The last time we saw Kal Penn on a TV screen, he was dead.
His character on “House” committed suicide in a 2009 episode that ended his time on the show and allowed him to take a job working in the White House. He took a two-year break from acting — minus a few months to shoot the third “Harold and Kumar” movie last year — to work in the Obama administration’s Office of Public Engagement.
Penn is now jumping back into acting, starting Monday night (Oct. 3) when he begins a guest arc on “How I Met Your Mother.” He’s playing Kevin, a court-appointed therapist for Robin (Cobie Smulders), who’s charged with assault and ordered to undergo anger management counseling.
Penn talked with Zap2it Monday about his re-entry into show business, his time in Washington and how Kevin comes to “have the hots” for Robin.
Zap2it: How did you come to the part on “How I Met Your Mother”?
Kal Penn: When I was getting ready to leave D.C., I talked to my acting manager … and asked what’s out there. Are there any neat parts in movies, any TV stuff going on? He said, How about this? I know you’re a fan of “How I Met Your Mother,” and they’re looking for someone to play Robin’s love interest. I thought that would be awesome to do that, and obviously to work with Neil [Patrick Harris, Penn’s “Harold and Kumar co-star] again. And I had briefly worked with Alyson Hannigan when I did an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” [“Beer Bad,” from Season 4] back in the day. I love the show so much, and they’re all so great. So I said yeah, pursue it, and thankfully, [creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas] were also interested, and it worked out.
Were you worried about being rusty when you got back in front of the camera?
I was worried about that. When I left I knew it was going to be a two-year sabbatical, although it was nice to be able to shoot the film [“A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas,” due out Nov. 4] in the middle. But aside from having played Kumar, I hadn’t played a comedic character in a little while. Kutner on “House” was not the same as Kevin on “How I Met Your Mother.” So I was a little nervous, but I have to say the cast and the producers, the writers, everyone on “How I Met Your Mother” was so awesome that I feel like I just fell back into it.
We’ve only seen a little glimpse of Kevin. What can you tell us about him?
You find out in tonight’s episode that he went to Harvard for undergrad, Princeton for grad school, then back to Harvard for post-doc work, so he’s very — he’s got all his degrees lined up, but he’s quirky in his own way. You find out a little about his family as the season progresses, and the big dilemma of course is he ends up having the hots for Robin. … And I feel like he’s got his own, not anger issues per se, but he’s very colorful for a guy who usually treats people with anger issues.
How many episodes are you doing?
I think the exact number is up in the air, but it’s between five and eight between now and the end of the year. So it’s a nice arc.
Will Kevin’s relationship with Robin take some time, since he can’t really date a patient?
I think you do find out by the second or third episode how they manage to do that. The nice thing about a show like “How I Met Your Mother” is there are so many opportunities to flash back and forward that you can learn stuff pretty quickly without having to wait a few more episodes.
Are you working mostly with Cobie, or do you get involved with the whole cast?
It’s the whole gang. I think tonight’s episode is just in the therapist’s office, but after that there’s a fair amount of interaction. It’s been fun, especially [being] on sets that I’ve watched. I’m such a fan of the show, so it was cool to be in the apartment and be at the bar.
Are you back into acting full-time now? Are you looking do another series, movie roles?
If I have the privilege and good fortune of doing all those things, that would be great. … The plan ws to take a little sabbatical, then come back and do movies and TV. I’m developing a pilot for NBC, which I’m very excited about. That’s always a long shot, because you never know if something’s going to get picked up or not, but that would be fun if it worked out. If not, hopefully I’ll do some movies.
What was working for the White House like?
I was one of the associate directors of the Office of Public Engagement, which is basically the outreach office of the White House. I was working on youth outreach, and when I started I was also handling arts outreach, which were the two things I had done on the president’s campaign.
It was a great experience. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican — I’m kind of a middle-of-the-road guy, so it was a really neat experience to work with really smart people who are just trying to do good things.
Does anything stand out from your work on “How I Met Your Mother” so far?
They do a great job with their guest stars. You really end up learning a lot about them. What’s fun in this case is as a dude, usually when you have a love interest — the way story structure works, the woman ends up reacting to the guy, because men are usually who the story follows. In this case it’s flipped because Robin’s the lead and Kevin’s not. … As an actor it’s been a blast to play a role where you know infinitely more about Robin than you do about Kevin at the start, and the things you learn about Kevin are often from Robin’s perspective, and she’s hilarious. … It’s been fun to see things that way.
Penn’s first episode of “How I Met Your Mother” airs at 8 p.m. ET Monday on CBS.