Behind Kal Penn's Leap from 'House' to White House

The actor, 31, chucks TV stardom for an office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty

First there was a surprise suicide-by-shotgun. Now comes the salary cut – a big one. And believe it or not, TV’s House doc Kal Penn asked for it.

The actor, whose character Dr. Lawrence Kutner shot himself dead in this week’s episode, is wrapping up Hollywood life for a job at the White House, where annual salaries for the most senior of staffers (like, the White House Chief of Staff, for example), top out at around $172,000 – enviable, but still a fraction of what most TV actors get per episode.

“There’s not a lot of financial reward in these jobs,” Penn, 31, whose title will be Associate Director in the Office of Public Liaison (“basically the front door of the White House,” he says), told Entertainment Weekly. “But obviously, the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honor.”

Penn’s office will be within the White House gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the West Wing.

A spokesman for President Obama tells PEOPLE that Penn, who was an active volunteer in Obama’s campaign last year (and whose parents were Hindu immigrants from India), will handle the president’s outreach to the Asian-American Pacific Islander community and the arts community. The spokesman was careful to clarify that, by arts community, they don’t mean Hollywood – but rather, the type of organizations and activists that work to activate music programs in schools and keep community theater alive.

“I love what I do as an actor,” says Penn, a New Jersey native whose most famous big-screen role was as the pot-smoking Kumar in the Harold and Kumar movies. “But probably from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed that balance between the arts and public service.”

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