One of Bollywood’s biggest stars, the Indian bombshell serving as the face of ABC’s newest terrorism thriller, Quantico, has achieved the kind of international stardom that would make even a middle-tier Kardashian jealous. With over 11 million Twitter followers and three million fans on Instagram, the 2000 Miss World winner who once planned to become a doctor, is by far the most high-profile member of the cast. Yet despite her face being plastered on buses and billboards across the country, Chopra hasn’t quite reached household name status in America. That’s about to change.
The ability to hide in plain sight is one that undoubtedly serves her well on Quantico, where she plays newly-minted FBI agent Alex Parrish. The show, which premieres on Sunday, September 27th on ABC, focuses on a present-day terrorist attack at Grand Central Station, while flashing back to Alex and her fellow new agents’ training at Quantico. With its unnecessarily good looking cast and witty repartee scattered amongst catastrophic mass devastation, I can see how the show feels like it might quickly become Grey’s Anatomy: Terrorism Edition. Keep watching. If it’s Grey’s Anatomy: Terrorism Edition, it’s only after it met Lost and 24 in a dark, secret-filled alley. That’s a good thing.
We sat down with Priyanka to talk about her transition to the small screen, being seen as more than just a pretty face, and the Bollywood movie bits that don’t quite translate to American pop culture.
How’s Quantico doing? This is your first big American press tour, yes?
It’s my first American anything! Except for music — I had four singles out here. But other than music and live shows [Bollywood actors and actresses routinely tour the globe in large stage productions], this is my first American experience as a performer.
You have nothing to worry about it! This show is phenomenal. The characters feel fresh, it pulls no punches, and it doesn’t feel like it exploits its diverse cast, its feminist overtones, or its timely plot line — it’s just a strong, solid show.
That was a big reason I wanted to work with ABC and Disney. I knew they would make a point to reach mainstream audiences, and for me, it won’t be a huge leap from what I’m used to doing. I just like to entertain and be free.
Before I watched the pilot, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the public calls for more diversity on television, it’s hard not to wonder whether ABC chose you simply because you’re internationally known, and, well, diverse. Combined with your international stardom, I worried that for me as a viewer, it would be hard to separate Indian actress Priyanka Chopra from your new English-speaking role. Have you felt any pressure to prove to your fan base — or your detractors — that you can do this?
You know what? I’ve had to get used to the fact that every single person in my life, who has known me, is going to be watching the show with that exact feeling. I have accepted the fact that everyone is going to be a cynic and everyone is going to criticize. Everyone is going to sit back with their arms crossed and say, “Yeah right, let’s see what she can do.” I’m aware of that. It’s really scary and I just hope to be able to be looked at as an artist, as an actress; not for my ethnicity, but as someone who’s playing a part. This happened to me one time before, [when I played an autistic woman] in my Hindi film, Barfi. My director didn’t think I could do it. Everyone said, “You can’t pull this off, it’ll just be a caricature.” And for me the challenge was to hopefully pull it off. [Note: The film went on to gross $26 million, with Chopra scoring multiple Best Actress nominations for her role.]
I want people to have faith in Indian talent. I might not be the best India has produced. There are so many people more talented and more deserving than me, but I’ve been blessed with an opportunity and I want to be able to create a dent, maybe, so that the next time an Indian actor or actress does this, you guys don’t go in with your arms crossed. You cheer for them.
What I loved about Quantico was that while it’s very clearly a feminist show, it doesn’t beat you over the head to send that message. Your character is captivating, for reasons that have nothing to do with her being Indian or female, but the fact remains that your lead role in a network show as an Indian and a woman is indeed still relatively uncharted territory. Did balancing all of those hats add any extra pressure to the role?
To me it’s incredible that the team doesn’t see me as anything other than the character I’m playing. I’m an actor and I want to be taken seriously for my profession. I want to be respected for my profession wherever I go or whatever I do with it, whether it’s a Hindi film, an English film, a TV show, or a song. I just want to be taken seriously as an artist and the show is doing that. I’m not getting special treatment because I’m a Bollywood actor, but I’m not not getting special treatment because I’m a Bollywood actor. It’s just how it would have been if I was doing a movie in India, the language is different, and that has been the biggest blessing.
Before I got into my talent development deal with ABC, the big clause I discussed with them was that I wanted to just play a good character. I needed it to be an entertaining character. I’m not trying to prove a point, I’m not trying to prove my acting chops, I’m not trying to prove anything. Honestly I just want to be able to tell a story and entertain people. To ABC’s credit, they gave me 26 scripts, Quantico was my favorite, and it happened and it was great.
Did you feel that when you first were receiving scripts, they were very narrow in terms of ethnicity of roles coming your way?
It did happen with a lot of movies, actually. A lot of features depended on the ethnicity that I would play rather than the character of the person that I was, and I didn’t want to do that. I think that I’m someone who is very proudly made in India, but I’m also an actor. To me it’s just professional, it’s as simple as that.
Since 2008 you’ve been pushing boundaries with the roles you’ve chosen in Bollywood; often skipping blockbusters to do provocative indies, like Fashion, a feminist indie about the Indian modeling industry. Do you feel now that you’re working in America, given the less conservative standards here, you’ve been able to spread your wings more?
Well in America, all the Marvel and the X-Men and Transformer movies are the ones that are making the crazy money too. It’s a trend in entertainment and this industry that tentpoles are what people want now...and that’s fine! All the great content has moved to television in America. But in India, different genres are starting to pop up, which isn’t to take away from our tentpole movies. I love them and they’re my favorite genre of movie, but we’re branching out.
[With Quantico], we’re not saying we’re art, we’re not saying we’re the most telegenic cast of really interesting people. It’s mainstream pop culture for a mainstream audience with a strong thriller base. I don’t feel that I’m branching out, but that’s not a bad thing. My boundaries are going to stay exactly the same as they are for Hindi films. They don’t increase, they don’t decrease. I want to play characters which break stereotypes and who break the glass ceiling, ones who don’t sit back.
I’ve grown up seeing you on Indian films. In India, the name Priyanka Chopra alone is enough to carry a film, regardless of how good it is. How has it been doing Quantico, where the entire ensemble cast consists of relatively new faces — including you?
I did the same thing fifteen years ago. It feels like I’m doing it now. The only difference is that I’m in another country, and I have experience in my ammunition. It’s prepared me to be a debutante, or a newcomer, or whatever you want to call it. It’s exciting, it’s scary. After working for so long, to have to prove your worth again. But I know we have a huge support system here [in America] for Hindi films. We do premieres here, we have fans here, and there’s such a huge community of people who like Hindi films — South Asians and people around the world — that it’s great to have that kind of support. I’m scared and tired, but I’m excited. It’s a big step!
I have a Hindi film coming out at the same time, only two months apart, so it’s a really exciting time.
What have some of the challenges have been for you going from film to television? Many film actors talk about being jarred by the long hours and fast pace, but you do come from Bollywood where actors churn out multiple films a year.
Oh my god, yes! I have never worked in something like this. TV is another beast. I have newfound respect for everyone involved in television. It’s craziness! It’s non-stop, it’s alive. The script is changing, new episodes are coming, people are reacting, it’s incredible.
With a movie, there’s time to prepare. You start, you finish, it’s out of your system. This is a character that goes on and on. It’s very new for me and I feel like a kid in Hamley’s [UK’s answer to FAO Schwarz], but it’s exciting.
Has working with American actors been different in any way?
The only cultural difference is in the way we see things and say things. We keep discovering things about each other. I watch their work and they watch mine, and it’s an intercultural exchange. They teach me about American pop culture and I teach them about Indian pop culture. The other day they watched Gunday [a 2014 Bollywood action film starring Chopra] and they spent the rest of the day doing Bollywood-style slow motion running through the set.