Kal Penn hangs up 'House' coat for government job

ByBill Keveney, USA TODAY
April 7, 2009, 9:21 PM

— -- Pick your shocker: Dr. Kutner's suicide on Fox's House Monday, or actor Kal Penn's decision to leave the high-profile, high-paying job to join the Obama administration.

Penn acknowledges even he thinks it's "a little insane" to leave a hit show for the White House Office of Public Liaison, but he says public service and acting have always been his twin passions.

Penn, 31, says House co-star Olivia Wilde invited him to an Obama fundraiser in October 2007, and he found the candidate inspiring. He started doing campaign outreach to artists, young voters and Asian Americans, and he decided to pursue a job after the election. "It's always been on my mind," says Penn, who plans to return to acting at some point.

He spoke to the president-elect about the potential move and has friends in the administration, but he "filled out an application on change.gov, the same thing as a lot of other folks did."

The star of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle says he hasn't been treated differently because of his background. (He's already heard all the House/White House/White Castle puns.)

Penn will be an associate director in the public liaison office, "the front door of the White House," and will continue to work with artists' and Asian-American groups.

Producers say they are happy for Penn but that his departure gave them a creative problem. They decided in December on suicide, a plot twist that comes out of the blue with no explanation of why the seemingly happy House subordinate would shoot himself in the head.

Penn's departure "gave us the opportunity to do something unexpected, and what's fascinating about it is it's a question House can't answer. And he's the man who has the answers to everything," creator David Shore says.

House will explore how Kutner's suicide affects all the characters, he says.

"I was probably as shocked as anyone" about Kutner's demise, Penn says.

On the new job, he expects the same long hours but a stricter dress code: "I'm going to need to do some suit shopping."

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