Kal Penn surprised many of his fans two years ago when he put his acting career on hold to join the Obama White House as a mid-level staffer. After a two year hiatus, Penn returns to the silver screen this weekend with the release of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. I recently spoke to Penn about his new film, working at the White House, and Asian Americans in the media.
Tell us about the new film. This obviously isn’t your typical Christmas movie.
In a lot of ways it is a traditional Christmas movie. What was cool is that a lot of things you see are traditional. Santa Claus is in the film- Harold accidentally shoots him in the face. There’s family, friendship, and love [in the movie]. What’s different is that it’s in 3D, and it is vulgar.
This is your first film since leaving your job as an advisor to the White House. I just read this great quote of yours from an interview you did with the LA Times: “When you’re working there, you always think, ‘What is the best time to tell the president that you played a stoner who escaped from Guantanamo Bay?’ Did Harold and Kumar or any of your other roles ever come up in conversation while you were at the White House?
The nice thing about working in the White House is that almost everyone has put a private sector career on hold. There isn’t a lot of conversation about what people put on hold, it’s more about working together to push the president’s agenda.
Currently you are also guest starring on How I Met Your Mother, which means of course that you are working with Neil Patrick Harris again. Is working with him on HIMYM different from the Harold and Kumar movies?
Neil is incredible. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to see him on Broadway, but he’s a legit Broadway actor. He subs for Regis on Regis and Kelly. There’s really nothing that guy can’t do.
And how does playing Kevin the Therapist compare with other roles you’ve been offered?
I enjoyed playing Kevin a lot. I’ve never done a traditional sitcom before. I love the cast and crew. And there are a couple of good scenes with Neil because his character has a history with Robin, who my character is dating.
You are also working on a pilot set at the U.N. Has your political experience helped you develop that pilot?
It’s not influencing the pilot per se. The folks at NBC are really great. I’m a fan of 30 Rock, Parks and Rec and Community. I originally was thinking of a classroom type of a show, but then I said “What I would love to convey is something that would be funny if it were set in a mechanic’s shop or if it took place at the U.N.” And then I said, “Why not have it take place at the U.N.?” There are no politics on the show to make it relatable to everyone.
Finally, a couple of years ago you taught a class about Asian Americans in the media at the University of Pennsylvania. If we were to fast forward 50 years from now and you taught that class again, what do you think students would say about Harold and Kumar?
That’s a good question. Just in the last eight to ten years I think we’ve seen a lot more diversity on screen and rarely is it just “check the box” diversity. Eighteen year olds today, the conversations they’ve have with us are so different from the conversations we had with people who were eighteen when the first Harold and Kumar came out.
Now you have people like Aziz [Ansari], Mindy [Kaling], and the Daily Show and Modern Family. There’s so much diversity on screen. I hope that in 50 years it is even less of an issue.