American conquest has never been Priyanka Chopra's M.O. Although the actress has been a household name across much of the world for a number of years and she commands a Twitter following of over 11M fans, as the lead actress of ABC’s Quantico, one of the lone hits of a busy fall TV season, she’s entered a different chapter of her career.
She insists there was never any actual plan for her to specifically breakthrough into Hollywood and as a performer, she doesn't seek to disrupt the status quo. Rather, she seeks out artistic endeavors that challenge her. "I take on parts which are interesting based on instinct and whenever it comes to me. That's what I did with Quantico," she recently told The FADER over the phone from Montréal, where she sat in hair and make-up, getting ready for another day of filming.
Among the more notable roles Chopra has played are boxing legend Mary Kom and a nuanced turn as Jhilmil Chatterjee, a 19 year-old autistic woman in the award-winning Barfi! This American spy drama is the first project she signed onto which has taken her talents and presented them to an audience largely unaware of her vast body of work.
Signing onto Quantico was a process that involved finding the right part—which included turning down 26 other pilot scripts—that also kept her available to continue taking on Bollywood features as they arose. It's an arrangement that appears to be inspired by Viola Davis' commitment to How To Get Away With Murder.
Yet, with the happy accident of U.S. popularity, Chopra wants to focus on the art and hopes that she can help new audiences discover Bollywood films. "I hope with Quantico," she said, "I can open up a lot of people to start enjoying Hindi-language movies. It's a prolific film industry with so much to say. I hope the new fans discover the movies we make. They're truly magical."
In the wake of Quantico's break-out success, Chopra spoke to us about turning a new audience on to Bollywood, adapting to the rigors of shooting episodic television, and how feminism has pushed her to take on roles that truly challenge her.
Quantico was recently picked up for a full first season. How are you feeling?
I have major mixed feelings right now! I'm super excited about it. But it means big changes for me. I'm sort of getting used to that right now. So far away from home.
This is your first scripted television drama. Coming from the film world, what's the biggest change for you?
With features, you're doing one scene in a day. With TV, you're doing ten scenes in a day. That pace was hard for me to wrap my head around. I'm still getting used to it.
Alex Parrish is a huge departure from these roles...and she kicks a lot of ass. Did you have any action heroes you drew inspiration from?
I wanted to in the beginning. I remember when the pilot got picked up. I started reading The Bourne series. I wanted to be like Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer. But...I think Alex is going to become her own person. Between what I bring to the table and what the writers write, she's transforming in front of my eyes. That's what I love about television...your characters are so alive. They grow in front of you. She's actually just an individual who I'm really getting to know.
How has the reception been among fans in India who have been with you since the start of your career? And around the world?
Our ratings [in India] are extremely high–we're pretty much the highest rated show on STAR. We've also premiered all around the world, in over 80 countries. It's a very international show. It's premiered in places like Australia and Malaysia. It's getting great reviews and feedback. I'm really excited that this happened with just four episodes.
Indian women are doing amazing things on U.S. television–Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project, Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife, and Parminder Nagra on The Blacklist–they’ve all starred in roles that were not defined by their Indianness, but by the complexity of the character. How important was it for you that the role of Alex Parrish be similarly modeled?
When I was growing up in America, I didn't see anyone like me on television. I didn't have an ambition or an aim to break through or come into American entertainment. I'm an artist, an international one. English is my second language. So, for me this role was about expanding myself as an artist. That was most important to me. It was important that I get cast in whatever I do not because of my ethnicity, but because of merit. It was great for me because Alex was not written as an Indian girl. I had to mold myself to what the writers wanted Alex to be. That's my job as an actor.
So, Alex Parrish was initially written as a white woman–but was later rewritten as half-Indian and half-white. Why not make her completely Indian if the actress portraying her is entirely Indian?
You see her relationship with her father. The story hinges on her relationship with her dad. At that time, when Alex's father was in the FBI, it was important to be born in America. That was the case 20 years ago. The story would've altered a lot if Alex were completely Indian. So we changed it to Alex's mom being Indian. That explained my ethnicity and as for my accent...that's why we adjusted the story so Alex lived in India for ten years. It helps with the story. They had to conform a little to explain me. But I was clear that I didn't want to change Alex's character too much. I wanted to be able to fit into it. So, we didn't change the name.
When can Quantico fans expect to see you in another feature?
Well, December 18th is the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani. I'm super-proud of it. It's an amazing movie based in the 1700s. It's exquisitely beautiful, like poetry in motion–it's a heartbreaking love story involving three people. I'm excited about the part I'm playing–Queen Kashibai. The character is very vulnerable, but dignified. It's much different than Alex.
Recently, Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about the wage gap between men and women in Hollywood. It made me recall similar comments you've made to the press about how the difference in remuneration is insane in Bollywood. How has this impacted your craft–and the way you sign onto movies?
For me, the art, the movie I am creating, and what I am achieving is more important. And the money comes along. Of course, it's not fair. Of course, you raise your voice about it. I do that too.
I think it's a bigger problem. It's not just a film industry problem. It's a global problem. This inequality exists everywhere. It's a conversation about feminism. It's a conversation about standing up for your own rights. You know what...we've come far. All I would say to women out there who are coming into the industry, is that remuneration disparity doesn't just happen in the movies. It happens in major global companies, multinationals. With their CEOs, the pay differs according to whether they're men or women.
Do you see the situation improving for women who are just starting out in the industry?
With me and a lot of other women talking about it, it may change for a future generation of actors. I think we need to focus on breaking ground and shattering glass ceilings, instead of just making the fight about money. I think that is definitely important. Of course we work towards trying to make a change. The world is male-dominated, to say the least, and feminists like us are fighting to bring about change–and hopefully will.