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Talented Mr Modi

Ashley Parker 

Ashley Parker on how Kal Penn made a seamless transition from the White House to Hollywood.

Turns out, the cannabis-smoking alter ego of Kalpen Modi (who is perhaps better known by his stage name, Kal Penn) never even came up when Modi underwent a background check before taking a job in the Obama administration.

But his comedy credentials were a different matter. “You have to list the jobs you’ve been fired from,” Modi says, “and the two jobs I was fired from were sitcom pilots, because the executive producer didn’t believe I was funny enough. So I was looking at these forms like, ‘How do I word this in a diplomatic way, because I want to be honest?’ And I wrote, ‘Fired for not being funny enough.’”(The agents, at least, found that funny.) Security questions behind him, Modi quickly learned that life in the West Wing was not at all like, well, life in The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s idealised version of the presidency.

“I was there my first night until 11 pm and I was like, ‘Sweet, let’s order Chinese food,’” Modi says. “And everybody was like, ‘You can’t actually order delivery to the White House.’ I was like, ‘But they do it on West Wing!’”

When Modi, 34, joined the administration in July 2009 as an associate director in the Office of Public Engagement, he had always said he was taking a two-year sabbatical from acting. In fact, he ended up taking a sabbatical from his sabbatical, to film the third installment in the Harold & Kumar series, and this summer, he left the White House to return to Los Angeles.

Modi, who is now promoting that new film, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, has always had something of a wonky bent. He says that he was drawn to public service having grown up listening to grandparents talk about marching with Gandhi. When he joined Barack Obama’s quixotic campaign, he was an easy fit among the earnest, grassroots crowd.

Arun Chaudhary, who worked on the campaign and in the administration as a videographer, remembers meeting Modi for the first time in Iowa, early in the morning. Chaudhary, who was used to filming celebrity endorsements, was expecting to film a funny, lighthearted video of Modi and two other actors, but Modi had other plans. “He was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this and we’re doing this for real and it’s not going to be a joke,’” Chaudhary says, adding, “I think he’s less of an ‘actor-y actor’ than other actors. When he took his job at the White House, it didn’t matter that he was an actor. He became one of us so fast.”

* * *

His White House colleagues frequently mention this: the way Modi so affably and seamlessly integrated himself into the bureaucratic culture.

“He did a lot of grunt work and did a lot of unglamorous work and basically did the job of a consummate D.C. staffer,” says Jon Lovett, who worked in the administration as a speechwriter, but who, like Modi, recently decamped for Los Angeles. “You’d go into his office and he’d be surrounded by stacks of paper, in the corner, on the phone, dealing with five different things at once, a half-eaten sandwich at his desk.”

Tina Tchen, who worked with Modi when she was director of the Office of Public Engagement, remembers meeting him during the first night of the Democratic convention. “He was wearing a yellow vest and passing out signs,” she says, “kind of on the floor doing ‘gofer’ work, when there were many other very famous celebrities looking for their special seat on the floor. And that impressed me: the fact that he knew these issues and cared about the president.”

Jon Carson, currently the director of the Office of Public Engagement, says that Modi was “incredibly hard-working and incredibly creative,” and credits him with starting the young American roundtables this year. The president dropped by a few of the roundtables, and administration officials participated in many of them.

Citing Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power — two academics who took leaves of absence from their jobs to join the administration — Modi says that he was just one of many people who briefly put their lives on hold to work for the president.

The only real reminders that he wasn’t like every other staff member came when he was mugged at gunpoint and it became tabloid fodder, or when, early into his time in Washington, a gossip column ran an item asking where in the world he was, because he hadn’t been spotted out and about.

“It was like, because I’m at work?” Modi says, laughing. “I didn’t go to Washington to pop into the White House for two hours, and then go out and drink.” In addition to his new movie, Modi also has a deal under way as an executive producer and actor in a comedy about the United Nations.

“It’s a workplace comedy about who’s sleeping with who, who went out the night before,” he says. “I don’t think many of us, myself included, really know what goes on at the UN, so creative liberties can be taken.”

But he’s not done with Washington yet. He says he has already signed up to work on Obama’s re-election campaign, and adds that if Obama wins a second term, “I would love to continue in some capacity.” Currently he is “doing the bicoastal thing” (he kept his apartment in Washington) and sees similarities between the two cities, which, he says, “are both company towns.”

“You go out to dinner in L.A. and from the waiters and busboys to the customers, everyone’s got a script, everyone’s got an agent and you just run into people who work in the industry,” he says. “And in D.C., it’s the same. You’re grabbing dinner on your way home at 10:30 p.m. and even if you’re just picking up from somewhere, you see a dozen Hill staffers there.”

At the end of a brief phone conversation about Modi, Carson pointed out, half in jest, that it would be nice if this article also mentioned “a few paragraphs on the American Jobs Act”. When told that Modi had already brought up that very bill unprompted, Carson let out a chuckle.

“Ah, that Kal!” he said, sounding delighted. “He’s always on message.”

The New York Times

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First Published: Sat, November 19 2011. 00:41 IST