As of this morning, Kal Penn is working for the Obama administration. Or, the ex-actor formerly known as Kal Penn is working for the Obama administration, at least. In what one can only imagine is an effort to downplay his previous job portraying a marijuana enthusiast in the Harold & Kumar movies, Penn is asking co-workers to call him by his birth name, Kalpen Modi. “I’ve never changed it legally,” he explained during a conference call with reporters this afternoon. “On my first couple of auditions I used a screen name much like — I think there’s some Screen Actors Guild statistic that says 45 or 50 percent of actors have screen names,” he recalled. “But since I’m not doing that at the moment,” he said of acting, “it seemed logical to use my real name. It’s what my friends and family call me anyway.”
Even though he’s a huge celebrity, Penn — er, Modi — says his life so far in D.C. “is much like that of my colleagues, from what I can tell.” Asked what he did to prepare for his first day of work as associate director in the Office of Public Engagement, he answered, “I brushed my teeth. I flossed. I used mouthwash. I took the bus to work — the same things that everybody does … I expect to be treated just like any other staff member.”
Now the (possibly) bad news! In May, Warner Bros. announced plans for A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, to be released in November 2010, which would seem to give Penn’s new job a fast-approaching expiration date. He told the Washington Post recently that he’s committed to “at least a year or two” in the Obama administration, during which he would not accept any acting gigs — but even if he quits next July, that would leave the makers of AVH&KC only four months to shoot his part and edit the movie (doable, sure, but probably difficult).
During the conference call, Penn said he doesn’t “have a specific timeline in mind” for how long he plans to work at the White House, but he was vague on any future acting plans: “Obviously, I enjoyed being in the Kumar role in the past and I found those to be a lot of fun… [But] at the moment I’ve decided to take a step away from acting, so I hope that the folks who make the Harold & Kumar films will respect my decision to work in public service.”
Also, though he stuck to his talking points like a seasoned politician — he artfully dodged questions about his salary (“The opportunity to work with the Obama administration is the huge honor, so that to me is the greatest reward”) — he says he has “no plans to run for office of any kind.”