Kal Penn is not your typical actor. Sure, he can play a variety of roles — from a stoner on an odyssey to find the perfect hamburger, to a suicidal doctor working under Dr. Gregory House — but his best role yet has been in real life, working for the White House. Penn visited the College on Monday, April 14, to give a heartfelt lecture about his transition from Hollywood to Washington D.C. in Kendall Hall’s Main Stage Theater.
The actor-turned-civil-servant proved to the audience that there was much more behind the man than what many fans see in his films and television shows by sharing personal anecdotes about scoring his first major audition and organizing events for the President.
As the Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, Penn has given his all to making a difference in the country where he sees major flaws, like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the overwhelming student debts. He willingly took a sabbatical from his flourishing acting career following Barrack Obama’s first presidential election and continues to go back and forth between the two jobs.
“It can be done. It (staggers) your career development in your primary career so you just have to be okay with that,” Penn said about juggling his multiple responsibilities in an interview with The Signal.
In October 2007, Penn saw that Obama was down 30 points in the polls. Along with his aversion to the injustices he found around him, he was inspired to volunteer with his then “House” co-star Olivia Wilde, working as campaign surrogates.
Once Obama won the election the following year, there was an open position for the job that Penn had occupied during the campaign. When he was later offered the position full-time, Penn recalled thinking how he could never turn it down.
“I’m sorry, Mr. President. I have another stoner movie to do. I’m going to have to decline,” Penn joked.
Since then, Penn has continued working on getting the nation’s youth to vote as well as promoting Arts and Asian-American outreach.
Of the night’s many White House stories, Penn reflected on one of the first events he had to organize for the President, who would be signing an executive order for the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Penn could feel the pressure creeping up on him on the days before the event.
“I could only imagine a Politico article coming out the next day with the headline ‘Kumar screws up first White House event,’” Penn laughed.
In his final moments on stage, Penn wanted to give students a few pieces of advice to adhere to, one of them very pertinent to people in the room who have been struggling deciding their career paths and switching majors.
“If your interests change, people will probably call you crazy, and it’s probably a good thing,” Penn said. “It’s okay to find happiness from something other than a steady income.”
So go out there and follow your dreams. Kal Penn told you to.