He’s best known as Kumar in the Harold and Kumar films. But Kal Penn’s résumé is a lot more impressive than just a trio of stoner comedies. A regular on shows ranging from House to How I Met Your Mother, the 38-year-old native of Montclair, New Jersey, has also worked as the associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, and recently completed a graduate certificate program at Stanford University in the field of international security. At 10 p.m. Sunday, he co-stars as a small-city police detective in Battle Creek, a new series on CBS.
What attracted you to this new series?
Of all the scripts I read last season, this was the best written. I also had never played a cop before, and I thought that was an interesting angle. There was a lot of humor, but it was an hourlong drama.
Tell us about your character.
I play a detective, he works for a very underfunded police force, and within that realm he finds himself sometimes not playing by the rules. We haven’t really had the chance yet to see if he’s the good cop or the bad cop. He’s doing what gets results. He’s a nice guy but not a pushover. It’s kind of a joy to learn about your character every episode.
You worked in the White House on two different occasions. What did you learn about government because of that experience?
As much as I think all of us are frustrated by the slow pace in Washington, some of it is built in on purpose, through checks and balances. The flip side to that is the types of things that get done get done because people continue to get their voices heard, calling their congressman, writing op-eds. That kind of stuff outside elections forces Congress to support something. I thought that was really cool. Unlike some people who might feel cynical, I had the opposite feeling.
Speaking of changing the culture, the “Harold and Kumar” films did that in a rather subversive way, featuring two non-stereotypical Asian-American average guys. Did you know going in that the films would mark a sea change in the way in which Hollywood looks at the Asian-American community?
This was the first time a major studio made a film about two friends getting burgers and they were not black or white. In the twisted Hollywood mind, that’s considered a risk. But the movie tanked at the box office, even though the Asian-American community was supportive. Then it came out on DVD and cable, and masses of kids were watching it, ordering burgers and getting stoned. It was something in the marketing that made people think they would not like the movie. It’s really a fan-driven franchise.
What got you into acting in the first place?
It was the aspect of storytelling that appealed to me. There were a couple of pivotal moments: I was doing a play in eighth grade, and the school had this thing where everyone in the school had to sit through two scenes of your play before opening night, and we didn’t want to do it, we thought it was social suicide. And right after that, all these folks who teased you for being in drama club, said, “We didn’t know what you were doing, now we want to see the play.” They felt something they hadn’t felt before. And I remember seeing Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury in Mississippi Masala, and it was seeing people who looked like me who were not Apu on The Simpsons. I love playing characters who are different from me, and I love playing Kumar, who is much cooler than me.