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Wise Guy

updated 05/05/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/2003 01:00AM

Parry Shen's first big break, a role in last year's teen comedy The New Guy, came at an opportune moment: his first night as a waiter at a suburban L.A. Applebee's. Told to fly to the Texas set ASAP, he kissed girlfriend (now wife) Kim goodbye. "The whole way there," he says, "I'm like, 'Honey, I'm in a limo! Honey, I'm in first class! Honey, they have tiny salt and pepper shakers—and I'm going to steal them!' "

Shen, 29, steps up to more serious larceny in Better Luck Tomorrow, a dark drama about Asian-American teens who drift into crime even as they vie to get into elite colleges. The Chinese-American actor, who also teaches drama at Villanova Prep in Ojai, Calif., relished the role. "I've never been the main lead," he says. "It had everything—sex, violence, it ran the gamut."

Growing up in Queens, "I had glasses, a bowl-shaped haircut and braces, but I was funny. That's why the cool guys never picked on me," says Shen (whose parents Annie, 58, a nurse, and Michael, 65, a retired businessman, split when he was 13). The A student admits he and friends charged $50 to write essays for classmates—a scam like one in BLT. Says costar Karin Anna Cheung: "Parry is just like his character, an overachiever who plans things 10 steps ahead."

Like popping the question to Kim, 30, a fourth-grade teacher, by editing a proposal into BLT footage and screening it for her. They wed last August. Her only regret about his bustling film career: "I just wish he could still correct my papers!"

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