There's a scene in "The Namesake" where a shaggy-haired and bright-eyed Kal Penn tips his head back to marvel at the patterns carved into a cavity of the Taj Mahal.
It's a moment when anyone familiar with his most popular body of work can't help think of what a long way he's come since White Castle. Penn's break out role as a disenfranchised doctor-to-be-cum-stoner in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" established him as a hero of adolescent and 20-something men. His character's marijuana-induced antics made him so memorable that shouts of "Yo, Kumar!" can't help but follow him three years after the movie left theaters.
But that may soon change.
In "The Namesake," the new movie based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, Penn plays Gogol Ganguli, an Indian-American who struggles with his funny-sounding name and relationship with his immigrant parents.
Earlier this year, he went head-to-head with Kiefer Sutherland in the hugely popular TV series "24," playing a best-friend-next-door-turned-terrorist-operative. Both roles have given Penn the chance to break out of the stoner mold "Harold and Kumar" built for him.
"I think I get recognized more for being a cult movie stoner actor than anything else. People will come up to me and be like, 'You're like, the most iconic stoner,'" he said. "The life it takes on, you have no control over."
Campaigning for a Character
But with "The Namesake," Penn was in control of his destiny -- at least partially.
An avid reader and Lahiri fan, he was turned onto the novel by his "Harold and Kumar" co-star, John Cho. The story resonated with the two so much that they decided to vie for the rights to turn "The Namesake" into the film. They believed only one director could do the book justice.
"We both agreed that aside from Mira Nair, we didn't know anyone who had the intimacy to do it," Penn said.
Nair, the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated Indian director, agreed -- so much so that she had beaten Penn and Kho to the punch and acquired rights to turn "The Namesake" into a film before they were able to jump into the ring. So began Penn's aggressive campaign to get a role in the film. He placed calls and wrote letters, most of which went unanswered. He paid his own way to audition for the role of Gogol, even after Nair cast it -- and in the age of swag bags and personal product placements, it's rare to hear of an actor footing the bill for anything, work-wise. But for Penn, the chance to star in the "The Namesake," a book he likens to J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," justified pulling out all the stops.
"I feel like this is my Holden Caulfield," he said. "This is my opportunity to play that part."
Ironically, in the end, Nair was swayed by her teenage son's admiration for Penn's pot-smoking, carefree character from "Harold and Kumar."
"[It was] solely because of my 15-year old son," she said of the decision to consider Penn for the part. "He's a big fan."
It's a truth Penn happily embraces.
"It was insane. When the two of them [Nair's son and his friend] were together, they physically dragged Mira over to a computer screen to watch clips of me," he said. "Largely to get these two guys off her back, she agreed to meet me."
But Nair admitted Penn's shared background with Gogol, not just her son's pestering, helped cinch the part for him. Though she considered giving the role to an Indian-born actor, the bicultural, New Jersey-bred Penn fit the character's profile better.
"Gogol is an American, really," she said. "It is best that he be played by someone authentic, born and raised in New York or New Jersey, like Kal."
New Roles, Dismissed Stereotypes
As one of a handful of Indian actors working regularly in American TV and film, Penn's face is becoming increasingly familiar. Squaring off with Sutherland's Jack Bauer on "24" exposed him to a new audience and style of acting.
"I loved it," he said. "It was a really challenging role and really refreshing. I'm terrified of guns in real life, and I think that role is a good example of pushing yourself to do things that in real life you're really afraid of or find physically, politically, repulsive."
A brown-skinned actor picked to play a terrorist can't help but raise questions about typecasting. But Penn was quick to dismiss suggestions that his ethnicity influenced his feelings about the role. He said he's been training for this moment since middle school -- the opportunity to work with the best of the best in front of, and behind, the camera.
Penn had the same reluctance to put down roles that could be considered beneath him.
"Whether it's Mira Nair ... or the guys on '24,' the whole stoner comedy thing didn't hurt me, it seemed to open up doors in a sense with the smarter producers," he said. "All these guys are the guys that I want to be working with."
He admitted that his latest roles have been a welcome shift from the sex-, drug-, booze-, and beef-filled flicks that helped raise his profile. But Penn's not about to stop making his fan base laugh. He's currently in Shreveport, La,. filming the sequel to "Harold and Kumar," in which the duo attempts to take their misadventures to the promised land of pot -- Amsterdam.
"You look at actors like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey -- these great actors who have done both drama and comedy successfully. That's definitely possible on their level," he said. "The question is how to get to their level."