCLA, and they were just berating me with things like, “What about 'Kal Pucino'?” And I was rejecting all of their awful suggestions, and thought, Everyone calls me Kal anyway. My first name is Kalpen, so it’s sort of how Joseph becomes Joe, that kind of thing. And it did increase auditions. To this day, I've never been completely sure whether it was [because it was] less ethnic sounding or just [because it was] monosyllabic and that was easier. I recently saw a profile on CBS Sunday Morning with Martin Sheen, and there was this throwaway line where he talked about changing his name from Estevez to Sheen; he was like, “It was a different time, at that point Estevez was considered too ethnic for some producers.” And I thought, Wow, every number of years, it's something else.
When you auditioned for Harold & Kumar, was that film considered a risk because it starred two people who are minorities?
Oh, for sure man. Yeah, huge props should go out to [writers] Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who really took what was perceived as both a financial and a creative risk. If I remember correctly, when I talked to them about it, they've always been creeped out that in your average teen movie or buddy comedy, the characters are pretty homogeneous. Anyone who doesn't look like the two leads really just kind of comes in and out of the story with one or two lines. So they wanted something that shook that up. Were it not for them, this easily could have been turned into something called David and Jason Go to McDonald's.
What has it been like being embraced by stoner culture, despite the fact that you aren’t really a stoner? Or so I’ve read.
No, it’s true, I don’t smoke weed. That’s not something that I generally offer up in terms of talking points about the movie, because there are a lot of stoners that like the movie and you never want to make them feel like something’s disingenuous. But for me, it was always a buddy comedy or, you know, if it was a stoner movie, it was probably equal parts a hamburger movie.
Did Neil Patrick Harris have a hand in getting you involved with How I Met Your Mother?
I have the blessing of having an incredible manager. When I left to take my sabbatical in D.C., I hadn’t thought much about coming back or what that would look like. So when my two years were coming to a close, [my manager] put out some feelers, called me and said, “Here’s the deal: They’re looking for a love interest for Robin, and I pitched you for it, and Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are big fans of the Harold & Kumar franchise.” When I got the part, I immediately texted Neil and said, “Dude, looks like we’re working together again.” He was very excited.
You weren’t in this week’s Halloween episode with Katie Holmes. Were they afraid of too much star power?
[Laughs.] Oh my goodness.
Does the cast speculate about the mythology of the show, who the mother is?
No. All I assume is that I’m not the mother. Nobody really talks about it.
Why did you decide on a two-year sabbatical? The narrative I’ve read is that you were infatuated with the Obama administration, then you went to work for it and two years later you were like, “I’m disillusioned,” and then you left.
I know that makes a titillating story, but it is not the reality at all. In fact, I have left the administration much less cynical than when I started. I worked on youth outreach, so my job was overwhelmingly non-political, and the stuff that I was working on was related to increasing financial aid, "don’t ask, don’t tell," and bringing folks home from Iraq. Stuff that will impact the next generation, which is largely outside of the realm of anything that’s ever going to show up on cable news? And when that stuff gets covered, it’s because a bunch of old people — most young people under the age of 40, regardless of what their political affiliations are, they view ["don’t ask, don’t tell"] more as a civil rights issue. They’re like, “Who cares? Yes, we should repeal it.” So from my perspective, working for a president who wanted to repeal it, and then coming on the TV and seeing that the only conversations that people were having were, “Should we repeal it?” was such a disconnect where I thought, Gosh, I guess if the only information I’m getting is the news, it’s not really translating into things the president’s been able to do when it comes to young people. But, you know, I’ve worked as an actor. I understand that in order to sell ad space, sometimes you have to spin things a certain way. And a lot of the successes, particularly on the things the affect everybody, aren’t that spin-able.