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Actor Kal Penn: From Kumar To Cultural Diplomat

KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

Kal Penn is best known for his stoner role as Kumar in the "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” films. But Penn is also a former member of President Obama’s administration, where he worked on youth, art, and Asian American outreach.      

Penn gained an interest in politics and public service through his family, particularly his grandparents who marched with Gandhi. He grew up in New Jersey where the first “Harold and Kumar” movie takes place.

I always like to say being from New Jersey is sort of like an ethnicity. No matter where you are in the world, when you find out that somebody else is from New Jersey all of a sudden you’re instantly friends.

A registered independent, Penn’s journey to the White House began in 2007 after he volunteered for the Obama campaign in Iowa. When Obama won the election, Penn was asked if he wanted a job in the administration.

I was obviously very honored to have a chance to work there. It’s like, what are you going to say: “No, I’m going to make some more stoner movies, I’m sorry I can’t serve my country.” Of course, I’m honored to come in, and I really loved it. It was an amazing two years there.

A recent graduate of the International Security program at Stanford University, Penn is fascinated by cultural diplomacy and how artists can bridge the gap between societies.

I think the connection is that sometimes we tend to forget, and by we I mean holistically. You open up the newspaper and your read about some far off place, and we often don’t view this as: “Oh, this might be a group of people that listens to music,” or, “What are the novels that they like, or what’s the music scene like over there?”

Penn plans to continue his richly textured life. He has a new television show coming up in the fall, but he also sees public service in his future as well.