PRIYANKA CHOPRA AT THE GORDON BAR AT SIXTY SOHO IN NEW YORK, AUGUST 2016. PHOTOS: DAVID NEEDLEMAN. STYLING: KRISANA SOTELO/THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: WESLEY O’MEARA/HONEY ARTISTS. MAKEUP: HIRO YONEMOTO/ATELIER MANAGEMENT USING DIORSKIN NUDE. MANICURE: YUKO WADA FOR DIOR VERNIS/ATELIER MANAGEMENT. STYLING ASSISTANTS: KIRSTEN MCGOVERN AND NICHOLAS MACKINNON.
Last night, ABC’s political thriller Quantico entered its second season, with Indian actor Priyanka Chopra resuming her role as Alex Parrish, an FBI operative framed for a terrorist attack. Alex is an ass-kicking heroine in every sense of the phrase: she is blisteringly smart, physically adroit, and committed to serving her country by all means possible. In playing Alex, Chopra herself is something of a powerhouse: She is the first Indian woman to lead a primetime network show in the U.S.—a fact she brushes off as another reality of the job, which in recent years has taken a turn toward the stratosphere. In India—where she still regularly works—she is a singer, and a fixture of Bollywood. Next year, she will be seen around the world in Seth Gordon’s highly anticipated Baywatch remake alongside Zac Efron and the Rock.
In Baywatch, Chopra will play Victoria, the film’s villain. Alex and Victoria could not be more different: While one is driven only to do good, the other is driven only by evil. This, Chopra tells us, is precisely why she sought the challenge: One role informs the other, and both become stronger.
We recently spoke with Chopra, just as she was wrapping a full day on set for Quantico (they still have many episodes left to film). Remarkably, she was able to leave the head of Alex and speak eloquently as herself.
MATT MULLEN: I understand you’ve been on set all day. How is production going?
PRIYANKA CHOPRA: It’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of long hours. We’re filming 22 episodes. So the body starts creaking after awhile.
MULLEN: Alex is also such a physical role. I imagine there’s a physical toll you experience.
CHOPRA: Yes. And also because I work weekends as well—because I have photo shoots or commercials that I do, or things in India. It’s usually a seven-day week for me. So physically it does get exhausting.
MULLEN: How do you balance it all?
CHOPRA: I’m a tough girl, I know what my job entails—it entails a lot more than standing in front of the camera. So I get it. I won’t deny the physicality of it is exhausting, and sometimes my body just can’t keep up. But it is ultimately about mind over matter. I learned very early in my career that when I don’t arrive on set, production will shut down, which means people won’t get paid; there’s that much responsibility. So I learned that whatever it is, you have to show up for the job, and power through.
MULLEN: Congrats on Season Two of Quantico premiering.
CHOPRA: Thanks, I’m excited.
MULLEN: How does it feel this time around? By that I mean, there wasn’t as much built-in hype around Season One. Now that there’s this huge fan base—does it ever feel nerve-wracking? Like you have to live up to people’s expectations?
CHOPRA: It feels better, actually, because there’s a certain loyalty that the show has, and a fan-base that the show has, and this year the show is better than last year, if I may say so myself. So I’m very confident about it. I think it will be a really good show, and I think people who have invested themselves into my character are going to be very happy with what they get to see.
MULLEN: You’re the first Indian woman to lead a primetime network show. And Alex is held up to be this feminist icon—does that ever feel like a lot of pressure?
CHOPRA: This role is exactly what I was looking for. I remember when I spoke to ABC, that’s exactly what I told them: I need to play these kind of parts. I don’t want to be a stereotype; I want a character that’s aspirational. To their credit, they made a great character on a great show. I seek out parts which are strong women. It’s not the quantity of a role; it’s the quality of a role. And I don’t ever want to do the same character twice. Variety excites me, which is a big reason why I wanted to play the villain in Baywatch, because I’m such a hero in Quantico, I needed to do something which was not similar to Alex.
MULLEN: I feel like Victoria in Baywatch is strong but in a different way.
CHOPRA: Yes, she is extremely feminine, very evil, extremely delectable, manipulative, patronizing. Which is not at all Alex. These are completely different people.
MULLEN: That must have been fun, to inhabit such a different character.
CHOPRA: It was so much fun. Seth Gordon, the director, is huge a collaborator, and same with Josh Safran, for that matter, on Quantico—I’ve been very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with have been such collaborators when it comes to my characters. It wasn’t ever difficult being Victoria, it was just creating. And the joy of creating is the truest joy. I don’t enjoy being told what to do, I’m not that kind of actor, I’m a thinking actor. I need to work with people who have the ability to do that. Both Seth and Josh really have a sense of belief in what I bring to the table. I’m very grateful that they have that in me.
MULLEN: How do you define a strong woman role? Is that’s something that’s been determined by the script, or do you give a character strength?
CHOPRA: Strength of character is already written. What we bring, as an actor, is an almost 3D-ness to it. It’s almost like a character is 2D, and then after I come in it becomes a 3D; it becomes alive. So what I bring into it is the essence of the character, and the soul of the character, how she walks and how she talks. But what she’s inherently doing needs to be written. And by strong I don’t mean ass-kicking, driving fast cars. Every character that I play, even if it’s a homemaker, there is an inherent, innate strength in her—you can find strength in every facet of a female personality. It doesn’t just come from the physical strength of a woman.
MULLEN: So in that same vein, how is Victoria strong in Baywatch?
CHOPRA: Victoria is strong because she has minions. She has people do her dirty work. She doesn’t look at how to get results, she just gets them. She doesn’t have morality. But also … it’s a comedy. [laughs]
MULLEN: Was that a fun movie to film?
CHOPRA: I was filming Quantico at the same time, so I had to go in and out. It was pretty insane. But everyone was amazing with me and my schedule. I’m so used to hopping in and out of character; even with Quantico I was filming Bajirao Mastani, so I was flying to India on the weekends. But it was so much fun to be able to create Victoria in Baywatch. It was awesome to bring that black evilness into their positive, beautiful world. [laughs]
SEASON TWO OF QUANTICO AIRS SUNDAY NIGHTS ON ABC. BAYWATCH COMES OUT IN MAY 2017.