He spent a few years on House, but now Kal Penn — otherwise known as Kumar from the Harold & Kumar series — is trading the lab coat for a detective’s badge in Battle Creek, a new police drama from Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan and House creator David Shore that premieres this Sunday on CBS.
TIME caught up with the actor and former White House employee to talk about what he learned from real-life cops, traveling with Obama and the future of Harold & Kumar.
TIME: There are plenty of cop shows on TV. What makes Battle Creek different?
Kal Penn: It’s a good question, because that was the first thing I was looking for when I was reading the script. It’s very funny, and that’s rare of the long format. I’ve only had the chance to work on either a straight drama or a straight comedy, but I was particularly excited about the humor that’s in this story.
I’d say it’s less procedural than House. We’re outside of the precinct quite a bit, and you get to see some of the bizarre scenarios that cops find themselves in. The writers have done a really good job of walking the line between things that are bizarre and funny and solving murders. The murders are serious — we’re not making fun of dead people.
With Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan serving as a co-creator, I bet there are some unusual murder cases.
One takes place at the annual Cereal Festival, which is a real thing in Battle Creek, Michigan. What could go wrong when everyone’s celebrating breakfast?
Someone gets drowned in a giant cereal bowl?
That would probably happen on a Comedy Central version of our show. In reality, a couple years ago there was an actual shooting.
You rode around with real Battle Creek, Mich., cops to prepare for this role. What did you learn?
I had the chance to see the things that make better television — so raiding houses or pulling people over — and also the more banal aspects of police work: what happens when you’re sitting in your office for five hours doing paperwork, how you get a warrant through the process of probable cause.
This is going to sound hokey, and I really don’t mean to sound like I’m sugar-coating it, but the most surprising thing to me was the way in which officers were treating their suspects with respects. With the national narrative that’s happening police-wise, that’s not often something you get to see. Their approach is very different from the big cities I grew up in, where things probably look more like Cops than Battle Creek.
Your upcoming National Geographic show, The Big Picture, is all about maps and data. That sounds like a hard topic to make a TV show about.
The things you see on TV are generally focused on the NSA doing something nefarious. But in reality, we all click yes on our iTunes user agreement, or if you download Google Maps or check in somewhere on Facebook, these companies collect all that data. What do they do with it? This looks at the human interest stories behind that.
So what did you find?
One example: In Florida there was an uptick of STDs in a particular community that then reflected the largest uptick of sexual activity in America. It just so happened that it was taking place at a senior citizens community in Florida.
That is surprising.
They’ve grown up after sex education, they’re not worried about getting pregnant and many of them are newly single. So they’re all having incredibly sex apparently, but they don’t know about STDs. It’s not going down there and going, “Oh my God, look at all these old people having sex!” It’s saying, “This is a really fascinating scenario, let’s see how the data reflects what’s actually happening.”
You recently accompanied President Obama on a trip to India. Did you get to hang with Obama?
I was much more an observer than anything! It was really fascinating to see the work that goes on in a trip like that: a nuclear deal, an environmental deal, the dorky side of things.
But you worked in the White House for two years. You’re telling me you’re not fist-bump buddies?
I imagine once his next two years are over, he’ll have a lot more time for that. He’s exactly what you see on TV, that gregarious side, the ability to shake off things that shouldn’t weigh you down. The fist bumps are definitely part of that.
How's Air Force One?
I’ve been going to India since I was kid, and the president’s plane definitely beats sitting in a middle seat with a next pillow.
Is that Harold & Kumar cartoon ever going to see the light of day?
Animation apparently takes a long time! We’re working on a pilot for Adult Swim. It’s almost done. I just saw a couple of clips last week. I think we’re finding out in the next two months whether Adult Swim is going to turn it into a series. John and I just shot something last week — we’re all very good friends outside of the workplace and have been now for 10-plus years. We just fall right back into it. I always say playing Kumar is probably the coolest character I’ll have the chance to play, so anytime I have a chance to revisit that, I’m happy. We all have a soft spot for these guys. Mostly because when we shot the first movie, we had no idea if anybody would like it. It totally tanked at the box office — I think it got pulled before the second weekend. And then fans discovered it on DVD and gifted each other, so we really feel it was such a fan-driven franchise. There are good vibes around it, and we’re very grateful. Hopefully it turns into something.