HOUSE 8 p.m. EST Tuesdays Fox
SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Kal Penn’s character of Dr. Lawrence Kutner on “House” was introduced last season through a game of elimination. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) needed to pick a new medical team. He started with a room of potential team members. One or more got eliminated each week.
That’s exactly the way the actors found out if they were going to stay or go.
“We honestly did not know what was going on. Since we did not get our scripts in advance, we would not know until we were ready to start an episode whether we would be back another week or the run had ended,” Penn says during an interview in July at the Santa Monica Pier amusement park, where actors from Fox network series talked with members of the press.
That kind of uncertainty would suggest an anxiety for an actor. Not Penn. He liked not knowing when, or if, his character was going to get the ax. He used that uncertainty to play the character. He survived last year’s medical version of musical chairs to become a regular on the show.
By definition, actors compete for roles. And the situation on “House” created the ultimate acting competition. Penn says despite that scenario there never was any competitiveness among the actors.
“There were 40 of us who started in that first season. We all kept wondering if this was going to turn into something competitive. But we all got along. I think because our characters were so competitive, in our real lives there was nothing short of the most incredible supportive artist’s network,” Penn said. “If you thought these actors hated each other, it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Penn really didn’t have a lot of time to think about the character. He would film all week and then hop a plane to Philadelphia, where he was a visiting lecturer in Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The course was called “Images of Asian Americans in the Media.”
The only downside of the uncertainty on “House” for Penn was that he could not pursue roles in other television shows or movies. Penn has been active with roles in television shows like “ER,” “24,” “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “NYPD Blue,” plus such films as “Van Wilder,” “Malibu’s Most Wanted” and “Superman Returns.”
Of course, there was one role that put him on the acting map. This interview gets interrupted when a group of fans start yelling “Kumar.” Penn turns, smiles and waves. He’s gotten used to being called the name of his character from the comedy “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” his biggest film hit. The New Jersey native has been a professional actor for a decade.
Now he’s getting used to people stopping him to ask for medical advice. At least he has a little knowledge gleaned from his days on the show.
“With a show like ‘House,’ and with the writers being as simultaneously as creative and intelligent as they are, it has given us a real opportunity to learn about all of these obscure diseases and illnesses that we are diagnosing as the characters,” Penn says.
Becoming familiar with the medical jargon and information is not a chore for Penn. He believes an actor should understand the role he (or she) is playing. To that end he takes great joy in learning anything he can about the medical world.
Now that he’s a series regular, he’s getting a lot more opportunities to do so.