t the moment, actor Kal Penn is probably most recognized for his hilarious, stereotype-busting turn in 2004's smart stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. As crafty, verbose Kumar Patel, Penn faced off against a horny Neil Patrick Harris and cavorted with a giant bag of weed with equal aplomb, earning himself a cult following in the process. The fans Penn encounters tend to run the gamut, from 12-year-old kids to "the 50-year-old lady who works at the bank and dresses in a suit," relates Penn, sounding slightly perplexed. "[She'll] whisper, 'You were in that movie, right? We watch that all the time.'"
Perhaps the coming months will clue the rest of the world in to what Kumar fans already know: that Penn is one of the most magnetic, versatile young actors working today. He has no fewer than three films set for release in 2006. First up is this month's would-be blockbuster Superman Returns, in which he plays henchman to Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey). Later this year he'll headline Van Wilder 2: Rise of the Taj, a sequel that places his popular character from the first Van Wilder front and center. And come November he'll be featured in a dramatically hefty starring role in The Namesake, helmed by critically lauded filmmaker Mira Nair.
Fittingly, it was one of Nair's early films, 1991's Mississippi Masala, that inspired the New Jersey–born, Indian-American Penn to pursue acting in the first place. "I was in eighth or ninth grade, I think, and I'd gone to see it with my parents and my cousin. It was sort of the first time I had seen a character that looked like me that wasn't Apu or wasn't like the guy from Short Circuit," he says, chuckling. "I had always done plays in junior high and high school, and I wanted to pursue [acting], but I sort of always listened to the guidance counselor who was like, 'Who are you kidding? You're not gonna be able to do this,' or the teacher who was like, 'Okay, that's great. But you should focus on this assignment first.' And then I saw that movie, and I was kind of like, 'Wow, so somebody's actually making movies where it's not really about the ethnicity of the character—you're not ignoring it, but it's not the focus. So maybe I can actually do this.'"
After high school, Penn attended the University of California, Los Angeles' theatre school, which he found somewhat lacking. "I've heard that it's sort of changed now, but at that time, it wasn't really geared towards working," he explains. "It was a little too experimental, and I was looking for a balance between great experimental artistic training and something practical. It was sort of like it was [frowned] upon if you were to try and have a meeting with Fox down the street. [I thought], 'This is ridiculous. You're in Los Angeles, you're at one of the best theatre schools in the country, you're shunning the fact that you could be working?'"
Still, Penn pursued his career outside of class, submitting himself through Back Stage West's casting section and landing work in shorts and student films. After about two years of sending out headshots, he scored his first agent and started booking guest spots on such TV shows as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; NYPD Blue; and ER. One of his big breaks came thanks to a role he initially wasn't interested in at all: nerdy Indian student Taj Mahal Badalandabad in the gross-out college comedy Van Wilder. Penn still remembers getting the call from his agent telling him that she had a big audition for him: a supporting lead in a major movie. "I was like, 'Oh, that's great,'" he recalls. "She said, 'I don't think you're gonna be too thrilled, but I think you have a good shot at it, so you should go in.' I said, 'Why, what am I not gonna like about it?' She's like, 'Well, the character's name is Taj Mahal.' I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I'm not going in for that. No! Absolutely not! Is this a joke?'"
Penn's agent eventually convinced him to read the script, and it interested him enough to go in for the audition. "I actually asked the writers, 'Can I ask you what the motivation was for making this character this fresh-off-the-boat Indian kid?'" Penn says. "They were like, 'Oh, we didn't write him as Indian initially; he was just sort of this guy, and we wanted to make it funny for other reasons.' I said, 'Okay. How would you feel about me sort of focusing on who he is in his relationships with the other characters instead of just the racial stuff? I feel like if that's secondary, it would almost be funnier, because people can relate to him as a college kid who just wants to get laid and all that stuff.'" The producers were all for it, and the character ended up becoming a major fan favorite, meriting the upcoming Taj-centric sequel.
Penn continued to work in film and television after the first Van Wilder, nabbing roles in such projects as Malibu's Most Wanted and Love Don't Cost a Thing. Then he met writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg at a party, and they told him about a script they had written called Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. "I was so cynical at that point, because the only stuff that I'd really gotten was roles like Van Wilder and Malibu's Most Wanted, where [the role] was a play on a stereotype. Whether or not I could break free of that with the actual acting is always debatable," Penn remembers. "I was like, 'You're not gonna sell that movie. Here's what you should do: After you've taken it around town and you don't sell it, let me know, and we can try and maybe produce it independently, because it sounds like a cool idea.'"
But the scribes ended up selling the film, and now Penn hopes that a proposed sequel, which would have Harold and Kumar journeying to Amsterdam, becomes a reality.
In the meantime, he's got plenty to keep him busy. The Namesake in particular should give audiences a glimpse at yet another facet of his talent. The film, which is based on Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri's acclaimed novel, focuses on the Ganguli family: parents Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu), who immigrate to New York from Calcutta, and their American-born children, Gogol (Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). As Gogol, Penn evolves from surly teenager to accomplished adult. The role presented a challenge, but the actor notes that much of the essential background was provided by Lahiri's painstakingly detailed novel. "I think because it was so specific—like, [Gogol's] ATM password is written in the book—you really have this great, almost like a painting, from which to take stuff, and obviously then there's more creative stuff that you can do once you know who [the character] is," he says.
Even though things are rolling for him now, the actor remembers what it's like to have to fight for opportunities. And though diverse, realistic roles are frustratingly hard to come by for actors of color, Penn is proving that it's not impossible to find such parts. "For any actor, [breaking in is] really hard, especially when you're trying to break type," he says. "But I would also say, there were times where I was like, 'Oh, should I waste the stamp on this submission, because it doesn't say "all ethnicities"?' I'm like, 'Well, screw that—yes. It's not a waste of a stamp.'"