Kal Penn

Kal Penn Biography

Film Actor, Government Official, Television Actor, Actor (1977–)
Actor Kal Penn is best known for his performances in the 'Harold and Kumar' comedy films. He has also served President Barack Obama's administration in a variety of roles.


Born in New Jersey in 1977, Kal Penn grew up in a traditional Indian family and aspired to be an actor. After attending UCLA, he landed roles in the films National Lampoon's Van Wilder and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, as well as on the television shows House and 24. In 2009, Penn entered public service as President Barack Obama's associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. He later fulfilled other duties for the Obama administration and continued his acting career on such TV shows as How I Met Your Mother.

Early Life

Indian-American actor Kal Penn was born Kalpen Suresh Modi on April 23, 1977, in Montclair, New Jersey. His father, Suresh, was an engineer, and his mother, Asmita, was a chemist for a perfume company. Both parents were Gujarati immigrants from India and dreamed of their son becoming a doctor or lawyer. However, young Kalpen yearned to be a performer. Sensitive to Indian stereotypes, he rejected his friends' pressure to join the soccer team, and instead joined the school's drama class. His first school performance showed his family and friends that he had made the right decision.

Acting Successes

Following his passion, Kalpen Modi attended Howell High School, for its Fine and Performing Arts Specialized Learning Center. He completed his senior year at Freehold Township High School. He then attended the University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in sociology and performance. While performing in several school productions in the 1990s, he simultaneously landed parts on such television programs as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spin City and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

However, work was sporadic and often limited to comedic ethnic roles. Though reluctant at first, Kalpen took the advice of friends and family and anglicized his name, changing it to Kal Penn. As a result, his job offers escalated by 50 percent.

In 2001, Kal Penn had a supporting role in the film American Desi, a romantic comedy that explored race and identity of young ethnic Americans. Then came National Lampoon’s Van Wilder in 2002. Though some critics described it as "unfunny" and it proved dismal at the box office, the film provided Penn with good exposure.

This was followed up with Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (2004), a surprise sleeper hit that later spawned two sequels, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) and A Very Merry Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas (2011). In 2006, Penn had a brief but important supporting role as Stanford, a henchman employed by Lex Luthor, in Superman Returns.

In January 2007, Penn appeared in a role he initially turned down because he thought it supported racial profiling. Cast as Ahmed Amar, a teenage terrorist, in the sixth season of 24, Penn eventually accepted the role. That same year, he joined the cast of medical drama House, playing a member of Dr. House's medical diagnostic team. He appeared for the next two seasons, until he was called for a very different role.


During Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Penn was a strong supporter and a member of Obama's National Arts Policy Committee. In early 2009, he accepted the position of associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. During this time, Penn went back to his original name of Kalpen Modi, and served as a liaison with the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

In June 2010, he briefly left his post in the Obama administration to fulfill a previous commitment as Kal Penn, completing the Harold and Kumar triology. He returned to his office as associate director of public engagement in November 2010.

Two Careers

In subsequent years, Penn juggled his acting and political interests. He joined the cast of the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2011, and the following year he was named a co-chair of President Obama's reelection campaign. His efforts successful in that area, he was appointed to Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2013.

Penn went on to roles on the short-lived TV series We Are Men and Battle Creek. Shortly after hosting the competition special Superhuman in early 2016, he was tapped to rejoin his old 24 castmate Kiefer Sutherland on a new TV political drama called Designated Survivor.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!