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."
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."