From ‘White Castle’ to the White House

Kal Penn tells UC Irvine students to ‘define own success’

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“If people call you crazy, that’s a good thing.”

In his unconventional career as an actor and a civil servant, Penn encouraged UC Irvine students last week to speak to those who disagree, suggesting that there aren’t always traditional answers to success. In an hour-long talk, Penn discussed his journey from UCLA film and sociology student, to accepting a break-through role in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” to his appointment as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Penn said he called himself a cynical independent until Olivia Wilde, his co-star on the Fox medical drama “House,” brought him to a political event, which prompted him to volunteer in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The following year, he was offered the White House job. “I wasn’t going to say, ‘I have another stoner movie to make,’” he jokes, “so I put everything on hold in L.A. and took the job.”

In this role, he organized a presidential signing ceremony, which entailed a Sunday afternoon 10-minute walkthrough of the residential wing of the Executive Mansion the day before. On the way out, he and an intern had opened the door to a long hallway with nowhere else to turn when his companion eyed a lone man at the other end walking toward them. The intern nervously nudged Penn and whispered, “Um, I think that’s Barack Obama. What should we do?” Penn said they had three option: jump outside into some bushes, turn around and walk back into the president’s home, or do what they did: Go ahead and talk to him. Penn, who attempted to explain himself, was relieved by Obama’s understanding.

Penn returned to acting in 2011 to make “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” and since then has juggled acting and White House duties. “Several of you will step foot in the Oval Office before the end of your lives,” Penn says. “Just make sure to shave your face.”

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