The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Kal Penn: From Guantanamo Bay to the White House

April 7, 2009 | 12:02 pm

I know it sounds like a belated April Fool's joke, but apparently it's true. As Entertainment Weekly's Michael Ausiello reports today, Kal Penn is leaving his acting career behind to go to work in the White House. That's right, instead of doing a follow-up to "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay," Penn is leaving his regular gig on Fox's hit series "House" behind to join the Obama administration as associate director in the White House office of public liaison.

As you can tell by that job description, it's not exactly a glamour job -- he's actually going to be a real live low-level White House staffer. As Penn explains, people in his new post "do outreach with the American public and with different organizations. They're basically the front door of the White House. They take out all of the red tape that falls between the general public and the White House."

It turns out that Penn is supremely overqualified to be spending all his waking hours on a TV or film set, gossiping about the latest box-office hit or sharing the details about his latest bowel movement on Twitter. He says that even as a kid, he spent as much time taking "dorky" political science classes as performing in school theater shows. "It's probably because of the value system my grandparents instilled in me," he says. "They marched with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement and that was always in the back of my head.... In 2006, I started this international studies program at Stanford, where they actually let you do most of the course work online. So it was something I could do while I was acting. I thought this might be the right time to go off and do something else."

There are thousands of actors in Hollywood with strong political opinions and passions, but it's always refreshing to see someone willing to put their money where their mouth is, since Penn acknowledges that he'll be taking quite a big pay cut in his new job. "There's not a lot of financial reward in these jobs," he says. "But obviously the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honor."

I was so impressed by Penn's idealism that I almost forgot he was being interviewed by Entertainment Weekly until EW's Ausiello jolted me out of my reverie by steering the interview back to more pressing concerns. Referring to a recent plot development in the "House" series, he asked Penn: "Aren't you bummed you won't be around to experience firsthand the fallout from Cuddy and House having sex?"

Already sounding like a discreet low-level White House staffer, Penn replied: "Do they really?"      

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