By People Staff
March 19, 2007 12:00 PM

At 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 (see review, page 33), 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.”