LOS ANGELES — Kal Penn remembers it like it was yesterday. The last time he was on the set of a commercial was during the previous NBA lockout in 1998. It was a Nike ad starring Samuel L. Jackson, and Penn was supposed to be one of three guys who could play basketball, but Penn didn't actually have any game.
Luckily, he wasn't asked to really dribble during the audition. "The casting director's office was upstairs from this ad agency who complained about the bouncing balls all day," Penn recalled. "By the time I arrived at 4 p.m. to audition, they asked me to just pretend like I was playing ball and talk trash."
The gig earned Penn his membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Thirteen years since scoring his SAG card, Penn has morphed into a stoner icon with the "Harold and Kumar" film franchise, starred on the Fox medical drama "House" and worked at the White House.
Now, the 34-year-old actor is playing himself in a commercial for Ubisoft's colorful, multiplayer video game "Rayman Origins," starring limbless hero Rayman, which is set to debut Nov. 15. Penn said he signed up for the "Rayman" ad because the game appealed to his nonviolent sensibilities. He's more into "Mario Bros." and "WarioWare" than "Call of Duty" or "Halo."
"It's not some deep philosophical thing; I'm just not very good at them," Penn said over lunch during filming of the "Rayman" spot. "I just have a really short attention span. I like games that are livelier and have a journey rather than games where all you do is rack up points."
Penn, who is originally from Montclair, N.J., returned to Los Angeles about six weeks ago after working for two years as an associate director at the White House's Office of Public Engagement. His role in Washington, D.C., was mostly focused on connecting President Barack Obama with Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, as well as arts groups.
"It's been really interesting," said Penn. "D.C. and L.A. are both company towns. ... The structures are very similar, but the towns are completely different. There's a little bit of culture shock, I guess."
Following the suicide of Penn's character on "House" and the announcement that he was hired by the White House in 2009, his manager's phone was "ringing off the hook" with calls from casting agents, but Penn said he fully committed to his job at the White House, only pausing last summer to film "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas," which opens Friday.
"It hasn't really affected my work as an actor because the worlds are so different," said Penn. "This is going to sound cheesy, but it just gave me, as a person who is a citizen of the United States, a greater appreciation of our democracy, the beauty of the push and the pull of our government and what it means to live in the greatest country in the world."
Besides his current eight-episode stint on the CBS sitcom "How I Met You Mother," which he is still filming, Penn is also developing a workplace comedy pilot for NBC that would star Penn as a chief of staff at the United Nations. He said the series would take inspiration from shows like schoolroom romp "Head of the Class" and behind-the-scenes comedy "30 Rock."
"I was nervous," said Penn between bites of quinoa of his return to Hollywood. "I feel very fortunate and blessed to have something to come back to because it's always a big unknown when you take a break, especially as an actor."