Interview: ‘Battle Creek’ star Kal Penn on ‘House’ reunions and pot differentiation

Kal Penn is walking a different beat in the CBS police dramedy “Battle Creek,” but this is in many ways a return for him.

You might not necessarily remember, but Penn has been working in the CBS family steadily since he ended his sabbatical working for the White House. He followed a recurring arc on “How I Met Your Mother” with a regular role on the short-lived “We Are Men” before landing on “Battle Creek,” which was created by Vince Gilligan, but is run by David Shore.

Shore, of course, worked with Penn during his multi-season run as the ill-fated Dr. Lawrence Kutner on FOX's “House,” a series that appears on the resume of many of the “Battle Creek” scribes.

And when one of the first things we learn about Penn's Detective Fontanelle is that he's a user of medicinal marijuana, which ties Font in with Penn's long and beloved run as star of the “Harold and Kumar” franchise. 

Last week, I sat down with Penn to discuss reuniting with his old “House” colleagues, the necessity of differentiating his versions of acting high and the actor's interest in researching and experiencing both the most and least exciting parts of the jobs he places on screen. 

So how is Fontanelle's love of weed different from Kumar's?

How many orifices did perps have drugs in when he did his ride-alongs in the real Battle Creek?

And would he ever return to work in the Beltway?

Click through for the full Q&A… And check out “Battle Creek” on Sunday (March 1) night on CBS…

HitFix: With this pilot, the story was so very much about the origins of the script — 12-years-old, have to go get dusted off, et cetera. Did you have any nervousness about what Episode 2 was actually going to look like, given the hype around Vince's first script?

Kal Penn: No not nervousness. I was actually really excited because I think the trifecta of Vince, David Shore and Bryan Singer automatically sets the bar really high and I don”t think any of them have done anything that I”ve ever watched and said, “Eh.” So I was just very excited about that. Yeah, I loved the concept that Vince wrote the script 12 years ago and that it was developed after the success of “Breaking Bad” with this team of people who, you know, most of our writers had worked with us on “House” before, also. So I knew them and obviously love their work. I”m incredibly biased. So it was more of just an excitement of seeing it. If I”m not mistaken, Vince, David and Bryan were very committed that the show should be timeless meaning — obviously technology changes and things like that — but the tone and the nature of the show, it”s not like we”re updating it from 12 years ago till today. It should remain in that world as accessible and timeless as it was before. And I think they stuck to that which is kind of cool. I was very curious to see what that looked like.

HitFix: But was there a moment when you got the second script and you”re like, “Okay, this is still what I signed on for”?

Kal Penn: I just think you kind of trust that that”s what it”s gonna be as an actor. The biggest thing, selfishly really, is you get your new script and you just, you”re dying to find out more information about your character because the way that series television works is you find out more as things progress, plot-wise. So yeah, I don”t think it was ever a question of, “Will it hold up?” I think it was just a very selfish question of, “Oooh, what do I get to do in the second episode?”

HitFix: So what is it like for you reuniting with David and reuniting with all the other “House” writers? Because I was looking at the other people writing and they”ve all got “House” there on their resumes, so that”s pretty convenient.

Kal Penn: Yeah, no, it”s great. I mean when I read the script it was the best script I had read that pilot season and I called my manager and said, “I”m gonna email David. I know that”s unprofessional because there”s a whole process of being cast in something. I just want to tell him I think it”s awesome.” And then Bryan came on to direct the pilot and he”s also been a friend for years from “Superman.” It's really cool to reunite with those guys and the “House” writers also. I think, you know, what I liked was that this is not really a procedural in the sense that “House” wasn”t your traditional procedural, right. We barely left the hospital, if ever. This is not really a traditional procedural. It”s also not entirely serialized, so if you miss an episode or you watch them out of order things, still make sense. But it was that merger of deeply serious and also really funny that is hard to do, I think. And that was very cool to see. So that was the kind of, not just reuniting with these guys, but also doing something where it was funny. And you”ve got your car chases and gun fights but then you”ve also got these bizarre humorous situations that are fun.

HitFix: Are there things that those writers get about you in particular, about your strengths as an actor that they can tailor a role to because of how well they know you? They don”t have to go through the whole process of getting to know you?

Kal Penn: That”s a good question. I wonder, because I”ve never explicitly asked that from the writing perspective. I mean look, was I excited to learn that the majority of our writers were from “House”? Of course because they”ve written for you before, so you feel like that. But then that part of your brain goes, “Well, does that mean that he”s gonna be just like Kutner from 'House'?” Well no, obviously not either. So I”ve been very happy about how different he is from Kutner, you know. He”s not the same guy by any stretch of the imagination. But also to know that there”s maybe a process that might be cleaner for the actors. I don”t know. Now I really want to know the answer to that question.

HitFix: One of the first things we learn about your character in I guess the second episode is that he is an appreciator of the medicinal marijuana. When you see something like that do you go this might be steering too much into a skid? What can I do that”s going to be different this time?

Kal Penn: Well yeah, look. Our fans from the “Harold and Kumar” series have been so fantastic to us both personally and career wise that I was very conscious of, “Okay, if this character”s getting high he just shouldn”t get high in the same way, because he is not Kumar.” But more than that, I was really intrigued by here”s a guy who is a cop for whom and he very explicitly says, there”s medication that just doesn”t work. And he”s found that this is the only thing that works for him. By the same token he”s also busting people for marijuana. We don”t go as in depth but I am fascinated by what that relationship might turn into in a second or third season where these guys presumably are going after nonviolent drug offenders maybe. And what happens? What”s that like? Does he see those two worlds as being completely separate or is there any overlap or what? And the humor that came out of that, I thought was the line that he crosses with his informant. I mean I don”t know that that would ever happen. IT kind of shows you that he”s not entirely a by-the-book guy, right. And in true David Shore/Vince Gilligan fashion I”m very curious to see if there are any repercussions from that that show up later.

HitFix: Do you get the feeling that he really does have migraines or that he”s just medicating from the job and the life and the world that he's in?

Kal Penn: No, I think he definitely has migraines. I asked. That was something I wanted clarity on, too. I said, “Is this just a thing to be funny?” And they said, “No, he definitely has migraines. This is definitely the only thing that works for him.” And the moral consequences thereafter are different but they”re based on his very serious need. There”s a scene with the commander also that surprised me where he”s just very confidently telling her, you know, “This is the only thing that works.” And I think her response, which is a great line,  her response is “So you want me to sign a warrant to bust a guy for not selling you weed?” Because he”s selling, you know, fake drugs at this pharmacy. So there are layers to that that I think we have not necessarily seen in that before.

HitFix: I remember from when you guys came to press tour back in July that there was a big deal about how you were the first member of the cast who insisted on going up to Battle Creek. Why was that something that you felt that you needed to do?

Kal Penn: It”s something I really enjoy about any character that I have the chance to play. If I have a chance to really go in and spend time with people who really do what our characters are based on, I feel like I tend to get a lot out of it. Every actor has a different approach and mine tends to be I feel like I benefit a lot from that. I remember even the first “Harold and Kumar” movie, there”s this bizarre scene where Kumar”s performing gunshot surgery on a victim while he”s high. And so I spent a couple of days at the UCLA Medical Center just researching gunshot surgery and I felt like that helped me contribute to that scene in a little bit of a different way. So it was a similar thing. I had read books obviously, and continue to read books, on what police work is like but there”s no replacement for actually having the chance to do that and follow people around and sort of like how “The Wire “actually focuses on things like paperwork and bureaucracy. There”s a lot of bureaucracy that goes into police work, wanting to have a chance to even see that, not just ride-alongs and raids and pulling people over but what”s the actual day to day like. What happens in the midst of banality when you”re sitting in an office for five hours. What are the things that the officers actually do that you can absorb and take into the fake Hollywood version of Battle Creek?

HitFix: Well when they hear that this is going to be the subject of a TV show are they excited to see their “lives” represented or are they terrified by what Hollywood is going to do to?

Kal Penn: No they were very excited and really nice and also very well aware of the fact that we are a Hollywood version of Battle Creek. They're like, “We”re not expecting to see reality necessarily,” but obviously they”re hoping for a good show and we hope that they”re happy with the show. They were really supportive. They were very accessible both to the actors and also to our prop department, our producers. Some of the writers went up there. And there”s some things that are taken from real life like an episode that takes place at the Annual Cereal Festival, which is a real thing, right down to things that are completely fake like, you know, the fact that we have no snow in our version of Battle Creek. So you never know. You take certain things and other… But they were all really nice and very open and what I really appreciated was when I first went up there the first time I was very conscious of are they only showing me things that they want me to see. And particularly on the second trip up there it became very clear that that was not the case. They were being very open and if we had any questions please let them know. And it was really fascinating to see that.

HitFix: Was the second trip also solo?

Kal Penn: Yeah that was also solo.

HitFix: And tell me a bit about that second trip.

Kal Penn: The second trip was recently actually. I wanted to go up there before the show started airing just thinking that if it actually does well enough to get a second season it might be a little more difficult to blend in with some cops when they”re pulling people over in the town where you”re supposed to be playing a cop. I had the chance to do everything from ride-alongs to some drug busts to going undercover or seeing how their undercover operation works with an informant. And the reality was fascinating and incredible and it”s both for the procedure of wanting to see how that works, you know, following for example an officer to get a piece of paper signed from a judge or a prosecutor that turns into a warrant and establishing probable cause and all the things that never really show up in a script except for a line here and there.

HitFix: So you go to experience the bureaucracy of it.

Kal Penn: Well it”s important, right because it ends up feeding into it. Like on TV if there”s a jump cut of four hours to understand what actually happened in those four hours is pretty important, I think, in doing your job. And so I was really fascinated and also just seeing what these guys are like off-duty. So meeting their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, going to grab a beer or having dinner with them or something and seeing what”s the social side of that also which you see in a show that doesn”t entirely take place in a precinct.

HitFix: I just like that though, because you only hear about actors doing the ride-alongs, but you don”t hear about anyone going and immersing themselves in the paperwork of the job.

Kal Penn: I think everyone should do it. Most police departments,  I was surprised to hear this also, for good reason obviously our news media narrative is focusing on the things that are current to the national policing conversation. But a lot of these departments are very open to having ordinary citizens come and do a ride along for a day or spend time with even the boring paperwork process. It was so eye-opening. I wish I had done it earlier just for the sake of taking an interest in how this stuff works. But very fascinating.

HitFix: I can”t help but feel that this is another NatGeo series for you to do,  Kal Penn doing boring jobs and doing the paperwork at different jobs.

Kal Penn: It might be! Look, were there more interesting parts of this? Of course. Seeing cops pull people over and finding drugs in orifices was deeply fascinating and much more interesting than paperwork. 

HitFix: How many orifices did people find drugs in when you were there?

Kal Penn: Two.

HitFix: Okay. I've got a reasonable sense of the available orifices.

Kal Penn: On multiple humans but two. There are two orifices of choice, yeah.

HitFix: Now when you were settling in and you decided you wanted to go back to regular series TV how important was doing something ensembley for you, not having to be the top of the call sheet every-school-day-there guy?

Kal Penn: I don”t think that was as much of a consideration as the type of project. So I felt really lucky. I know when I was getting ready to leave DC and I knew I had about a month or two left and end up getting cast in “How I Met Your Mother.” Literally I think I had just left the White House. I still my apartment there so I was flying out here to shoot “How I Met Your Mother” and that”s a show that I love and had worked with Neil [Patrick Harris] before a couple of times, worked with Alyson [Hannigan] on an episode of “Buffy” way back in the day. So that was just an exciting thing because it was a show that I loved doing and it was a half-season gig, or I guess over the course of the whole season. And then following that was a show called “We Are Men” also for CBS last season. It ended up getting killed a bit early in the process.

HitFix: Rather swiftly.

Kal Penn: Yes, very swiftly. We shot nine episodes. They aired two of them. It happens. [He laughs.] But that was less ensemble-y and it was a show about four guys. It was myself, Tony Shalhoub, Jerry O”Connell and Chris Smith, very different than “How I Met Your Mother,” very different than a big ensemble like this. And here it was what I mentioned earlier. It”s an hour-long obviously so different than “How I Met Your Mother” or “We Are Men,” but very serious in the sense that you”re dealing with murders and gunfights but also ridiculously funny in terms of like that scene in the van with the informant or equipment not working or just really kind of the bizarre human interest pieces of something like police work. To see both of those things together was very cool, whether it was an ensemble or whether it”s a single kind of thing. The other benefit of an ensemble cast is that the interpersonal dynamics shine a lot more than in something that might be a true procedural. So I feel like I know more about my character in this show after 13 episodes than I did in 13 episodes of “House,” just because that maybe an ensemble show with one lead, Dr. House. Where this is much more of a mixed ensemble show where you learn more about different characters as the story progresses which is kind of fun.

HitFix: You do all these different things, you know. You obviously have interests that go beyond just starring in one TV show. Do you compartmentalize one at a time or can you do two or three of these projects at the same time? “How does your focus work?” I guess is the question.

Kal Penn: Well, I don”t know how much focus I have. I guess I do compartmentalize in the sense that I like to keep, you know, the sabbatical I took in DC for example couldn”t be more different than the work we do as actors. And I loved every second of it, loved using that other part of my brain. Equally loved having the chance to come back into something like “How I Met Your Mother.” So I think in the sense of compartmentalization, that”s probably where the compartmentalization is is I love that that”s a whole different world and there”s no overlap. There”s certainly overlap in doing a project like “Battle Creek” and doing something for NatGeo or the voiceover stuff that we”re doing for the “Harold and Kumar” animated series. Those things I think are less compartmentalized. I view them as similar. 

The big difference obviously is that acting is very different from hosting. There”s a lot of overlap in these things but look, I feel so lucky. I”ve got “Battle Creek” coming out. I have this NatGeo show coming out at the end of March. And then hopefully the “Harold and Kumar” animation thing gets picked up for Adult Swim. There”s a potential that these three things could go on for ten years. So there”s also potential that by May I have nothing going on and it”s back to square one, right? So you never know. I mean I feel like you can”t really compartmentalize them, just if I”m fortunate enough to keep developing a couple of things as they go it”s a lot of fun and something I enjoy doing.

HitFix: Returning to DC, is that something that”s ever in your mind or do you feel like that was a chapter, a closed chapter?

Kal Penn: No I would love to continue to help the President however I can. I would never say that I wouldn”t go back. I”m on the President”s Art Committee now, which is something that you can do on the side while you”re working professionally as an actor which is nice. I would love to continue to be helpful. I certainly don”t have any plans particularly past his administration to go off and do anything but…

HitFix: So it”s Obama-specific. Not politics-specific or DC-specific?

Kal Penn: I think so yeah. DC was a great place to live. I have a lot of great friends who I assume will stay there. I definitely plan on going back to visit but I think the focus right now is to sell the s*** out of some “Battle Creek.” [He laughs.]

“Battle Creek” premieres on Sunday, March 1 at 10 p.m. on CBS.