“Are you toying with me?” Priyanka Chopra says, staring right into my eyes. The word “toy” rolls off her tongue with an awkward disgust; you can practically see it floating in front of her like an odious vapor. We’re in a large studio in Montreal, where she’s filming the third to last episode of Quantico’s first season. I’m not sure how to respond.
Chopra turns to the 10 people with us in the “Video Village,” what those in the Business call the space on a TV or movie set where everyone huddles behind twin monitors to watch and review the action being filmed. She repeats the line. “It sounds odd, doesn’t it?” They murmur various affirmations. She zeroes back in on me. “You’re a writer. What do you think?”
I agree. It sounds awkward—but I don’t have a solution. Should the entire line be thrown out? Will it affect the scene either way? In the time that I’ve quietly wasted mulling it over, she’s already called up Quantico’s creator Joshua Safran to workshop something better. Welp, there goes my shot at joining the writers’ room. Apparently this word has to change and it has to change now.
To be fair, being the premier female actor in Bollywood—on her way to holding a comparable position in Hollywood—does not leave Priyanka Chopra a lot of time for “toying” with anything. But she is the opposite of austere on set, even if the scene she’s shooting right now is especially tense. Actual vapors fill the room as smoke is pumped into a replica of the FBI’s New York headquarters, currently empty save two former lovers who are about to become enemies. It’s 6 p.m., and Chopra and her co-star Jake McLaughlin will throw each other around the set until the wee hours of morning, as a season of love and lust degrades into vicious distrust. Their characters—who hooked up five minutes into the pilot and have carried on a will-they-or-won’t-they dance ever since—finally turn on each other. It’s the homestretch of Quantico’s debut season, Priyanka Chopra’s veritable cotillion. The payoff must deliver and she doesn’t hesitate calling out improvements—Safran says she’ll later call him again to give story suggestions to a character and subplot totally unrelated to hers. But that kind of attention is par for the course to a nearly two-decade veteran. She may be 2016’s breakout star (as well as a cover star for this year's TIME 100 issue), but Pri—as she’s lovingly referred to on set—is no newcomer.
At age 33, Chopra has more major Bollywood movies under her belt than she does years on earth. She’s earned some of the most prestigious awards Indian cinema has to offer, as well as a regular spot in the top 15 on Forbes India’s Celebrity 100. And now American cinema is playing catch-up to the phenomenon. Last fall, ABC debuted Quantico, the first series with an Indian actress in the lead role. In an otherwise unremarkable (if not downright bleak) crop of new series, it stands out as one of the biggest commercial successes of the 2015-16 TV season, which, given that it shares a home with the likes of Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, only cements ABC as the major network most committed to diversity.
It’s easy to see why Quantico is a hit: It’s a twisty whodunit that coils more than seems narratively possible, driven by the ticking clock propulsion of 24 and counterbalanced with a mind-numbing number of subplots, as well as ABC’s special ingredient: adults involved in a sophomoric love triangle, or hexagon. The show is named for the FBI facility where trainees are put through the ringer physically and mentally before graduating and joining the agency. (Chopra jokingly refers to it as “Grey’s Academy.”) Episodes toggle between the past and the present, with Chopra as the lead, playing a prodigal trainee with a murky past named Alex Parrish. Each hour flits between the psychological mind games of her time at Quantico and a horrifying present, where she has been framed for a terrorist attack in New York City. The New York scenes find Alex on the run, attempting to clear her name and discern which of her former classmates is the real terrorist, while flashbacks inform the present-day action.
It’s exhilarating, addictive in a mainstream, binge-worthy way, and yes, exhausting. But if the plots get tangled or the romance too overwrought, it has the magnetic Priyanka Chopra at its center to keep the audience’s attention.
All Chopra needed was a mere three weeks on U.S. airwaves to make us swoon. She clinched a nomination for the People’s Choice Award for Best Actress in a New Series, and later won it, beating out the likes of Emma Roberts and Lea Michele. Today, that appeal is still going strong. The series premiere drew 12 million viewers, tapering off to a respectable seven million per episode since. Season two has been green-lit, and her first co-starring role in an American blockbuster—Baywatch, opposite the Rock and Zac Efron—is underway.
The scariest part—besides the fact that she’s conquered one of the most fickle entertainment markets in under a year and is just getting started—is that this wasn’t even her plan. She bases her 16-year career on a combination of whimsy, instinct, fearlessness—and destiny.
“I’m so not a planner,” she admits, traversing the set as she talks. She’s referencing her desire to start a family someday, but it can apply to the rest of her life as well. Then she stops and pivots her face to look back at me, hair whipping, as the darkness of the set warehouse contrasts perfectly with light peeking from the stage. The sudden chiaroscuro adds a dramatic effect. “I’m destiny’s favorite child, other than Beyoncé.” She chuckles, and keeps walking. It’s such a perfect beat, one she couldn’t possibly have planned. Is she really approaching her global takeover with the same incidental precision?
Her trouble with the word “toy” would suggest otherwise. Accounting for just two seconds, it seems miniscule, but considering it’s an especially seismic scene, every second counts. After a bit of back and forth, she and Safran find a line that fits both Alex Parrish’s, and Chopra’s, attitude a bit better: “Are you screwing with me?”
“I’ve been famous for more than half my life,” Chopra shrugs, as her makeup artist glams her up mid-sentence, and two assistants hover nearby. “I don’t know anything else anymore. This is my normal.”
She recalls her origins as if they were a lifetime ago. Even before she was an inter-continental star, cultural division was a defining factor of Chopra’s life. At 13, she left her family in India to study in the United States, living with her aunt and uncle in Newton, Mass. But being a gawky teenager and the only Indian girl at school wasn’t without its challenges, namely, xenophobic encounters that proved too suffocating and dispiriting to endure. “I was bullied by a freshman named Jeanine,” she tells me, emphasizing the added shame of being picked on by a younger girl. “She was black, and supremely racist. Jeanine used to say, ‘Brownie, go back to your country, you smell of curry,’ or ‘Do you smell curry coming?’ You know when you’re a kid, and you’re made to feel bad about where your roots are, or what you look like? You don’t understand it, you just feel bad about who you are.”
The bullying tested her resolve and broke it. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” She returned to India defeated, her mind set on becoming an engineer despite her burgeoning movie-star looks. Then, when she applied for a scholarship, her mother sent professionally shot photos to the Miss India pageant without telling her. To her surprise, she won. “The thing is,” she tells me while recalling the start of her career, “I don’t like losing, in anything I do, whatever it might be. I felt I could always go back to college. But this was something I wanted to try so that I didn’t have a ‘what-if’ for the rest of my life.”
Now she’s got close to six-dozen films under her belt and counting. She’s based her career on an in-born, screen-queen magnetism, the wildly unattainable beauty wedded to the girl next door. I can feel it as I sit next to her in her trailer, and later on set between takes. As she speaks to her assistants, her husky voice seamlessly oscillating between alluring and respectfully commanding, she pushes her thick, wavy brown hair to the side while her lips part into a beaming wide smile.
“It is that superstar quality,” Safran told me later. “That Julia Roberts quality, that Meg Ryan quality, that thing of Sandra Bullock. You feel like you could actually know them, but you also know that you could never know them. She’s living on two different levels at once. That’s what I like so much about her. She’s not untouchable in any way even though she looks like a goddess. I think that’s really rare. It’s like lightning in a bottle.”
Even rarer is how she manages to distill that A-list aura into a tangible relatability, something she’s been doubling down on with each public appearance. Like, for example, pitching a hot wing face-off to Jimmy Fallon for her appearance on The Tonight Show—and bodying him. That sense of approachability readily translates in real life. But to what end? Is she riding the wave, or playing a larger game?
For the past several months, she’s been filming Quantico during the week, and flying back to Mumbai on weekends to continue dominating Hindi cinema, or more recently, down south to film Baywatch. Once an outcast, she’s now on her way to becoming America’s next sweetheart, and she didn’t even trade in her cinematic citizenship. This isn’t her “crossing over” to America, an assumption she’s somewhat offended by. After all, ABC came to her, offering their full slate of scripts in development to choose from. Not the other way around.
Instead what she’s doing is more like multi-lane road hogging, and that’s without even factoring in her music career. She has 45 songs on her laptop, all of varying genre and sound, recorded with people like Pitbull and will.i.am. She’s even got a rain check for a studio session with Pharrell—she just hasn’t found the time in between an Indian movie, American television, and an American movie to call in the favor. “Nineties music has influenced me tremendously. Movies became my profession, but music was always my heart, in a way, my passion.” Which explains why she specifically requested a 2Pac playlist during the photo shoot for this story. (She walked out to “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”—another incidentally perfect moment.) “I was supposed to be Mrs. Shakur. Then he died. Yeah, I wore black to school for 30 days.”
McLaughlin slams Chopra against the office window. Her ponytail loosens and her hair cascades as she rebuffs him with a headbutt—and that’s a cut. “How’d that look?” Chopra strides back into Video Village excitedly. If Chopra’s running on empty, it doesn’t show. She admits she had her fair share of what-did-I-get-myself-into moments—the 16-hour-day/10-month rigor of TV is a wholly different beast than film production. And she’s got a long way to go until she gets a break, both tonight and for the rest of the year. Her next vacation, she tells me, is already on the books—a full nine months from now. Tonight, though, she’s the center of the set’s universe, cracking jokes with McLaughlin or the camera crew, or intently observing the stuntmen and making suggestions to improve the fight scene.
“I came in here with a strong step,” she says of Quantico and the American market. Deceptively strong would be more accurate. With ABC behind her, she could’ve pitched an all-Indian sitcom, a spiritual successor to what the network’s been doing with Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want to do. I was very sure I did not want to be the stereotype of what Indian people are seen as, which is Bollywood, and henna. That’s all great! It’s what we are, and I love it. I love saris; I love music; I love henna; I love dancing, but that’s not all we are.”
Instead, Chopra took a different approach. “I wanted to be seen as just an actor, not because of my ethnicity or where I come from. I think global entertainment needs to become like that. It needs to be about the best person for the job rather than what you look like or where you come from. And I wanted to be one of the first people to take a step in that direction.” It’s why she picked Quantico out of a crop of 26 new scripts. Alex Parrish wasn’t written as an Indian-American, and Chopra swiftly quelled all talk of giving the character a “more Indian” name. (“I mean, my assistant, she’s Indian, but her name is Jennifer Dinn,” she shrugs.) The character’s ethnicity matches her own, but the role itself is racially ambiguous.
With this approach, she’s subversively eradicating the same barriers Aziz Ansari is confronting head-on in Master of None (which she just started watching, and says she loves). “There are so many Indian actors who have crossed over, and have done a lot of work in the West, but they’ve always been made to speak like Apu [from The Simpsons]. I want to be able to break the stereotype of what Indian people or people of South Asian descent are supposed to be. Nobody’s supposed to be anything. You can be whoever you want. And I want young people to see that.”
It’s during this part of the conversation that Chopra is most animated (she really hated Apu), throwing her hands up to illustrate how bemused she is by American television’s lack of diversity. She witnessed first-hand while attending her first Academy Awards this year, i.e., the ceremony dominated by #OscarsSoWhite. “Art should not be bound by barriers or language,” she tells me. “The Hindi film industry is a testament to that. We speak only Hindi, but we premiere in Germany and Japan. Our films do phenomenally well there. We transcend the barriers of language and culture. We welcome you in. I think that’s what art should be, and I hope America reaches that place.”
Quantico is doing its part to get us there. “This show celebrates diversity,” Safran explains. “It’s about different people coming from different areas of the world, of America. It’s about what it means to be a Muslim-American woman. It’s about what it means to be a Zionist Jew. Each character has a specific reason for why they want to be FBI agents. Priyanka brings with her that sort of specificity as well.”
It goes beyond diversity. Chopra is another in ABC’s welcome trend of celebrating female leads as rogue and tortured as their middle-aged white male counterparts. On the first episode of Quantico, Alex consummates a plane flirtation with McLaughlin’s Ryan, but immediately shoots down his attempts to pursue a relationship. “You’re not my type,” she tells him dryly. “If you were, I wouldn’t have done this.” Not the easiest of letdowns, but an intriguing introduction.
It was that comfort in a nuanced role that blew Safran away during Chopra’s audition. “I was looking at a character that was dark and broken by having killed her father. But Priyanka played a really warm, seemingly open person that was guarded on the inside. She brings you close to her, but you can’t get too close. The best hope for a writer, obviously, is that you write something, and then an actor and a director come and bring new levels to the work you hadn’t seen before. That’s exactly what she did. She changed my entire view of Alex and added on dimensions I hadn’t even thought about in the year I’d been working on it.”
Maybe that’s because warm, open, and guarded on the inside are dimensions that exist within Chopra herself. By this stage in her career, she’s earned the right to stunt and make emboldened new decisions off of her winning streak. But she relents: “[That] doesn’t mean I don’t have fears—but no one sees [them].” She’s even more protective of her private life. “Ninety percent of my life is an open book. Everyone knows where I am; you can literally find anything about my life online. I’d rather be spoken about for my work than my private life and I want to keep it like that until there’s a ring on my finger. I do a lot of work so there’s a lot to talk about.”
The break is over, and Chopra returns to set to continue fighting her on-screen ex. Dozens of bustling crew members are whipping the set into place, and McLaughlin is standing around idly, running over the fight choreography. Today’s scene finds Alex in biker jacket and boots—on ABC, even the renegade justice-seekers stay on-trend.
Chopra gets some light makeup—not that she needs much, if any. Most of it is in service of covering up a small tattoo, etched on the side of her hand. If you look closely, you can see subtle handwriting reading, “Daddy’s Little Girl.”
Her character’s backstory involves murdering her father as a teenager, so a pro-Dad tat doesn’t quite track. But Chopra credits her resilience, attitude, and assertiveness to her father. “He was always about the fact that I didn’t have to fit in. I didn’t have to be a boy to be successful,” she says, absent-mindedly running a finger over the tattoo’s cover. “In India, boys are looked at to be the workers. Girls are supposed to get married and have babies. My parents gave me the ability to be fearless in whatever I do. My mother is a double MD, and I’m from a family of overachievers, so don’t even ask,” she laughs.
It’s what made her decide to get the tattoo written in her father’s own handwriting. He died two years ago, not long after she got it. “He was really sick at that time so his hand would shake. I asked him to write it in his handwriting, and lied to him, saying I wanted to put it on my album cover. I couldn’t tell him I was getting a tattoo. He practiced and practiced so his hand wouldn’t shake, then he emailed it to me. I traced it and got the tattoo. When he saw it he cried, and was very emotional. I was being sassy like, ‘See, this was the only way you would allow me to get a tattoo.’ But we both knew it was a very emotional moment.”
There’s the story that a young Will Smith, during the height of Fresh Prince’s success, studied the box-office top 10 like a cryptologist, hunting for patterns to determine which genres were more successful than others. Then he engineered his moves in precise accordance. Where plenty of her peers find themselves shameful or reluctant to admit their desire to dominate in a purely pop landscape, Chopra is refreshingly shameless about her ambitions. “Box office is king. We’re in the business of entertainment. If your business makes money, it’s successful, then you’re successful. It’s the simple truth of business.”
In another lull between takes, conversation turns toward her appetite for stunts. She’s thrilled for her upcoming role as the icy villain in Baywatch, a part originally envisioned for a man (“another barrier broken,” she winks), and everyone agrees she’d make a great Bond Girl. “I get that all the time,” she says with faux exasperation. “But fuck that—I wanna be Bond.”
As for her immediate next step, after Baywatch and Quantico, Chopra isn’t sure: “I don’t know where I’ll win, but I know I want to keep moving, keep going. When I achieve something then I’m like, all right, what’s next?” She’s not sweating it. After a series of successful moves—from Miss India, to movies, to music, to America—she sees no reason to stress. She’s not even a full year in but it’d be a mistake to assume that her joining Western cinema is a reset.
“I felt like a newcomer because, like, when I walk onto a set for the first time, people don’t know where I come from or what I know. They get really surprised that I do my job and that I know my job. For me, it’s really amusing. Then they will go Google me and come back like, ‘Oh. OK. That explains it.’ Stardom should be a discovery. You don’t hammer it onto people’s heads. You don’t demand it. You command it. It’s interesting that people, this part of the world, are discovering me. That’s how I want it to be. I don’t want to talk about it. I want them to be like, ‘Who is that girl?’ And figure it out.” Even Safran had to learn it himself. Though Chopra already had a deal with ABC in place prior to her Quantico audition, that detail was wisely withheld from Safran—he admits if he had known, he would likely have perceived it as the network forcing its agenda and rebelled.
Sleep on her at your own risk. Something tells me Chopra has her Will Smith magnifying glass out, studying the game as she awaits destiny’s next move for her. She may not have a road map but she knows the destination: higher. “I’m going at a faster pace than I was when I started, now. That time when I thought of me at 33, I was like, ‘I’ll probably have babies, be married by then.’” Now, she’s months away from 34 with a different mind-set. “People think that once you achieve success it’s great and you party, but it’s not. You’re known by your last failure. So you have to move from that to your next success. Success is a journey, you have to be consistently successful to be called successful.”
The night is waning, but the fight is turning up as the scene starts to get really brutal. By this point, Chopra and McLaughlin’s faces are tatted up with various bruises. Even though they’re already filming episode 20, at press time only 14 have aired, and Quantico moves too fast to piece plot points together on a six-episode handicap. The secrets are heavily guarded.
Chopra’s windows for sneaking off set grow smaller as the stunts get rougher. It’s time for me to leave, but before I go, I steal her attention for one more question: “If you ran into Jeanine, that racist girl from high school, today, what would you say to her?”
She answers immediately, “Look at me now!” and laughs, sliding into a goofy dance, twirling her hands and slithering around the set, with not a tinge of spite or pettiness to be found in her reply. Life’s too good—and too busy—to dwell on the likes of Jeanine.
I call back, telling her to enjoy the rest of her night, realizing that she and the whole crew will be working past 3 a.m.
“Yeah, right,” she chides.
“Just think about vacation,” I remind her. She pretends to reach for something far away, as if a break is something that she wants but can never have, and it’s the first time in our conversation when I think Chopra may be acting a little disingenuous. Far as I can tell, vacation is the last thing she’s looking forward to.