Not too many people have worked in the White House and on the set of a fictional White House, but that is the position in which the actor Kal Penn finds himself. Mr. Penn, the former associate director of the Office of Public Engagement under President Barack Obama, currently stars as the press secretary Seth Wright on the ABC drama “Designated Survivor.”
From his movie roles to his tenure in the White House to acting on television shows including “House” and “How I Met Your Mother,” Mr. Penn has spent considerable time in a number of cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Washington and now Toronto — where “Designated Survivor” is filmed.
“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” was filmed in Toronto. Now you’re back in the city for “Designated Survivor.” What has changed the most since you were last there?
“Harold and Kumar” was my first huge movie that was on location. Actually, it’s funny that I should say that. It was not a big movie. People just ended up seeing it. Toronto, like any city over a 12-year period, changes a lot, but it is an incredibly diverse city. They take in refugees that the United States doesn’t accept. It’s a totally different experience when you live somewhere as a full-fledged adult and the city has grown so much. I came back and saw not just new buildings, but entire neighborhoods that were industrial and have been transformed into living spaces.
Is there an area in Toronto that you gravitate toward?
There’s a neighborhood called Parkdale that I really like, which has an interesting Tibetan population. There’s a lot of great food, and I don’t mean fancy places where you dress up and go to dinner, but really great hole in the wall, authentic places to grab food. It’s a really nice neighborhood, in the West End of the city. Little Portugal is another great neighborhood, with really nice shops and restaurants.
For a while, you had a bicoastal lifestyle. What was that like?
Both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are vibrant cities. What I love about L.A. is how creative it is. In the District, the focus is on the cerebral.
What were some of your most memorable experiences at the White House?
For the most part, I had the opportunity to serve as the president’s liaison to young Americans. The Affordable Care Act, the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and the Dream Act were some of most memorable things that the president was working on. I remember being in the West Wing with other staffers when the Dream Act vote failed by just a few votes, and the president saying that we’ve come closer than we ever have before, but we still have a long way to go.
An individual recently posted a vile note on your Instagram page, writing that “you don’t belong in this country.” To combat this message, you started a successful funding campaign on CrowdRise with the funds going to the International Rescue Committee. How can people improve the public discourse?
Talking to people whom we disagree with is more important now than it has been before, and I don’t mean just ranting on your Facebook wall. A conversation tends to go very differently when you’re having a beer with someone that you disagree with, compared to sending a nasty tweet to someone because you want to make yourself feel better.
Where are some of the most intriguing places that you have visited?
I shot a small independent film in the Himalayas earlier this year, in a small town called Manali. So many of the folks that we worked with were local, and to go places where your co-workers literally grew up was pretty remarkable. I would say the same about Detroit, which is an amazing city. The things that they’re doing with art, urban farming and technology are really exciting. I loved Croatia, which was beautiful and filled with friendly people.