- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

Actor Kal Penn woke up Monday and boarded the bus for work at the White House, attempting to shed both his screen name and Hollywood fame as he enters a new chapter of public service in Washington.

The newest member of President Obama’s administration, who will go by his legal name of Kalpen Modi, acted like a regular guy who just happens to be working as the associate director in the Office of Public Engagement. An Indian-American, Mr. Modi’s job will be doing outreach to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and to those in the arts community.

He quipped he didn’t want to be late for his first meeting, and called himself boring.

But in a testament to the fact that he’s not a regular guy, having starred in the popular “Harold and Kumar” films and having a lead role on Fox’s “House” television series, Obama aides put the new hire on a conference call for reporters who had been asking about the actor for months since his post was announced.

“I’m a pretty normal guy,” the 32-year-old actor said when peppered with inquiries about whether he’d picked out a new tie and whether he’d bought a D.C. condo. (He’s renting.)

Among the other questions were his salary — he declined to disclose it, even though the taxpayer-funded paycheck eventually will be disclosed in public records — and what he wore on his first day on the job.

During the spring, Mr. Modi told entertainment reporters the move would result in a large pay cut.

Monday, he insisted, “My life is much like that of my colleagues.”

“I expect to be treated just like any other staff member,” he said, adding that his first day involved a lot of paperwork but that he’s “eager to dive in.”

Mr. Modi also was asked about when he would return to acting — including an already billed 2010 “Harold and Kumar” Christmas special. He said he enjoyed playing “Kumar,” a marijuana-obsessed genius that offered a break to Asian-American stereotypes, in the first film and its sequel, and wouldn’t hint whether he’ll star in the next one following his self-imposed acting sabbatical.

“I hope the folks making those films respect my decision to take a sabbatical,” he said.

The actor isn’t all Hollywood — he was a guest lecturer teaching Asian-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.

Mr. Modi, called “Kal” by the celebrity reporters on the call, played shy when asked how he’d prepared for his first day of work.

“I brushed my teeth, I did floss, used mouthwash, took the bus to work,” he said, adding when asked his wardrobe choice, “I’m wearing a suit.”

During the campaign, he was one of the most reliable surrogates for Mr. Obama after, he said, signing up to volunteer like any other supporter.

But campaign aides said in 2007 the actor called them to offer his unsolicited help for Mr. Obama’s then long-shot candidacy. He surpassed their best expectations and attracted young voters across the nation, starring in at least 14 campaign videos on YouTube and appearing at multiple events on the candidate’s behalf.

“Kal was one of the hardest-working volunteers we had in Iowa,” said Tommy Vietor, an assistant White House press secretary who worked on the campaign. “He visited nearly every high school in the state and didn’t care if he was met by five or 50 students, or if he nearly got lost in a blizzard trying to get there.”

Mr. Modi heaped praise on his new boss, Mr. Obama, on Monday, telling reporters he hopes to further the “honest dialogue Americans have grown to believe in” and calling the job a “great honor” at an “incredibly historic time.”

“I hope to serve my country to the best of my ability,” he said.

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