politics + hollywood | July 28, 2011

Kal Penn's Three-Year Journey at The White House Ends Today

Today, actor Kal Penn leaves the White House after a three-year stint as Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement. He describes his time serving his country as both “awe-inspiring” and “humbling.” In 2009, the former star of House, 24, and the Harold and Kumar franchise shocked Hollywood by stopping his career, midstream, to engage in politics full time. Though there is a long tradition of actors endorsing politicians, Penn—whose birth name is Kalpen Modi—may be the only actor in recent memory to delve headfirst into politics.

In an exclusive ABC News interview airing tonight, Penn, for the first time, talks about working for President Obama as a liason, helping Asian-American communities engage in a variety of social initiatives. On his decision to leave an acting career which, to all observers, was in full flight, Penn said, "I had friends who were over in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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."

On enacting change—the signature phrase of Obama’s administration—Penn says, "I think what I've seen is that there is a realization that change is 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."
A keynote speaker known for his eloquence and depth of intention, Penn talks about how students can get engaged—and why they must. Real change takes time, he explains, but it’s worth the satisfying effort. Penn looks at the intrinsically political nature of pop culture to tell us how the worlds of pop and politics can reinforce, but also challenge and overturn, racial stereotypes, and how they can be leveraged to enact lasting societal change. Drawing on one of the most unique career arcs of any actor today, Kal Penn is a keynote speaker who took an enormous and unprecedented risk—one that provides the backdrop for a fascinating speech.

Starting this fall, Kal Penn will be joining the cast of the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, starring alongside his old Kumar colleague Neil Patrick Harris.

Watch the ABC News interview here.

Read more about pop culture and politics speaker Kal Penn