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Up until recently he was working at the White House.
He's hoping to get his graduate certificate in international security from Stanford University soon. He has two classes left to take.
And, oh yes, as Kumar in the Harold & Kumar movies, he's pretty much the modern poster boy for marijuana-smoking slackers. That's pretty funny because Kal Penn is obviously anything but a slacker.
Dude, he doesn't even smoke weed.
"I tend to not offer that information up unless asked because I feel like our hard-core stoner fans would be disappointed to find that out," Penn says.
"I actually never viewed these movies as stoner movies," he says. "I think they're 'flavored' with weed."
If so, that's some strong flavoring.
The third film in the series, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, which was shot in the Detroit area, arrived in theaters Friday. Those looking for more of the raunchy, absurdist, Three-Stooges-on-acid humor that made the first two films cult faves will not be disappointed.
"There's definitely some wild and offensive stuff there, which is why the movies are always rated R," Penn says. "Don't take children to see them."
Making people laugh
For the uninitiated, Penn plays med student stoner Kumar, and John Cho plays investment banker stoner Harold in the series.
The first film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, involved the friends setting out to get some hamburgers and ending up on a wild road trip with a crazed Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself.
In the second film, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, the two are arrested as terrorists when they try to sneak a bong on board a flight to Amsterdam. Somehow Harris is again involved.
This time out, Harold has settled down; but Christmas brings the estranged buddies together again for a night of adventure and another completely unexpected/expected encounter with Harris.
Penn thinks that despite the films' dope-tinged humor and crazed "shenanigans " there's a sweetness in them audiences enjoy.
"John and I have talked about this, and what we love about these characters is they just make people laugh," Penn says. "They're such good-natured kind of fun characters that are the perpetual underdogs."
That Detroit spirit
Penn says shooting the most recent film in the Detroit area was an eye-opener.
"Just the spirit of the people of Detroit is incredible. It's a city that's bouncing back, almost wholly because of the spirit of folks," he says.
"A lot of our crew members were really good guys who had been laid off by some of the auto companies and it was just awesome to know the franchise was including them," Penn says. "It was just a really nice, positive vibe."
Kal Penn was born Kalpen Suresh Modi in Montclair, N.J., 34 years ago. He caught the performing bug young and moved west to attend the University of California at Los Angeles.
By the time he was 22, he was landing small roles on TV shows, then he started standing out in feature comedies, such as Van Wilder and Malibu's Most Wanted.
The first Harold & Kumar came along in 2004, and since then Penn has become the most notable Indian-American actor working in Hollywood. He had a recurring role on 24, starred in the well-received drama The Namesake and then spent two years as a regular on the TV hit House.
But along the way Penn pursued other interests.
He took courses at Stanford. He actually taught for a semester at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. And he campaigned for Barack Obama, volunteer work that led to a job offer as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which he accepted.
His character on House committed suicide, and that's when Mr. Penn went to Washington for two years, taking a leave from acting save for 3D Christmas.
He says his work for the government was even more fulfilling than he'd expected.
"I worked in public engagement, so that means we had the opportunity to talk to folks on a daily basis. Just to know the president increased financial aid, and brought our friends home from Iraq, and repealed don't ask-don't tell -- all these huge problems, they really make the lives of so many people so much better," he says.
"It was really just an inspiring thing to witness from the inside. It was a very humbling, incredible experience."
A role on 'Mother'
But now he's back to acting, somehow surfacing as a recurring character on TV's How I Met Your Mother while promoting 3D Christmas. Does he see more Kumar in his future?
It depends on the audience.
"A lot of people forget that when the first movie came out it did so poorly at the box office that nobody thought we were ever going to see these guys ever again ," Penn says.
"And the fans -- whether they're stoner fans, young or old - they went out and bought the DVD, and that gave us the second one. And then people went to the theaters, which gave us the third one," he says.
"If enough people go to see the movie, we'd love to do another one," Penn says. "I know I love playing this character - he's infinitely cooler than I'll ever be."