Kal Penn, widely recognized as Patel Kumar from the “Harold & Kumar” series, said working at the White House was not glamorous but full of awe as he recalled his two-year stint on his last working day as associate director in the Office of Public Engagement.
“I don’t know anyone who would say that the White House is particularly glamorous,” Kalpen Modi, Kal Penn’s official name, told ABC News host Jake Tapper in an interview Friday, his last day in office as President Barack Obama’s liaison to young voters.
“I think everyone has an understanding of the impact you can have, and... that feeling is indescribable,” added the 34-year-old actor, a native of New Jersey who is now returning to Hollywood.
Penn fondly recalled one night in January he accepted a painting to be given as a gift to Chinese president Hu Jintao. “You’re standing there at midnight at the South portico and it’s freezing cold outside and you’re receiving a painting for the president that he’s going to give to a world leader,” he said. “You kind of take a moment and kind of realize where you are – it’s humbling.”
A UCLA graduate, Penn said he loved and was passionate about service because he believed “yes, we elect officials but things don’t actually get done until we put our boots to the ground and become part of that solution.”
Penn, whose parents are immigrants from western Gujarat state in India, was inspired by India’s independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. Before joining the White House, he told CNN he was drawn to Washington by his grandparents’ history – and values – in marching with Gandhi.
“I love what I do as an actor. I couldn’t love it more,” CNN quoted Penn as saying. “But probably from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed that balance between the arts and public service. I went to a performing arts high school, but I still took a bunch of those dorky political science classes. It's probably because of the value system my grandparents instilled in me. They marched with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement, and that was always in the back of my head.”
Several actors had campaigned for Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, but Penn might be the only one in recent memory to go on hiatus from acting to work for a politician full time behind the scenes, ABC News noted.
Penn said he also had a personal reason for joining the White House. “I had friends who were over in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I had buddies who had huge student debt, people who got kicked off their health insurance plans for one reason or another, and so that was my decision to get involved on a personal level.”
Penn learned that political positions, the left or the right, mattered little to young folks. “The issues that they cared about were the same,” he said. “It is a kind of bummer if you look at the score keeping on the Hill... and what we have been focusing on is getting folks on the same page, focusing on the solutions.”
Describing the role he played as a liaison official, Penn said, “Our office doesn’t handle policy, but we help bridge the gap between policies. So if there’s a group that's particularly concerned with an issue, and they want to bring in 10 or 12 folks, we’ll put them in a room with some of our policy team and they’ll link up that way.”
He added that he had realized that change was not a “light switch.” “That if it was easy to flip on a light switch and change everything someone would have done it before, and it’s actually a very laborious process, it’s very slow. I wouldn’t say it’s disillusionment, I would say it’s understanding the process.”
About his relatively anonymous and behind-the-scenes work, Penn said, “It’s just not our role here. There is a whole team that does media stuff. Our jobs are just keep our heads down and do good work.”
But the actor could meet other celebrities at the White House. Penn ran into actor and comedian Chris Rock last year. “I’m a huge Chris Rock fan,” he said. “Chris Rock sort of looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you’re that guy!’ and I’m like, ‘Hey Chris, how you doing?’ and he’s like ‘I heard you were here, you’re doing this?’ and I said, ‘I’ll see you inside.’”
However, Penn was not treated as a celebrity at the White House, but he had no complaints about that. “Everyone knows the difference between fact and fiction, suspension of disbelief,” he said. “Everyone knows that Anthony Hopkins didn't actually eat people... I have not actually had an experience where the conversation has been sidetracked by my old life.”
The actor, who appeared on two seasons of Fox’s drama, “House,” and Indian filmmaker Mira Nair’s “The Namesake,” was an adjunct lecturer in Film, Sociology, and Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
He first became involved with the Obama campaign as a volunteer in 2007, and is likely to return to his campaign in 2012, according to reports.