As a native Montrealer, I’m thrilled Priyanka Chopra is in town, but I’m also a little worried about the 16-hour workdays she’s pulling down. The megastar is here shooting ABC's new action-drama series Quantico, which also happens to be Chopra’s first starring U.S. role. It’s a classic whodunit with a sexy national-security twist, and her character, butt-kicking FBI trainee Alex Parrish, is caught in the middle.
When I got on the phone with Chopra, she was in-between takes on set. The day before that she was in Zurich and two days prior she was in Mumbai working on a movie. Despite the exhausting schedule, the 33-year-old assured me that it is on par for her line of work. “I’m usually not static for very long,” said the actress and former Miss World in 2000.
It turns out that Priyanka has been bouncing around her whole life, and even moved from her native country India to the United States, mostly because she didn’t care much for Indian school uniforms. It’s her spirit of nonconformity—instilled by her parents—that helped her make the shift from pageant winner to actress, without being pigeonholed. “There was a big thing many years ago when I joined the movies that said models can’t act,” she said. “But I think I’ve done alright.”
Chopra is set to take North America by storm with the action-packed television series Quantico. Alex Parrish is the sort of no-nonsense protagonist who does her best work when bullets are ringing past her. It makes sense, then, that Chopra’s favorite characters are a couple of superhuman antiheroes in Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne. Here’s the rest of my conversation with the super-chill Chopra.
As a native Montrealer, it’s important for me to hear you say you’re having a good time in my city.
Of course that’s what I’m going to say, and not just because of you! The only thing about Montreal I’ve seen is my home, which is amazing, and the set, which is amazing. So far, I love Montreal.
You haven’t seen anything else?
I haven’t. As I recently discovered, TV is a beast. We have to do one episode in nine days and there’s so much going on in Quantico because it runs in two parallel time zones that I’m filming almost 16-hour days, so I don’t end up doing anything.
What was it about Quantico that attracted you in the first place?
I’m a really avid follower of pop culture and entertainment, so when I decide what I’m going to do—whether it’s a movie or a TV show—I like to watch the best things. When I read Quantico, that’s what it was. It’s pop drama, yet it doesn’t take your intelligence for granted, and I love that. And Alex as a character is so my alter ego. She’s an amazing character: She’s cool and she totally has it together even when she’s unraveling. She’s badass and flawed, yet extremely confident. She’s an amazing character to play.
Do you see a lot of yourself in Alex Parrish?
A lot of it is me. She dresses like me all the time. If you see any of my outfits when I’m traveling, it’s jeans, leather jacket, and boots. I told our stylist Alex dresses like me, and she said they took a bunch of pictures of me from Google and styled the character after those. I said "that explains it!" I think over time Alex and I might merge, but for now we’re getting to know each other.
Did you have to learn how to kick butt for the role?
Fortunately, for me, I’ve done a lot of action movies, like Don, Mary Kom, and right now Jai Gangaajal. So it was something I was familiar with, but I did have to learn FBI-speak and how to deal with guns.
Did you work with the FBI for the show?
We had five consultants on the show and we spent a lot of time with them individually, and it was a great one-on-one experience for me to delve deeper into Alex’s character and psyche.
Were you given any classified info?
No, a lot of it was "so sorry, we can’t tell you." But I got a lot of stories. You always see people in the FBI and law enforcement as these authority figures, but they’re also human, and there’s a human aspect of how cases affect them, especially terrorism and cases to do with children. That was amazing to me, because Quantico is about real people who happen to be at the FBI agency. It’s really about relationships and human interactions.
Are the personal lives and professional lives of the characters going to intersect?
Yeah. They’re a bunch of people who happen to be FBI agents or trainees. That happens to be the scenario they’re in, and it’s primarily about interpersonal relations and what happens to people when they’re put under dire circumstances. That’s what makes it interesting to me. We’re having fun, it’s funny, it’s intelligent, and it keeps you on your toes. It’s almost everything you could want from pop entertainment, which is my favorite genre.
Will your international fans see another side of you on Quantico?
I think they’re familiar with the action side of me, but speaking in English will be different.
Do you sometimes speak in English in Hindi films?
Yeah, we do, because people make films in English. You know how people say Spanglish here? There it’s Hinglish. It’s fun to do and most conversations go from one to the other.
Is it hard to be on an English set one day and a Hindi one the next?
It’s not that hard for me, I’ve spoken English and Hindi all my life. It’s natural to me, to express myself in both languages.
You spent part of your youth in the United States. When were you here?
I was in high school here for four years, in 1997 or something, and then I went back to India.
What was a bigger culture shock, moving to the U.S. or going back to India after?
Both, on different levels. Being from India, the U.S. was completely new. I think the reason I moved to the U.S. was because in schools here you don’t have to wear uniforms. At the age of 12 that was important to me. It was hard to adjust, of course, but that’s high school for all of us. There’s a lot peer pressure in high school. When I went back to India it was like going back home with a different experience. It wasn’t hard, but my life has been a journey of moving around all the time because my dad was in the army, so I moved every two or three years in India. I’m used to being a nomad, so this has been my way of life for as long as I’ve known.
So traveling for work isn’t too rough on you.
I’m used to it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exhaust me. Physically my body is telling me, "no, don’t do it," but my mind is like "c’mon, go! It’s a commitment," so yeah my body and my mind fight each other a lot.
For people who will see you for the first time in Quantico, which Hindi movie of yours should they check out first if they’re curious?
There’s this one called Dostana, which is a movie we made in Miami. It’s really funny, it’s about how two guys pretend to be gay to live in my really cool apartment and they both fall in love with me. I had a great time making that movie. There’s Mary Kom, which is a biopic about a female boxer in India with a really amazing story. And then there’s Barfi!, my personal favorite, where I play a 19-year-old autistic girl, and it was one of the most liberating characters I ever played.
How do you look back upon the beauty pageant time of your life?
I think it was the biggest platform, the biggest trampoline anyone could get to jump into what I was doing. It was an amazing opportunity and I’ll always be grateful to Miss India and the Miss World pageants, because they’re both pageants about women with substance. They tell you to be the best woman you can be, and I think that’s a really important lesson, one I learned at 17. Ever since I’ve been living with that motto, to always be in the pursuit of excellence.
Are beauty pageants old fashioned? Is there still a place for them in today’s society?
I think everything has a phase and everything is about perception. I think as a society we’ve become too judgmental in general, and I think we have to have a little more tolerance for everything. People have different opinions—we’re all different people with different circumstances. Something that might work for someone might not for another, and I think we have to live and let live. You can have an opinion, of course, but I think being judgmental about anything is uncouth now.
You were also able to use your platform to do a lot of philanthropic work.
It’s been a part of my life since I was a baby. My parents were extremely philanthropic. My favorite part of growing up the daughter of two doctors was whenever we had vacation or a long weekend, my parents, two nurses, and I would take an ambulance and go into villages where my parents could see patients who didn’t have the ability to come to the hospital. They would give medication, and I had the responsibility—and I was 10 at the time—of counting the pills the pharmacist was putting in everyone’s little packets. It gave me a sense of giving back. Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and I want to be able to do as much as I can. It doesn’t mean changing your whole life around, it can start with anything. It’s the basic thing of thinking about someone else once in a while. We can do that, it’s not a big ask.
Did you ever want to become a doctor, then?
Oh god, I knew at the age of five I didn’t want to. I grew up in hospitals, being with my parents, and I would hang out with the night nurses when they had cases, and that smell of formaldehyde and the sight of blood, oh my god. I wanted to become an aeronautical engineer. I wanted to build planes.
Will you ever take time off from acting to pursue that?
Actually, I’ve always wanted to. It’s something that’s part of my life goals, but I’m so caught up handling so much right now I don’t know when that can happen. I do hope I get the opportunity at some point.
Is your music career on hold right now?
I’ve been so caught with Quantico and my assignments in India I haven’t had the time to go back to the studio. I hope I get to go back and do it because I love making music, and it’s such an incredible high to work with such great people. I miss it. I want to be able to do that soon.
You should ask Jennifer Lopez how she manages to act and do music at the same time.
She’s one of those women I really look up to, and if I ever meet her I’ll ask her that. She’s someone I admire.
As someone who has considerably less Twitter followers, what’s it like having over 10 million of them?
Tweets get lost sometimes and you make a typo it’s headline news. [Laughs.] Besides that it’s a lot of love and support. I’ve been able to take a lot of chances in what I do because of the fact that I have that kind of support, and not just on Twitter. Of course, there are trolls too, but there’s a beautiful little button called block for that.
You’re active on social media. What is it that you like about it?
It’s my voice. Whatever my opinion might be—the fact that I’m eating prawn curry right now or the fact that I think it’s amazing for women to stand up for themselves, it’s my way of putting out whatever I want people to know. And if I don’t want them to know, they usually don’t know.
Will you be reading the reviews for Quantico?
I’ll wait for my team to read them and then they can send me the good ones. [Laughs.] I think I’ll be too nervous to read them. Maybe I’ll read them a month after.
When you were starting out did you read your reviews?
Yeah, but I learned over time it’s best not to sometimes and just keep going.
I read that you don’t like the term "sex symbol."
Why does anything need to be a symbol? Why must a woman, or a man, or anyone be put in a box like that? I have an aversion to stereotypes and just because a woman is beautiful or presents herself a certain way, she shouldn’t be a symbol of anything. I have a problem with the generalization and I feel it’s disrespectful.
What did you think the first time someone called you that?
I believe in freedom of speech. I’m one of those utopian types, I was raised like that. I like to see it from another person’s point of view and I see it as an ignorant way of giving someone a compliment. Sometimes that’s what it is, but if people knew what a woman’s opinion on the term was, then maybe they wouldn’t use it as much.
Did you have to bulk up for the role of Alex?
No, I didn’t. But because of the boxing movie I did last year, my body muscle memory is really good, so I look like I’m in great shape, but it’s not true.
Are you bringing the gun show to Quantico?
Oh yeah, totally. [Laughs.] There’s a training sequence I had to do, and I was flexing. I’m always making fun of my male co-actors because whenever they have a scene where their arms would show they would work out right before the shot to pump up. When I did it, I just laughed to myself.
Be sure to catch the season premiere of Quantico on Sunday, September 27 at 10|9c.