Exclusive - Kal Penn Extended Interview

November 2, 2016 - Kal Penn 11/02/2016 Views: 32,974

Kal Penn talks about working for President Obama's 2008 primary campaign and describes how his political experience informed his role in the series "Designated Survivor." (11:17)

Watch Full Episode

Please welcome Kal Penn.

(cheering and applause)

Thank you.

-Welcome.-Thank you, thank you.

Oh, man.Thanks for having me.

-Welcome to the show.-Thank you, sir.

Dude, I've been a fan of yoursfor so long.

Thank you for comingto the show.

Thank you, man.

Yeah, that's nice to hear.

This-- I-I remember, I waswatching all your movies,

and-and then, all of a sudden,you disappeared.

And then I saw onlinea thing that said

you were now working forthe Obama administration.

-Yeah.-I was like, but that's a joke.


'Cause, like,you're high all the time.

-Yeah, no, sure, yeah. -Well,I mean, your character is.

You were high when you werewatching me for long enough.

-I've never smoked weedin my life. -No, of course.

-Or I forgot.-(laughter)

No, yeah. People thoughtthat was a joke,

but it was a, it wasa real thing, which was...

-Pl-- let's-let's go backto that real quick, -Sure.

'cause a lot of peopledon't know this.

So you are an actor knownfor comedies,

extreme comedieslike Harold and Kumar,

-having a great time.-Yeah.

-How do you go from that...-(laughter)

-to working in the White House?-Yeah, sure.

Like, is that oneof those things

where Obama's watching TVand he's like,

"Uh, this guy's funny,bring him in."

I wish. That would be...

That would be the simpler wayto do it.

Uh, no, I guess,if you put it that way,

-it-it sounds completelyridiculous. -Yeah.

But it's actually not a...it's-it's a path

that a lot of peoplehave gone down before.

Taking a leave of absencefrom the private sector,

and then serving in governmentfor a couple of years.

Um, so I was in the company of alot of other people that did it.

In my case,there was a writer's strike.

In 2007, I was on House,

-and we couldn't shootany episodes. -Yes.

I had readthe president's books,

um, saw him campaigna couple times,

and thought,I want to help this guy out.

He was down 30 pointsin the polls.

Uh, I ended up going to Iowa,which is the first state

to vote in the primary process.

And ended up just moving therefor a couple months

to-to volunteerfor his campaign and then...

-You moved to Iowa?-I moved to Des Moines, Iowa.

-Yeah, yeah.-Wow.

It was awesome, I loved it. man.

-Wow. You put in that work, man.-It was cool.

And the, uh, you know, to see anunderdog candidate, you know,

went to 26 other stateson his behalf,

mostly doing outreachto young people.

Uh, and then, you know,

when-when he wins the presidencyand you...

Somebody says, you know, uh,can you serve?

What-what do you say "No, sir, Ihave more stoner movies to make?

-You know, like, you have to...-(laughter)

Like, I'm honored to servemy country, but...

You-you tell him, you're like,"Have you watched House?"


I was a doctor.

No. The-the thing that I thoughtwas most interesting, though,

is that, uh,I was not the only one.

I mean, uh, as I said, thereare, there are so many people

who were taking a leave ofabsence

-from, uh, law professions,-Yeah.

professors, doctors,serving in the White House

for any length of time.

And-and so, it was-- I think itwas a news story, obviously,

'cause I was on a TV showat the time,

but there were literallythousands of other people

doing the exact same thingI was doing.

What was yourfavorite part about working

-in the White House?-Uh...

I would say, you know,I worked in an office

called the Office of PublicEngagement, which is sort of

-the go-between between policy,uh, and real people. -Yes.

So I got to meetall of these actual humans

who were being helped by thingslike the Affordable Care Act

and repealingDon't Ask, Don't Tell

and doubling the Pell Grant.You know, so actually, you know,

actual humans-- Marineswho had gotten discharged, uh,

who the president wanted toinvite to the signing ceremony

for Don't Ask, Don't Tellrepeal. Things like that,

where you actually walk intothat office every day and go,

"Wow, I actually get to meetall of these amazing people

-who the president's..."-You actually see the results

-of the work that is being done.-Yeah.

And, uh, and so, then,after that, you were, like,

"This is... I love this.Maybe I should

go and be ina fake White House on TV."

Because that's what you've donein Designated Survivor.

Uh, sort of. I actually...I didn't, um... I...

When I heard about the show, Ididn't want to audition for it.

-I-I just sort of thought,"All right, I..." -Why not?

I-I kind of felt like I didn'twant the perception to be that,

okay, I've gone, you know,I've worked in politics

-and now I'm doinga political show. -Yes.

Uh, I also was scaredit just wouldn't be challenging.

Um, and then I read the script,and it's this, you know,

far-fetched conspiracy theoryfamily drama thing

with Kiefer Sutherland.I'm like, "No, I'm in."

Why is (bleep) always blowing upin Kiefer Sutherland stories?

Like... I feel likehe's the problem.

-He's so good at it.-Like, if I was in a scene

with Kiefer Sutherland, I'd justbe like, "Oh, it's you, man."

-Yeah, you know-you know that(bleep) gonna go down. -Yeah.

As soon as he walks in,I'd be like, "Oh, this guy?

"Something's gonna go down.I don't know what it is,

-but something's gonna go down."-That's what I like

-about the show.-Yeah, but then you signed on...

I did, yeah, I signed on, uh...And it's also, I liken it to...

You know, people ask,"Well, what are-what are

the differences between thetwo?" I'm like, "well, look,

you..." I would liken it to ifI-if I worked at an airline

as a mechanicfor two and a half years

and then did a play off-Broadway

-playing a flight attendant.-Yes.

That would be sort of thedifference between working

at the real White Housein the office I was in and...

How... how different is it?Because you've worked in the

-real White House, now you'redoing a fake White House. -Yeah.

Are there moments where you're,like, on set, telling people,

you know, like, like,you're Mr. Smarty-pants,

"Well, actually, whenI was in the White House..."

-Yeah. -'Cause I feel likeI would do that all the time.

-I'd be like, "Well,actually..." -You-you sort of

feel weird. I mean, the one...the one similarity

is what, we're on episode fivethat just aired, so we have

a character who, uh, hatesMuslims and doesn't trust

the legitimacyof the sitting president,

-so that's a commonality.-That's not realistic at all,

-though. so, I mean... Carry on,carry on. -Right. Uh...

But we... There are s...You know, it's a sho...

It's not a documentary,so you want to...

The writers are so goodat coming up with crazy (bleep)

over the course of the season.

But my job as...I consult on the show also,

so my job is to say, "This istrue. This is what happened"

or "This wouldn't happen."And I love the creative process,

so I love seeing when they say,"Okay, this would

or wouldn't happen," and thenthey turn it into something...

What's a random thing that wouldand wouldn't happen

-in the real White House, fakeWhite House? -Uh, there's a...

I... This is probably oneof my... one of my favorites.

It's... There are...There's a door to the West Wing,

uh, where, typically, there'sa Marine sentry who stands there

-if the president'sin the West Wing. -Yeah.

Um, and if the president'snot in the West Wing,

this guy's not there.Uh, so they put two,

uh, at a doorto our fake White House.

I'm like, "Oh, guys, you know,there's-there's just one."

Like,"Yeah, but it looks so cool

that there are, like,two Marines standing there."

I was like, "You know what,do it. Why not? If you...

-if that's, you know...It just looks cool." -I love

that you're a consultantthat just lets things go.

Well, I don't have controlover it, at the end of the day.

You're just like, "I'm a greatconsultant. But do whatever

-you want." -But you think aboutit... It... But that's what

-makes good TV, I think, is...-Is the exaggeration

-of the thing.-Absolutely. You have to...

Like, the-the show, in andof itself, all of the craziness

-that happens, I think worksbecause they take it -Yes.

to that kind ofconspiracy theory place.

Here's an honest questionI have for you. Uh, as an actor

who is-- and I hopethis is not a shock to you--

-uh, brown-skinned, um,were you relieved -Yeah.

that it was a characterwhere you weren't being asked

to play the terrorist oryou weren't being asked to play,

you know, the-the stereotype ofwhat people think you should be?

Uh, yes. Uh, it was...

No, I really wanted to playa terrorist. No, uh... (laughs)

Damn. Uh, no, it-it was awesome.You know, David Guggenheim,

who created the show, uh,originally wrote the character

with the name Seth, and, uh...and then... and then I got cast.

So it just sort of shows... Wehave a very diverse, uh, cast,

and I think that's a testamentto the writers and producers.

They just wanted to hire peoplewho they thought

were the best fit for the role,absent, you know, race,

-ethnicity, gender,in some cases. -Yeah.

I think it makesfor better storytelling, too.

But, yeah, it was...I mean, you know, it's 2016.

It's nice to actually be a humaninstead of just...

-just the one-dimensionality.Yeah. -It's nice. It's nice.

Uh, before I let you go,you've got, um...

you've got a great résumé now.You-You've gone from

working in the White Houseto acting in the White House.

Want to combine the two

and then maybe work actingin the White House?

-Like, become the president,be the acting... -Like... No.

-No? -Gosh. No, I just likesupporting people

who are running, so, you know...

-You could be vice president.-I c... Uh...

Tim Kaine's gonna do an amazingjob as vice president.

You could be, like,an Indian Joe Biden.

-Ooh. I mean, I like Joe Biden,so that's... -Yeah?

The... Yeah. All right.Like, but I have to wait then.

I have to... I have to waituntil I'm of age.

-What do you mean?-Like, Joe Biden is a G.

Right? Like, think...Like, Joe Biden... Seriously.

-I can... I love... I love thatyou... -I like that you have

to build up your G-ness.That's what you're saying.

Of course I have to build upmy G-ness. I'm a huge nerd

right now. I have to build upthe G-ness of Joe Biden.

I love that it could gofrom Joe Biden to Tim Kaine,

who is also a G, by the way.He worked with us in 2007

-in the Obama campaign.-Wh-When you say "G,"

-what does that mean though?-I just think...

Like, do you mean, like,a policy G or, like, a...

No, he's an actual... Well,I mean, he's not, you know...

Tim Kaine doesn't seemthe most G person out there.

-Which I get. But I-I...-I'm not trying to be mean

-to Tim Kaine. Super nice guy.Super funny. -No...

Sweet, like, cool guy.But he doesn't seem G.

He is incredibly tough,

um, and I think that's somethingthat people don't see

because he-he's tough andthoughtful at the same time.

-So if you read...-Really?

He-he wrote, um, hewrote an Op-Ed recently

that talked about decisionshe had to make

on the death penalty whenhe was governor of Virginia,

um, and how he struggledwith both his faith

-versus his role as governor,-Yeah.

um, particularly for appealsfor death role inmates.

And reading that piece,I just thought,

what an honestkind of heartfelt...

It definitely reflects the guy

who I had the chanceto work with a little bit.

But, um, but that's notthe kind of thing

that most politicianswill talk about openly.

-Yes, yes. -You know, to say,"Here was a challenge

"that I metand this is why I think

it makes me strongerto serve my country."

You-you, uh, are nowa surrogate for Hillary...

-I am. -but you werea Bernie supporter.

I was a Bernie supporter.

And a lot of people worry thatBernie fans and supporters

-wouldn't be able to convert,-Yeah.

uh, to Hillary.

I say it like it's a religion.

-But, uh...-(laughter)

-I'm... yeah.-It was, in a way.

-Eh, for a lot of people, yeah.-Yeah.

Why the switch?

I mean, you went, like you said,you like the underdog,

-you went from Obama,-Yeah.

was an underdog,and then Bernie also had that

-and then he started sweepingthrough the states. -Sure.

Why the switchand was it difficult for you?

Uh, it was not difficultfor me for...

You know, one of the big reasonsI wanted to support Bernie

was his collegeaffordability plan.

So, you know, free college,find a way to pay for it,

make that work.

That was a big drive.

I also, you know,both Bernie and Hillary,

I thought, were goingto do a tremendous job

protectingthe president's legacy

-and a lot of his achievements.-Yeah.

Going back to, you know,having met all of these people

who actually benefitfrom things,

like college affordability

and the repeal of don't ask,don't tell.

It scares the crap out of methat the other sides

-actually wants to gutall of these programs. -Yes.

Doesn't have a planto replace any of them, right?

-Um... Oh, you can...-(applause)


I forget you havea progressive crowd.

-We do, we do.-Yeah. Uh...

So Bernie, you know, I thoughtdid a great primary campaign.

Hillary then takes thatcollege affordability plan

and that's literally exactly howa primary is supposed to work.

-So then you hear...-You're supposed to come out

with the best ideasand then one candidate...

You come out with the best ideasand you... yeah.

And so hearing that a lot ofour Bernie supporter friends

say, "Well, she's just tryingto get your vote,

that why she took that plan."

-Well, yeah.-(laughter)

Like, that's how it works.

That's exactly what she'ssupposed to do.

That's exactly whatshe should be doing

-is, "That's a better plan..."-"She's only changing

-so that I vote for her."-Yeah.

Like, yeah, because we want toget that education plan passed.

And there's a wayto pay for it.

I mean,obviously nothing is free.

You have to fix tax loopholes

and raises taxeson idiots like me and you.

Um... and you pay for it.

You get college paid for.

So that was a big thing.

And then, you know, the factthat she chose Tim Kaine

and she actually has,you know...

I love your opening segment

'cause you talk,as you do, you deconstruct

-all the nonsense of whatcable news is saying. -Yes.

'Cause I was talking to friendsabout this this week.

They're like, "So, what areyou thinking about,

like, everything in the news?"

Like, nothing in the newsright now is real.

Like, at all. Right?

Yeah, well, it sounds realbut it's not.

-It's...-It's sort of like your show.

-Exactly.-That's really what it is.

It sells ad spaceand it's really fun to watch

-Yes.-but it's not based on reality.

They probably have you in thenewsroom doing the same thing.

Someone goes,"Why don't we say

the FBI has openedthe investigation."

And someone goes,"Oh, that's not realistic."

And they're like,"But it looks cool on TV."

-Exactly, why not?-Probably the same thing.

Dude, thank you so muchfor coming to the show.

Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

-I hope you come backand join us again. -Thank you.

You gotta come backand join us again.

Designated Survivor is on ABC,Wednesdays at 10:00.

Kal Penn, everybody!

(cheering, applause)