Exclusive: Kal Penn on Working for White House's Public Engagement: 'Change Is Not a Light Switch'

For the first time, actor talks about work, says "change is not a light switch."

ByABC News
July 28, 2011, 7:23 PM

July 29, 2011 — -- It's Kalpen Modi's last day of work at the White House today, but it's his first time talking about it.

Many probably recognize him more by his stage name -- Kal Penn, known for playing the lovable stoner Kumar from the "Harold and Kumar" film franchise, or the suicidal Dr. Kutner from the TV series "House, M.D.," or a terrorist from TV's "24."

Working as the associate director for the White House's Office of Public Engagement, the 34-year-old actor has declined multiple requests for interviews until now. On the eve of his departure, Penn sat down for an exclusive interview with ABC News to talk about his work and his views on the political process.

The Office of Public Engagement focuses on creating a dialogue with students around the country about policy. One of Penn's jobs is to engage the elusive young voters who turned out in droves for President Obama in 2008, but now seem to have become more complacent almost three years later.

"I think what I've seen is that there is a realization that change is not a light switch," he said. "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."

While several actors have campaigned for Democratic politicians and presidential candidates, Penn may be the only one in recent memory to go on hiatus from acting to work for a politician full time behind the scenes. It's a decision he said he made for personal reasons.

"I had friends who were over in Iraq and Afghanistan," Penn said. "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."

Seeing this job as an opportunity to serve his country, Penn said the experience has been "awe-inspiring."

One of his fondest memories was the late night in January when he accepted a painting to be given as a gift to Chinese president Hu Jintao. A White House videographer caught the moment on camera, which aired on the White House's "West Wing Week" video series. Watch the video HERE.

"You're standing there at midnight at the South Portico and it's freezing cold outside, and you're receiving a painting for the president that he's going to give to a world leader," Penn said. "You kind of take a moment and kind of realize where you are. It's humbling."