Priyanka Chopra is excited and equally nervous about being the lead in ABC’s Quantico — a thriller television series about a group of FBI recruits. The show has been picked up for the 2015-16 TV season and PC says she is in ‘uncharted territory’.
In an exclusive chat between finishing her many commitments before flying off to LA, she talks to me about being a ‘global icon’ and why she was clear on not playing a stereotypical Indian on the show. Here are excerpts from our chat…
You didn’t get Quantico the traditional way, there was no audition, how did the show come to you ?
For me, it was very different. Most actors audition for a lot of shows. But for me, I had done a special deal with ABC, they scout talent around the world. So, when Kelly Lee, who is in casting, came down, I was shooting Gunday. She said they wanted to do a development deal where they find the right show for me. They had done similar deals with Sofia Vergara, Eva Longoria and a few other actresses, where they find the right show for that talent. So then I had to go to LA and read the 25 pilots that they had picked for me, tell them the ones I liked, which was around three or four scripts. If it ends up working for everyone from writers, directors and the creative team, you end up doing it. So I am happy that I got my first pick which was Quantico!
Is it true you had a clause stating you wouldn’t play an Indian on the show?
Interestingly, Quantico was written for an all-American girl, a white girl. So they tweaked the story. My ethnicity on the show is half Indian-half Caucasian. You know I went to school in America, I grew up there, and all the Indian characters that I saw on American shows are stereotypes and talk like Apu from The Simpsons, who I hate because growing up, everyone would ask me ‘How come you don’t talk like Apu?’. It used to piss me off. My basis with ABC was that I want to do an ethnically ambiguous part, and that’s the only way I would do it. I didn’t want to do a big fat Indian Punjabi family, that’s so expected from a Bollywood actress. I had clearly told them that if you want to treat me like an actress and not a ‘Bollywood’ jewel, where am supposed to dance and do those things, then I am fine. Which is why the parts they chose for me and scripts I read were for characters that are ethnically ambiguous.
You already have an accent. Is that something you have retained on the show ?
I have never played an FBI agent. In fact, you will hear me speak in a more American accent than the one that I already have! Because to be a FBI agent, you need to be an American citizen, so it was very important for me to get that right. I had dialect coaching to sound even more American and how much I have laughed! Because I told them in India anyway people think I have an accent, now with Quantico, that’s on some other level. But as an actor you do it, like when I did Kaminey, I sounded so Maharashtrian. For Jhilmil, I had to change my voice completely.
Tell us about the way American media looks at Indian actors.
They see me as a person from another land. They don’t understand the concept of how I have the fan following that I do. Which I find amazing, because the world has become this one big global family. I hope to be that change for India, where people don’t just see us as Patel stores, and curry shops and everything that’s typical. It’s a great shift for Indian actors, or even what Anil sir has done with 24 and now Family Guy. I remember, when I was growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in global pop culture. In today’s time, Rihanna is from the Islands, David Guetta is from Sweden — today’s pop culture reflects global diversity and I want to be part of that.
What is your biggest fear playing the lead in Quantico?
It’s very scary, because I don’t know if the world is ready for an Indian protagonist. When I did NFL, and In My City (her debut single) was picked for NFL, it was the opening song after Faith Hill. Several racist comments came my way, that I am an Arab terrorist. On social media and the NFL network they had people writing to them. Because I was brown, they figured I’m Arab, and people were like ‘How can you have her headlining an American event? Why is she in an all-American sport?’ So, I don’t know how people will react especially since I’m playing an American from India! But it’s a great part and a great show, it could be really cool.
What are your favourite American TV shows?
I am obsessed with CSI, SVU, Dexter. I also like Grey’s Anatomy and all of that. I watch a lot of TV, I prefer watching TV shows over a long film. My mother is obsessed with her murder fix at night, so I end up watching one episode with her during dinner. Now she’s damn happy that I am going to be her murder fix with Quantico (laughs). I am excited, nervous, it’s uncharted territory. When you don’t have a precedent it freaks you out.