Let Them Eat Cake: Kal Penn visits Bellarmine

| October 18, 2011

As one of the stars of the “Harold & Kumar” film franchise and the TV shows “House” and “How I Met Your Mother,” no one would have ever suspected actor Kal Penn would leave his budding acting career to work long hours as the Associate Director for the White House Office of Public Engagement under the Obama administration.

But that’s exactly what the 34-year-old actor decided to do in the Spring of 2009, bowing out of the hit show “House,” with his character killed off just before Penn announced he would depart the FOX drama for a job in D.C.

It leaves one to wonder what would cause the young, talented actor to give up a flourishing career for the slightly less glamorous position in the White House Office of Public Engagement, but as Penn explained at Bellarmine University on Monday night, he wanted to serve his country and had always felt an interest in both the arts and public service.

Kal Penn addressed the students at Bellarmine.

Kal Penn addressed the students at Bellarmine.

As I sat through Penn’s speech, he told the story of his journey from Hollywood to D.C. and back. Extremely down to earth and open to students’ questions and comments, Penn was honest about his transition from his days playing the stoned character Kumar Patel in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” to a very serious and determined associate director at the White House.

As he spoke about his attempt to leave “House” for the White House, his story surprisingly began to transcend the tale of an acting aficionado turned political correspondent. Deep within his story, was a lesson for anyone with a dream or high aspirations that have been clouded with doubt and criticism from others.

Penn first told the audience about his experience in high school, when his guidance counselor told him he was not allowed to study both the performing arts and international studies at his school.

“Our public high school system had a magnet program – one for performing arts and one for international studies,” Penn explained. “I wanted to go to both. I applied to both and got into both, and I sat down with my guidance counselor and asked, ‘Can I go to both?’ And she said ‘No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You have to decide.’”

Penn was never one to take no for an answer, so he petitioned the school to allow him to study both subjects. After the administration turned him down, Penn was again reminded by his guidance counselor, “I’m telling you Kal, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Years later, Penn faced a similar dilemma when he chose to leave “House” to work for President Obama. When Penn called his agent to ask whether he could leave the show to work for the president, his agent answered with a “No.” However, Penn later found out his agent never even asked the show’s producers on Penn’s behalf.

That’s when Penn decided to approach the higher-ups himself.

“I walked into David Shore’s office (creator of “House”) and said, ‘Here’s the deal. I have this opportunity. It would mean a lot to me to have a chance to serve my country here, can I do it?’” Penn said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Yea if it means that much to you. You should go do it. You have my blessing.’”

Penn was initially shocked by Shore’s easy-going response, but he soon learned why Shore had answered in the way he did.

“He said: Well here’s the deal. I used to be a lawyer,” Penn said, recalling Shore’s words. “I went to law school. I was a practicing lawyer and I didn’t really like it. I always wanted to be a screenwriter, and I never had the guts to move out to New York or California and just write a script even for 6 months to see if I could sell it. And I finally did. I moved to California. Everybody in my law firm told me I was crazy. Everyone said that I would fail as a screenwriter. I did it anyway, and I sold the show called ‘The Practice,’ and then I sold ‘House,’ and here we are.’”

Kal Penn at Bellarmine.

Kal Penn at Bellarmine.

Penn had learned that David Shore took a huge risk in his career, just like Penn was about to do.

“I thought, ‘So you understand what I’m going through, where it makes absolutely no sense to take a job where you are actually stable on a really fun show, making decent money to go make no money with no stability across the country.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think you should do it, go ahead.’”

Penn went ahead with the risk and worked for two years under the Obama administration. In June 2010, he left his position to work on the third installment of the “Harold & Kumar” film series, “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas.” He then returned to his job as associate director after his work had been completed, and in July 2011, he left the White House to film “How I Met Your Mother.”

With all the back and forth from acting to politics, it would seem like Penn is unsure as to what career path he ultimately wants to commit to.

But, it looks as if that back and forth is what Penn’s been wanting along. He’s enjoying a career in arts and politics and proving his guidance counselor wrong; and, he’s showing the world that you can in fact have your cake and eat it too.

photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | Voice-Tribune

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Category: Between the Lines

About the Author (Author Profile)

Ashley Anderson

Ashley spends half her time writing stories at The Voice-Tribune office and half her time out on the town conducting interviews, while occasionally dressing in wild outfits to fully immerse herself in the experience (aka Princess Leia at Comic Con). Ashley is a huge UofL fan and loves the Yankees and the Boston Celtics (she is fully aware of the irony). She hopes to one day outshine Erin Andrews on ESPN and enjoys running, Bardstown Road/Fourth Street, Breaking Bad and reality TV (she’s not ashamed to admit that).

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