Sacrificed a lot to achieve what I have: Priyanka Chopra
Back from the US for a week or so, India’s first crossover star, Priyanka Chopra, on the new world – her own, and the one around us
Q. It’s crazy how in the past two-three years, your career’s taken a completely new trajectory, breaking into the American mainstream in particular. I know you keep getting asked if you feel like Alice in Wonderland. But, is there a ‘turning point’, ‘fresh beginnings’ kinda story here, say, when the ABC vice president-casting (Keli Lee), met you for the first time, and then what happened?
A. I don’t think I’m a discovery; I’m an experience. “Ah, she’s interesting, let’s launch her!” That’s never happened to me. People had to experience me from the beginning of my career to now, whenever they had to cast me; and things have changed for me every two-three years right from the beginning. Even the reason I was cast at ABC (the network that produces Quantico), was because, I was told, that would be an easy introduction to America, for an Indian actor. I can just transform myself to play an American FBI agent. No Indian actor has been able to play a part like that.
Q. They got acquainted to you through your music (with will.i.am, Pit Bull) that you launched in the US?
A. No, I just met her at a party…
Q. See, that’s a turning point!
A. But, it wasn’t a discovery. She started talking to me, and said, “You don’t sound like a Bollywood actor!” I said, “What do you mean; my accent?” “No, just the way you speak, talk about cinema, and acting…” I said, “How many Bollywood actors have you met?” “But you know! What people say about Bollywood…” I said, “Exactly, you have no idea!” So, the conversation really started from there. It wasn’t like, wow, you’re so beautiful, exotic, and I must cast you… It came from the way I see talent crossing over to global cinema. Even the reason I was signed up as a recording artiste isn’t because I can sing. Everyone can sing. But I was told, again, that I was an easier fit somehow. I don’t know what that means, because I’m just being me — the same there, as I am here. So I don’t know what worked. But clearly, something I did right.
Q. And you get there, and you’re on your 30th birthday at Bono’s house, or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner… You didn’t see these moments as, whoa, what’s up?
A. When I was 17, I became Miss World, and then was thrown into this world of Hindi cinema. I had met major global leaders when I was 17-18. So, the shock of meeting celebrities went away at an early age. Now, at least in the business, whether in India, the US or UK, I meet people as colleagues. I come from a place of someone who knows her job, rather than a place of awe. Musicians I get awestruck by, still. I was so star-struck at the Billboard awards — “Oh my god, that’s Sting!” Also, I didn’t grow up on movies. My teenage years were about, “Oh that album is dropping!” This year though, every two-three weeks, something new would happen, the kind of reception…
Q. Well, we were sort of awe-struck — oh, she’s on the Time 100 Most Influential cover, ah at the Oscars, oh making headlines twirling at the Emmy…
A. Well, what I would do at the red carpet, like last night at Stardust awards, hanging out with the press, was exactly what I was doing at the Emmy — twirling with my dress… I go as me. And I’m so grateful that people react to me being me. Which is why it is easy. Because I’m not trying to be ambassador of Indian cinema or anything. I’m just an actor. So what was happening this year, to my mom, my team, was just like — Okay, what next, and what next. I’m working, and results are bound to come, but it was just about the kind of acceptance in a different country. My show started airing September last year. So, I’m just a year old. I don’t even have a movie released just yet. Sure, normal network audiences on the streets know me (in the US), because of Quantico. But, dekha jaye toh, technically, it’s just been a year. And there are only 14 people who present (at the Oscars), so that was very cool.
Q. Your year and half in the US was also an important year and half for the US itself, given the elections. You’ve spoken before about having lived in the US (Iowa, Newton, Queens), between 12 and 16, and you returned because of mean, racist teens in your class. What did you make of Trump winning the election?
A. I only work there. Who am I to see anything in Trump winning? But yes, I saw a lot of disappointment among friends, colleagues. I sensed confusion among people over what had happened. Every country has its issues. We have ours; they have theirs. You have to accept where you are. This is it now. You have to focus then on how to bring your country together than dividing it further.
Q. What does Trump’s election say about the America you had to leave as a kid, because of racist jibes.
A. When I look back, I know that the ‘Mean Girls’ happened to me in high school, because it was high school. I don’t think that girl, who was an African-American herself, came from a place of hate. It was just hitting me where it hurt, because of competitiveness. In retrospect [I realised], school is mean. Especially, high school.
Q. Even with your music appearing on NFL Thursday night, there was trolling, where you got called an Arab terrorist. Does that reflect Trump’s America?
A. I think it’s unfair to judge. We’ve all voted some impractical leaders all over the world. It’s up to us to find out what this will end up being. One thing we forget to do as nations around the world is work with each other. We spend much time throwing stones at our government, or wondering what has this country done for us. Truly, what have you done for your country, humanity, and each other? I’m not trying to sound like, some, Miss World (laughs). But it’s true. If we’re so swayed by what one government leader says, and don’t hold on to what we believe in, then there’s no prospect.
Q. Workwise, how have things been for you, when you’d flit between Quantico, and a film like Bajirao Mastani or Jai GangaaJal, which are diametrically opposite worlds, and you shot for them at the same time, right?
A. Yes, Baywatch, Season 1 of Quantico, Bajirao, and GangaaJal were shot at the same time!
Q. That’s nuts. You were flying down every weekend to shoot in India…
A. To Wai, not even Bombay! I would land in Bombay, Saturday night, Sunday morning, take a chopper to Wai, shoot the whole day, take a chopper again, and fly back to Montreal to shoot Monday mornings.
Q. What does that do to your work-life balance? Do you have a life at all?
A. (Laughs). I mean yeah, I do have a life. But I’m also on the cover of Time. But you know what, there is no such thing as free lunch. I haven’t said this before: I have truly sacrificed a lot in life to achieve what I have, and I am okay with it. Because I’m one of the very few people in the world to get the opportunities and acceptance I have. I don’t think about taking those two months off.
Q. Forget two months off, do you even get time to go on dates?
A. I generally don’t understand the concept of dating. I’ve said this before, and people thought that I meant I’d never dated. Which is not what I’d said. In India we don’t date, na. You meet friends of friends, you vibe…
Q. This is clearly a pre-historic, pre-Tinder India you’re talking about.
A. Okay, maybe. I haven’t ‘Tindered’ yet (laughs). I’ve never been out on a “date” with a guy to be in a relationship. I’ve always been in relationships, because you end up meeting people. So, yeah, I do get time to do that kind of thing. I make time for it.
Q. Are you dating someone?
A. Wow! That’s straight up. Hmmm (long pause). That’s for me to know, and you to find out.
Q. That long pause was for this answer?
A. (Laughs) Yeah, because I really think that you are single, until you are married.
Q. Fair enough. Now when you were working on Bajirao, at the same time as Quantico, what did you have to do to enter such different head spaces?
A. Yes, they’re two different people completely, in terms of body language, voice, dialect… One’s a Maharashtrian queen from 1700s; the other, a modern, brash American girl, who’s bold, brave, brazen. But I’m an instinctive actor, and this may not sound as glamorous as method acting. But my method, that I sort of learnt myself, is to understand the character, or what kind of person she is, really well. She then becomes my best friend, or someone I live with. I know Alex (in Quantico) that well, so you can throw me into any scene and I will know the peripheries, between action and cut, of what she will do. This helps me do multiple characters. That’s why I do three to four films at the same time, and can pull them off. My instincts kick in. It’s not like I become Kashi (from Bajirao). I lose Priyanka completely. I’m not taking on shades of somebody else as an actor. I step out of me, and step into someone else. That’s primarily what acting actually is. If I have to pinch myself, and say I’m in pain, then I’m not acting.
Q. Does the switch in language, in your case from Hindi to English, come easy? Do you think in Hindi, or English?
A. I’m not sure. I can think in both. Hindi and English have both been like my first languages. I do Hinglish also. And now I’m trilingual, because I speak American, which is a completely different language. It’s not English at all. So, the language doesn’t make it difficult, the dialect does. I had a dialogue coach in Bajirao, as I did for Quantico. I had to learn body language. Doing both together was an incredibly beautiful challenge. On the plane, I had to switch! It was fun.
Q. In any country we often change our accent to be understood better. Do you go through the same thing? Is your English accent in India different from when you’re in the US?
A. I’m sure, but I don’t do it consciously. I try to speak coherent English. It’s probably the global accent at the moment. When I’m in America, I have an Indian accent, apparently. And when I’m in India, I apparently have an American accent! It really depends on the ears of people hearing me. I just talk like me. There is no deliberate change.
Q. That’s the one stereotype you broke I think — an Indian on American television, parodying the head-bobbing Indian accent, as it were.
A. It was my pet peeve.
Q. Like the Delhi boy Kunal Nayyar on Big Bang Theory?
A. Kunal, and I’ve met him, still has a decent, normal Indian accent. He sounds a lot [different] to us, because he is in an American environment. I play a proper American girl, not even Indian-American, like Mindy Kaling. The hardest part for me was to convince America that I’m American, like it was to convince Maharashtra that I’m [the wife of a] Peshwa. Thankfully, they were both convinced.
Q. Will that apply to Baywatch, your Hollywood debut as well?
A. Baywatch is completely different. Ethnicity has nothing to do with my character. I could be whatever I wanted [to be]. So, I don’t know how I’ve spoke in the film!
Q. But you’re in America, or Miami, in the film though.
A. Yes. She is a businesswoman of Indian descent in America, but that has nothing to do with the story. She is just this rich, ostentatious bomb chick, who wants to kill these guys. My accent is sort of Queen’s English, I think. I’m confused!
Q. Man, Baywatch used to be huge back in the day in India. Most kids lost their virginity to that show!
A. It will be good fun. It’s rated R, so I don’t know what will happen in India (makes a scissor with her fingers, referring to the Censors). But, it’ll be a good
Q. Now there’s Deepika Padukone in XXX with Vin Diesel. Of course, you were the first. But do you see doors opening up as a result?
A. As it should. We are one-fifth of the world’s population, and we’re only talking about me in Quantico, in 2016, and going, “Oh my god! First Indian actor to break into the mainstream!” Of course, the door should open, and one-fifth of the world should have representation in global entertainment. And why haven’t we been able to do that? Why should the conversation about diversity be only about black or white people? What about the rest of the world? You just basically have to be the best for the job, to fight this battle for diversity. You can’t have characters written for your ethnicity or the way you look. In India, it is different. Because we all look the same. So we don’t have that fight. With heroines, we just say, “Haan thodi sundar aur gori honi chahiye (laughs); thoda aur make-up laga do.” They used to do that with me in the beginning. What I’m saying is, I really hope all actors and talents from India really do it — Deepika… Sonam (Kapoor) has signed up with UTA (United Talent Agency) now… I hope some of the boys do it too. They have to come out of their comfort zone. It’s very different from doing one film sometime. That’s not consistency. Our films already go across the world, and they’re in Hindi, which is spoken in one country, and yet we compete with Hollywood!
Q. Anushka Sharma, in a recent interview, told us how proud she’s of you, and the key to your confidence is that you’re an Army kid (like many female actors in Bollywood). No doubt your confidence levels on some of America’s top talk shows, we’ve seen, is commendable.
A. The best thing I wear is my confidence. But I was raised like that. Not too many girls are privileged to get that. My parents never differentiated between me and my brother. We were told that it’s a good thing to be outspoken — which is the opposite of what girls had been told. And a lot of confidence does come from discipline of Army life, and that we grew up in a middle class family, and were never made to feel entitled. It taught me never to take my work for granted. I’ll never come late for work, be unprofessional, or not arrive at all. Actors earn so much money, and one feels that it must be an easy life. It’s not. It involves a lot of sacrifice and dedication. Like an athlete, you just keep going, wearing blinkers, and in the right direction all the time. Otherwise, you will never have a legacy. And I’m talking about actors who are remembered. That’s where I want to end up.
Q. As an “outsider”, always moving up rather than looking back, you appear to have the same drive as Shah Rukh Khan. He’s been your co-star, but the reason I’m saying this, is because I saw a quote of yours, “I wear my success on my T-shirt rather than tuxedo”…
A. A tuxedo… Yes, it was quoted from him. It wasn’t my quote.
Q. Has he been a huge inspirational figure for you?
A. Well, I have derived inspiration — and have said this many times — from most of my colleagues. I didn’t know anything when I joined the industry. So, I can’t isolate one person. But inherently as a child, I have always been driven, competitive, wanting to come first in class, debates, elocution, plays, sports, everything. I was that kid. So, I guess the inherent nature of the person stays the same. I always wanted to be an achiever. I didn’t know what that meant — being a musician, doctor, or what.