Chopra makes debut in Hollywood

Priyanka Chopra says she is nervous about starting over again on TV in Hollywood.
Priyanka Chopra says she is nervous about starting over again on TV in Hollywood. PHOTO: REUTERS

MONTREAL • The golden hour on this late September afternoon was anything but. The air was hot and hazy, the sky the colour of the industrial concrete buildings doubling as the set of the FBI Academy.

Then Priyanka Chopra sauntered out of her trailer, a vision in mirrored shades and gold stilettos. And suddenly, as if by divine intervention, setting sunbeams pierced through the clouds.

"The sun opened up, right?" she said with a squeal and a kick. "I said" - she crooked a finger towards the sky - "come to me".

That the sun should oblige this Bollywood actress might not seem unreasonable to her fans in India, where she is one of that nation's highest-profile celebrities.

But in North America, she remains a virtual unknown.

Now Chopra, 33, is banking on television to help her crack Hollywood. "After being in movies for 13 years in India, I'm suddenly a debutante again," she said. "I'm scared and nervous - petrified, actually."

In ABC's new drama Quantico, which debuts on Sept 27, she plays Alex Parrish, a half-Indian, half- white FBI trainee suspected of masterminding the biggest attack on New York since Sept 11. The series, which has been described as Homeland meets Grey's Anatomy, places her in an ethnically varied cast.

It is part of ABC's continued drive to promote diversity on-screen.

In 2012, Chopra and her manager, Anjula Acharia-Bath, met Ms Keli Lee, executive vice-president for talent and casting for ABC Entertainment Group, at a dinner party. As Ms Lee named some actors she had helped place through the company's diversity efforts - Sofia Vergara in Modern Family, Sandra Oh in Grey's Anatomy and Kerry Washington in Scandal - Ms Acharia-Bath remarked: "Well, you haven't done a South Asian yet and we're one-fifth of the population."

She sent Ms Lee some of Chopra's films and the next thing she knew, a deal was in the making.

"I flew to India to convince Priyanka to work at ABC," Ms Lee wrote in an e-mail message. "I wasn't going to let distance be a barrier to making a deal."

The one-year commitment required ABC either to develop a project for Chopra or cast her in an existing project. She read 26 scripts; Quantico was her favourite.

Her audition for the role was her first - ever - and Joshua Safran, the show's creator, was not sure what character she intended to read for when she arrived.

"She walked into the room and it was like the molecules shifted in that way that superstars have," he recalled. "I was very confused because I didn't know who she was, but we all sat up straighter."

He had not quite envisioned Alex as a bombshell.

"One of the things we talked about was, 'Is she so glamorous that she can't play this regular person?'" said Mark Gordon, one of the show's executive producers. "What we quickly came to realise is that she's a huge star but she's actually quite regular. She's accessible both to women and to men, and that's important at ABC, where a large percentage of the audience is women."

The child of an Indian army doctor and a gynaecologist, Chopra moved with her parents every two years until 12, when she decided to live with an aunt in the United States.

Returning to Bareilly, India, she was studying for her university boards when her mother, pleased by her swan-like transformation, sent photos to the Miss India pageant. She won that title and six months later, at 17, was crowned Miss World 2000.

In 2002, Chopra entered the realm of Bollywood, a term she dislikes for its dismissiveness.

"Hindi movies are an amalgamation of culture, of emotions, of drama, of music, of dance - which is why Hindi movies are an experience," she said. "We make about 1,000 movies a year and are expanding into markets in Japan, Germany and Russia. We premiere our movies at the Berlinale and Cannes. It's an amazing time."

She has made nearly 50 movies, winning a National Film Award (the Indian equivalent of an Oscar) for playing a small-town girl-turned- supermodel in Fashion (2008) and lesser prizes for her turn as a 19-year-old autistic woman in Barfi! (2012).

That role, for which she had to prove to the director that she could believably subvert her innate allure, is among those of which she is proudest.

"The most challenging thing in India is for her to come out of her glamour zone," said actor Irrfan Khan, her occasional co-star.

"Hindi commercial cinema tries to incorporate a beautiful girl in the same roles over and over, but if you're smart enough, you learn to expose your personality. She understands her persona and keeps experimenting in different genres."

Asked where home is these days, Chopra replied: "On a plane."

She says she had spent Labor Day weekend filming in India and would briefly return next month. "I just want to go where my work takes me."

But for the moment, she is hoping it is in the United States. "I simply want the opportunity to show people what I bring with me. They might like it, they might hate it. I don't know. I just hope that people are inquisitive."


Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra plays an FBI trainee in ABC's new drama Quantico.  Quantico premieres in Singapore on on AXN (StarHub TV channel 511) on Sept 28 at 9.45pm, within 12 hours of the US telecast.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Chopra makes debut in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe