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Q&A: Kal Penn on Obama, Harold & Kumar and 'The Big Brain Theory'

The former White House staffer is back on TV with a high-concept reality show

May 14, 2013 1:55 PM ET
Kal Penn
Kal Penn
Jason Elias

Kal Penn's Indian grandparents marched with Gandhi; their American grandson might be best known for starring in the Harold & Kumar stoner movies. The New Jersey native, also recognized for his recurring roles on House and How I Met Your Mother, has a unique ability to bridge high and low concepts. His natural skills as an ambassador earned him a job in the Obama administration, where he served as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. Set to star in a "Kafkaesque" indie film called Dementamania, Penn is also the host of the new Discovery Channel competition series The Big Brain Theory, in which world-class engineers race against time (and each other) to build missile interceptors and other wildly dangerous designs.

On reality TV, says Penn, "we're used to seeing someone yelling and screaming because someone slept with someone else's girlfriend. In this case, you're yelling and screaming because you think you have the best solution to a global problem. Which is actually kind of awesome." He talked to Rolling Stone about the show, the legend of Bruce Springsteen and passing his White House security clearance after the Harold & Kumar movies.

You've said you recognize similarities between Washington D.C. and Hollywood. What are they?
Obviously they're both great, vibrant cities on their own accord, but they're known for being one-industry towns, unlike New York or Chicago. So it's sort of the cliché – if you're out in L.A., even the waitstaff are aspiring actors and screenwriters. And there's an equivalent to that in D.C., where everywhere you go everyone has a connection to politics – whether you go to dinner and the people next to you are lobbyists, or whatever. The other thing I notice is in Hollywood, the people you're surrounded by are the most creative people you'll ever meet. It's similar in D.C., except much more cerebral. I wish you could combine the two. 

How were the contestants for The Big Brain Theory picked? You have to look at them not just in terms of skill level but what kind of personality they're going to bring.
They searched pretty far and wide, in places like M.I.T. and Carnegie Mellon, plus lot of think tanks and the private sector, too. Some of the contestants are in government contracting jobs or academia. It's not just a question of who's the smartest engineer, but who's the most dynamic – how are they going to work in groups? It's not a scripted reality show. It's more of a documentary competition kind of thing. None of the drama – even the yelling and screaming and crying – none of that was instigated or planned, which is great. We have 10 amazing engineers, and I'd say half of them are socially awkward, and the other half are extremely confident, bordering on arrogant. And the combination of the two makes for fantastic television.

It's stressful – they've got a time limit, and they've got to ram their own idea through if they feel it's the right one.
Yeah, and it's cool to see. On reality TV, we're used to seeing someone yelling and screaming because someone slept with someone else's girlfriend. In this case, you're yelling and screaming because you think you have the best solution to a global problem. Which is actually kind of awesome. In some of the challenges you'll see, one team fails and the other succeeds. And the winning team will go to the judges – "Can we help the losing team complete what they wanted to do, to see if it works?" The emphasis is on innovation. They're in it to win, but still want the loser to succeed. That's awesome. I certainly wasn't expecting that.

The Stoner Movie Hall of Fame

One of my sons proudly wears a T-shirt that says "Nerd." When I was a kid, you'd be run out of town by a torch-bearing mob. What do you think was the turning point, when we all began recognizing and appreciating intelligence?
I feel like this generation of young people does not see things as mutually exclusive – you can be a nerd and an athlete, or a nerd and make music videos. This is a generation that has grown up with a lot of technology. They have an appreciation for it, and they know it's not magic. Somebody had to sequence a bunch of ones and zeros to make something happen. I heard from a lot of college kids when the Harold & Kumar movies came out, and they'd say, "I'm a medical student, and I'm also a stoner. Everyone thinks you can't be both. That's so cool, that your characters are smart, yet they're still stoners." The old-school thinking that you can be this or that – I don't think that's the reality this generation, particularly under 25, are growing up with. And that's awesome. It's much more balanced, I think, than when I was in high school.

You taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania, right?
It was a film, Asian-American studies and sociology class. It was supposed to be two classes, one about contemporary teen movies, but because of my work schedule on House, I ended up having to drop one. I majored in both film and sociology at UCLA, and it always kind of weirded me out that there were a lot of film theory professors who'd never set foot on a film set before. By the same token, a lot of the production classes don't really teach you about film imagery. The studios do tend to use archaic methods of casting and production, and anything that strays from that is seen as taking a risk, right? I thought it'd be cool to have the chance to merge the two.

And you're studying now at Stanford.
I just finished my graduate program a couple of weeks ago.

What are you planning on doing with that?
Nothing. I was just interested in it, in International Security. It comes from my interest in cultural diplomacy – how we use the arts for people-to-people understanding. Obama's done a great job of that, and Reagan did a great job with it, too. I started the program eight years ago, and Stanford lets working professionals start and stop. I think I abused that a little by taking eight years to graduate [laughs] . . . I don't have plans to apply to work at a think tank or anything, but at some point I would love to merge my arts background with some of that stuff.

I'm curious how much crap you took in the White House about Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, that scene where you're smoking a joint with the George W. Bush character.
Actually, it's funny – that question only comes up in interviews. Nobody brought that up [in the White House]. Everyone understands the difference between fact and fiction. I ran into a couple of folks who worked for President Bush, and they'd seen the movie, and they thought it was hilarious. In fact, you go through this background clearance, and I thought they were going to ask me about these movies. One of the questions was, "Have you ever been fired from a job?" And I said yes. "For what?" For not being funny enough. I got fired from a sitcom 10 years ago. But that question is really if you embezzled money or something.

You grew up in Springsteen territory, in New Jersey. Does everyone there have a story about running into Bruce at the Costco?
Oh, dude, he went to my rival high school. He's huge, obviously, but not really in the realm of urban legend – he's so respected as a guy from the community. It's more a sense of pride, and that goes for Bon Jovi too. I always like to say that being from New Jersey is like an ethnicity, no matter where you are in the world.

So, 20 years from now: east coast or west coast? D.C. or Hollywood?
That's a good question. I have not considered working for anyone other than the president. I have no plans to run for office or anything like that. I love that I had the chance to do it for two years and then go back to my first love, which is making ridiculous movies and TV shows [laughs]. But I wouldn't rule it out if somebody inspired me. I would love to follow up at some point on the grad school stuff and do something in the cultural diplomacy realm. I look to guys like Ben Stein, for example, who worked for two presidents and still gets to act. Who knows? As an actor, you can barely see six months down the road [laughs].

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