Kumar Goes to Washington

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; 12:00 AM

We've had actors-turned-mayors, and actors-turned-governors . . . but actors-turned-White House staffers? That's a new one!

"House" star Kal Penn -- whose character was killed off on Monday's episode -- is taking a sabbatical from acting to work for President Obama. The 31-year-old actor, first launched to fame as a stoner student in the "Harold and Kumar" movies, is coming to Washington to be associate director in the White House Office of Public Liaison, Entertainment Weekly first reported yesterday.

Seriously? The former "cynical independent" met Obama at a fundraiser in late 2007 and became a dedicated, high-profile presence in the campaign's youth-outreach efforts. He'll work primarily with the youth, arts and Asian American communities, the White House told us.

"I was having a great time" on the show, Penn said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. "The word I still use to describe it is bittersweet. It's not like I'm retiring from acting. I certainly intend to come back at some point. Right now, I just felt like my calling was in public service."

The New Jersey native said he's always had two passions: acting and politics. His Indian grandparents marched with Gandhi, and he's been studying international security at Stanford University. He spent a lot of time on the campaign trail and got an itch to continue working on the issues.

He mulled it over for months, then broached the idea to Obama during the inauguration. ("We discussed it briefly.") Penn also talked to presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, who runs the White House public liaison shop, and his agents, managers and accountants. "This is what I really want to do," he told them. "But am I crazy?"

Maybe: "Associate directors" at the White House job earn somewhere in the $60,000-$70,000 range per year; Penn wouldn't say exactly how much he made on "House," but TV actors at his level make around $50,000 per episode. Producers of the Fox drama said they were "thrilled" for him when they found out he was leaving to work for Obama, then pulled off a major surprise by having his character, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, unexpectedly commit suicide.

Penn won't accept any acting jobs during his time in Washington, which he said would last "at least" a year or two. He's not sure when he'll start the new job, but he's coming to D.C. next week to look for an apartment; he already has a lot of college friends and buddies in town. "While I haven't lived here before, I think I have a pretty good sense of what D.C.'s all about," he said. "I'm definitely looking forward to being part of it." He still has to figure out what to do with his L.A. home. Sublet? Refinance? (Stars! Just like us!)

Whatever Penn's future as an actor may hold, there'll be no more "Harold and Kumar" sequels for now. And forget those lame stoner jokes or questions about legalizing marijuana.

"I don't smoke weed in real life," he said, "so it's honestly not something I've given much thought to."


-- Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart touring the National Zoo yesterday with her son Liam; got to see the pandas and the newborn gorilla. The night before it was dinner at Tosca downtown. (She in knee-high black patent-leather boots and leggings; he in blazer and khakis.) No word on what brought the newly engaged actors to town; but he's on the board of Conservation International, based here.

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