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What's in a name?

Kal Penn, whose comic talents were gloriously exploited in the cult hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle three years ago, has since shown another side. He has emerged as an actor with a flair for serious characters. As the beleaguered son of immigrants torn between two cultures, he delighted audiences in Mira Nair's The Namesake. Next year, he will be doing something very special for any actor: he will be a guest professor at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, where he will teach a course on Images of Asian Americans in the Media and Contemporary American Teen Films.

Although Harold and Kumar was a light-hearted comedy, critics praised the way it dealt with Asian American stereotypes -- that's what school officials said in revealing why they made the unorthodox choice of asking an actor to teach.

Though Penn -- born Kalpen Suresh Modi in Montclair, New Jersey; he edited his name when he sought out Hollywood roles -- has played an Indian character in more than
While a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was a founding member of the underground intellectual society, '6 South' that later disbanded but is now considering a reunion.
Photo: Kevin Winter /
Getty Images
10 films including the independent 2001 hit American Desi, he has been getting notable colorblind roles. He played one such part, Lex Luthor's sidekick, in Superman Returns, a big hit last year. A few months ago, he appeared in the spoof comedy Epic Movie, a low budget film that made over $90 million worldwide.

And while he appears in television shows including the hit 24, Penn says he won't forget he is looking out for serious roles. While he is highly focused, he notes, he is also a pragmatist and that was one of the reasons he altered his name. "I did it almost as a joke to prove friends wrong, and half as an attempt to see if what I was told would work," he says. "Suddenly, agents and producers who were not returning my calls were getting back to me in no time."

What makes Kal Penn important is the door he has kicked open for Asian-American kids. It is his name on those movie posters that makes those kids think, 'That could be me!'