The greatest shock in last night's episode of House wasn't the sudden death of Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn) but that the network and producers managed to keep it all a secret until it aired.
For those who didn't see the episode, Kutner's body is discovered in his apartment by colleagues Foreman (Omar Epps) and Thirteen (Olivia Wilde). He is the victim of an apparent suicide, a discovery that shocks Dr. House and his staff as much as it does fans of the series. Nobody saw this one coming.
Today we learn the real reason Penn is leaving the series--he is moving to Washington to become an associate director in the White House office of public liaison. That's right--Kumar is going to work for Obama.
From White Castle to the White House. As Don King would say, only in America.
Penn, as well as House creator David Shore and fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs, took questions today on what turned out to be not your average Fox conference call. Hard to believe this is the same network that foisted Osbournes Reloaded into living rooms last week.
Turns out Penn was turned on by Barack Obama 18 months ago when he started working on the campaign. He met the candidate in the fall of 2007 and caught some of that "Yes We Can" spirit. The 31-year-old actor says he's always been split between arts and public service and is prepared to dedicate the next two years (or more) to the latter.
He made his intentions to pursue public service known to the producers around the time of the election. It was Shore's call to kill the character off, a move Penn says shocked him "as much as the audience." The move didn't totally surprise him, however. "I think everyone is always taken aback with every episode of that show," he says. "When we get each script every week, we really don't know what's going to happen."
Shore says he was thrilled for Penn and totally down with the opportunity. As one reporter said on the conference call, "this is the best reason for leaving a show I've ever heard of--you should get some sort of prize for that."
It was not like Penn had "come to us and said to us and said, 'I've been offered a great part on CSI,'" said London, Ontario-native Shore, who can be just as caustic as his alter ego, Der. House. "Then yeah, we would have killed him off with auto-erotic asphyxiation or something like that."
Penn was only in last night's show in one scene and you never saw his face. That was his body on the floor when Foreman and Thirteen rush in. The director wanted to get the most impact from the scene.
There will be no flashbacks, no "evil twin," no future appearances of Kutler on the show. No real answers as to why he took his own life, either. "This story is about us knowing nothing," says Shore. "The answers are in his head and we can't get there. We should know what we know and not what Kutner knows."
Penn admits he's taking a bit of a leap of faith in joining Team Change. "Anytime you are going from a private career where you're working for a big company to a private service career there's a huge pay cut," says Penn, who doesn't know yet whether he'll sell, rent or sublet his house in LA--if can even move it at all in this market.
He says he spoke briefly with Obama about his career choice. The president seemed to be aware of House, but not those trippy Harold & Kumar movies. Penn says nobody in the administration freaked about the films, which are two hours of sex and drug jokes. He doesn't expect to be doing any more of them, however, and won't do any acting at all while working for the administration.
The actor has roots in this public service thing. His grandparents marched with Gandhi, he said. "They were never preachy stories, they would tell you at the dinner table," he says, remembering them boycotting things like salt and cotton.
Penn feels part of his job will be to reach out to the community that has felt so disenfranchised in recent years in American politics. Young people, Asians, the arts community--they are all on his radar. "I'm not a Democrat or a Republican, I'm a registered Independent," he says, stressing he seeks no special treatment and just wants to be "one member of an incredible team." A few reporters on the line said cynics are already seeing this as opportunism, another actor trading his fame on a political career like Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Penn just laughed when asked if he's ever run for office--which is how Obama used to react when people asked if he'd ever run for president.
Have to admit I had mixed feelings at the end of the episode when Fox flashed a link to a Dr. Lawrence Kutler memorial site, complete with an obituary, funeral flowers and photos. It seemed a bit odd and sentimental and also seemed to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Nobody really died, after all.
Penn was asked on the line if he thought the memorial link was a little "creepy." Penn said he was cool with it as long as no real family photos were used, just shots of the character from the show. Jacobs said they wanted the fans to know they didn't take this loss lightly and that this was "a big deal to us."
As for the suicide overshadowing any future TV roles that might come Penn's way, he's not to concerned about it. "There's a big difference between fact and fiction," he said. "The characters an actor plays are very different from his or her real life. Superman flys and Anthony Hopkins eats people in Silence of the Lambs, but I think we're all rational enough to know that those are fictitious."
Just like people think Penn is a stoner just because he played one in those Harold & Kumar movies. Penn says he doesn't "smoke weed" and, furthermore, he's a vegitarian, a fact which bugged some fans of the series. "When we shot the first movie," he says, "there was this mini uproar amongst stoner White Castle fans. 'How can you hire a vegetarian who doens't even smoke weed to play this character in the movie?'"
So don't look for Penn to appear in any Don't Do Drugs public service spots. "It's not my area of expertise at all," he says.