People: Kal Penn

People: Kal Penn Kal Penn
March 2007

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People: Kal Penn by Sona CharaipotraAt 29, Kal Penn is a Gen Y cult hero. But when director Mira Nair was looking for the lead actor in the Indian-American drama The Namesake, she had never heard of the star of the youth hit Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Happily, her 15-year-old son Zohran had. “Every night he’d say, ‘Mama, tell me in the morning that it’s Kal Penn,'” says Nair. “He’s a god to teenagers.”

So Penn, born Kalpen Suresh Modi, snagged the role. “It’s a dream come true,” says the New Jersey-bred son of an Indian engineer and his chemist wife—and a long way from school plays like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which got him interested in acting. Inspired by Nair’s ’91 movie Mississippi Masala—”It was the first time I saw people who look like me in the movies”—the UCLA grad headed for Hollywood. Still, he’s hedging his bets, studying international security at Stanford. “Art can make you happier than a full-time job,” says Penn. “But I’d like to run for office someday.”

First Case of Stage Fright: 1980
At 3, Penn made his acting debut in a preschool play about a strawberry patch. “I was terrified,” he recalls. “I’m still pretty quiet. Most people don’t realize that because of the roles that I take.”

Big Break: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
“I get recognized as Kumar,” says Penn, who is shooting the sequel to White Castle. After a string of bit parts, the movie “was my first big role.”

TV Exposure: 24 (2007)
“I was the terrorist next door,” says Penn of his stint as a baddie on the Fox hit. “I took a whole family hostage.” Up next on the tube? The Call, a comedy pilot about EMTs from 24’s creators.

Rising Star: The Namesake (2007)

“I wrote [director] Mira Nair a letter begging for the part,” says Penn of his role in the movie version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling 2003 novel. “I was like, ‘I want this role. What do I have to do to get it?'”

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