Priyanka Chopra didn’t need American TV to make her a star.
The actress, who plays an FBI trainee suspected of involvement in a terrorist attack in the ABC drama “Quantico,” is already one of the most famous women in India — where she’s known simply as “P.C.” — if not the world. The former Miss World has 11 million followers on Twitter and, in a career spanning more than 50 Bollywood films, has portrayed a serial killer, an autistic woman, a boxer and a cabaret dancer. She also has a thriving music career and has collaborated with the likes of Pitbull and will.i.am. (Football fans may recognize her from her “Thursday Night Football” anthem, “In My City.”)
Now with “Quantico,” which recently received a full-season pickup, she is the first South Asian woman to get top billing in an American network drama.
She is not the kind of person you want to spill coffee on, especially not when she’s just been styled for a photo shoot. So when a collision in the hallway of ABC’s offices results in a brown stain on the sleeve of Chopra’s gossamer white blouse, it’s understandable that everyone momentarily panics. As one of Chopra’s handlers sweeps in to blot the coffee with a tissue, a network executive suggests dabbing it with sparkling water.
“Quick, someone get some Perrier!” Chopra says with a hearty chuckle, instantly defusing the tension. However glamorous her image might be, Chopra, 33, is warm and tactile in person, emphasizing her points with a touch of the knee or elbow and saying goodbye with a hug.
As members of her entourage ducked in and out of the room to check on the status of the stain, Chopra, who was born in India and lived in the United States for several years as a teenager, discussed the importance of diversity on the small screen and the perils of being perceived as a cross-over star.
You’re already very famous. What made you want to come to the United States?
Priyanka Chopra: I’m not going or coming anywhere, honestly. I mean, I’m Indian, yes, but I go wherever my work takes me. To me it’s an extension of me as an artist — it’s an amazing opportunity, a great character … I’m an entertainer. You can take me anywhere and I’ll entertain.
So you don’t think of yourself as “crossing over,” or breaking some boundary?
I don’t know if it’s the right thing to say or not, but I believe we’ve created borders with too many colors. I don’t like [when people say], “It’s a great time for women of color.” No, I’m just a woman. Black, brown, white, yellow — why are we always talking about colors? I’m a girl. I believe in a global community … . And if I can quote Robin Thicke, I believe in blurred lines. Entertainment is entertainment, cast the right person for the job. Let’s get beyond looking at each other for where we come from.
Is that why you were insistent on a colorblind role?
I just think there are no boxes anymore. Anyone can be anything, I wanted to be cast because I was good at what I do. I wanted to be cast because I’m an actor and not because of how I look or where I’m from. I’m brown. I want to be able to play a Spanish girl some day or a Mexican girl and learn the language. That’s what actors do, we act. That was important to me. I told ABC, to their credit, they found me exactly the kind of job I would have looked for. She’s half-Indian, but that has nothing to do with the story.
You’re so famous at home. What’s it like to promote the show in a country where you’re less well-known?
I have to introduce myself — “I come from a far, far land” — and I’m fine doing that. In India, the press knows me, I don’t have to educate them. People have been super nice to me so far. I mean, yeah, you have the one off. I was on the red carpet speaking to the press and there was this photographer. She was like (in a grating Valley Girl accent), “Oh, you speak great English for a Bollywood starlet.” Those kinds of things happen a little here and there. But that’s all right.
Have you encountered any other misconceptions about Bollywood, or India in general?
I take everything in stride. I believe in really not focusing on the hate. [On Twitter] I have so many trolls and terrible people who hide behind anonymity and write the rubbish. When we did the NFL, I was called an Arab terrorist. They were like, “This is American football, why is there an Arab terrorist introducing it?” I was like, focus on all the people who were saying, “Great song!” Haters gonna hate, potatoes gonna potate. Who cares?
There aren’t many Indian or Indian American men or women depicted on American TV. Even in a colorblind role, do you feel pressure about representing your community?
I’d be lying if I said no. I want to say no. But it’s true, I am feeling a little nervous. I’ve been stress eating … . When I grew up in America, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on TV. I feel overwhelmed with the things that people have said to me. When I meet Indian Americans who’ve lived here all their lives, it’s overwhelming people holding me and crying. Someone said to me, “Thank you for making us relevant.” It’s such a big thing. I’m not the messiah, I’m just a girl. That’s why I hope I don’t let them down. I hope I can do something they’re proud of.
What are you most nervous about?
Are people going to be ready enough to see someone that looks like me leading a show? The people who know me already, are they going to be excited? And it’s a different country. Yeah, I went to school here but it’s seven seas away from where I work and from anything that’s familiar — though I’m very familiar with pepperoni pizza. It’s a big deal.
It’s also sort of a glammed-down version of you, isn’t it?
Oh, you can’t keep glamour away from me. (laughs) No, I’ve done a lot of glammed-down roles. What I look like in real life will actually be the most glamorous version of me. But “Quantico” is an extremely glamorous show, it’s mainstream TV. It’s not the kind of show that says, “Oh, I’m art, take me seriously.” At the same time, it doesn’t take your intelligence for granted.
How are you adjusting to the pace of a network show?
With feature films you do like one scene in two days. On TV, you’re doing like nine scenes in a day … . There’s no time to scramble and figure out what’s going on on set. It took me about two episodes to get used to it. And my American accent, it took a while. It took me three days to say “counter-terrorism task force.” My tongue’s not used to it. My cast makes fun of me all the time. I make them say a line right before I’m about to shoot and my coach is not around. I’m like, can you say this in American? Which, by the way, I now speak. I speak, Hindi, English and American. I’m trilingual.
So the accent is the toughest part?
The hours have been the hardest part. It’s 16-hour days. Kerry Washington told me, “You will not be prepared for this, because you’ve never done TV. When you freak out, call me.” And I freaked out and I called her. She’s been amazingly encouraging of me. Ellen Pompeo, the ABC family, they’ve all taken me under their wings a little bit. I think they feel bad that I don’t know anything about TV. I don’t understand the difference between cable, network, all of that, I’m learning all of it. Those two things have been toughest.
Your character, Alex, wasn’t written as Indian, but will some of her culture be brought into the show?
After I was cast, she became half-Indian and half-American. I didn’t feel it was important to change my name. I really want Alex to be just a girl. This bracelet (points to a bracelet with an Om charm), it’s Alex’s thing she wears through the show which shows she’s close to her roots. She prays once in a while, when she needs god, like all of us. She’s a modern Indian girl, but she’s not trying to set an example.