She’s a former Miss World; she’s starred in nearly 50 films and won countless awards for those performances; she’s a Guess spokesperson and an UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador; and her music videos have as many views as Taylor Swift’s.
But in the U.S. hardly anyone knows Priyanka Chopra’s name...until now.
On the seventh week of what has been a emotionally charged, action-heavy, grueling shoot for her ABC series Quantico, Chopra pinballed around the Montreal set like it had been anything but — laughing in between takes, snuggling up to the set’s puppy, and launching herself onto nearby gymnastics equipment.
Part of that boundless enthusiasm stems from Chopra’s unbridled love of the promising new fall show, which takes a cue from last season’s breakout hit How to Get Away With Murder by telling its story in two concurrent timelines: In one, an impossibly beautiful cadre of FBI recruits (including Chopra’s Alex Parrish) learn how to become agents, and in the other, Alex searches for the truth behind a deadly terrorist attack on NYC for which she finds herself framed.
But as Friday night turned into Saturday morning on the set of Quantico and that 5 a.m. wrap time felt light-years away, Chopra admitted she was fading. During a rare moment of rest toward the end of an otherwise restless day, she told BuzzFeed News with a laugh, “Nobody prepared me for this. …We’re shooting 16-hour days every day, and we wrap at, like, 5 in the morning. So, I’m a little bit tired at the moment, to be honest. But I’m super excited by everything that’s happening.”
And what’s happening is quite unprecedented. As one of India’s most popular actors, Chopra is easily the most famous to ever star in a U.S. television series.
“Has there ever been an American show fronted by a relatively unknown actress who happens to be a huge star elsewhere?” film critic Raja Sen wondered to BuzzFeed News in an email. “It’s as if Marion Cottilard was cast on an HBO show before she won her Oscar."
While many American viewers will label 33-year-old Chopra as a “newcomer,” the truth is, she’s been working tirelessly in Indian cinema since being crowned Miss World in 2000. “She’s a bonafide star — and that means a lot in an industry where, despite the number of films produced, there are less than 20 actual A-listers,” Sen wrote. And, he added, “[Priyanka] made it on her own steam, which isn’t the norm in an industry reeking of nepotism.”
That steam, however, took a long time to build. Chopra’s fame didn’t come easily or overnight; it was a slow, uphill climb. She had to prove herself over and over again in Bollywood, an industry that — initially — didn’t seem to want her. “There was this one producer when I just started [acting] who wanted me for a project, but my dates weren't matching and he was like, ‘You know what? Girls are replaceable. And if she doesn't come at this price and on these dates, then I'll just get someone else. And if I don't get someone else, I'll just launch a new girl. That's how it works for girls,’” Chopra recalled with an anger that still brims at the surface more than a decade later. “I didn't want to be replaceable. I wanted to be irreplaceable. So that rubbed me the wrong way, and I think subconsciously that’s why I started doing empowered roles.”
Those carefully chosen roles have showcased dozens of sides to Chopra as a performer, and they’ve elevated her from ingénue to acclaimed actress to leading lady. “I'm very clear about who I am, and I don't like conforming to how I ‘should be’ — I really believe in being flawed and being unique, and I think that's what makes you special,” she said, adding that ultimately, she wants to make sure her performances “entertain people. That's who I am. However I can do it, whether that's through my music, my dancing, my Hindi movies, my show, I realized over time that … I live to entertain.”
At the height of Chopra’s international fame, ABC came calling. But she wasn’t immediately sold on doing American television. “I was very skeptical because TV is a big commitment,” she said. “My career in India is important to me and I'm doing some amazing work, which I'm excited about, so I was thinking in my head about how I could balance it all.”
But ABC wasn’t giving up, and Chopra was at least open to the idea, having built her career on going where the wind takes her. “I am destiny's other child besides Beyoncé. I'm telling you, destiny looks out for me, takes me places, and I say, ‘OK, that's what you want me to do? All right. All right.’ And then I give it my best.”
So Chopra flew to Los Angeles for two months and read every script that ABC had in development. There were 26 in total, but Quantico was her favorite — by a mile. Not only is Alex Parrish the kind of empowered character Chopra wants to play, but the series presents a world filled with the kind of mainstream entertainment that spoke to Chopra’s sensibilities as a viewer.
“I didn't know anything about movies when I started acting, and I had never been to acting school and I never had friends or family in the business, so everything was super instinctive and I think I developed an instinct about picking things I would want to watch,” she said. “So when I read Quantico … it's not like, ‘I'm art, take me seriously.’ But at the same time, it doesn't take your intelligence for granted. It's fast-paced and had drama on major levels, which I love. I'm a movie actress. I love drama. It just made perfect sense. The artist in me couldn't say no.”
But Chopra’s casting wasn’t a given. Fifteen years after entering the world of show business, she was confronted with a first: auditioning. “I hate that, because it makes me sound so pompous, but when I became Miss World, lots of movie offers came my way and people were like, ‘Oh, she's Miss World, she should be cast because people will come watch the movie just because she's Miss World,’” Chopra said, adding that one role led to the next, and as she became more and more famous in India, auditioning wasn’t really a factor.
She had to remind herself of those very accomplishments over and over again before stepping into her very first audition for Quantico. “I went in the bathroom before I was supposed to go in front of all these people and I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘You've done 40 movies! What are you afraid of? You can make it work,’” she remembered with a laugh. “So I talked to myself for a little bit and then I walked in as if I owned the room.”
The pep talk worked, according to Quantico creator and executive producer Josh Safran. “The way Priyanka walks in a room is different from everybody else,” he told BuzzFeed News over the phone. “I was stunned. I didn't know who this person was, but it was very clear this person had a career — you can just sort of tell. She walked in as if she was sitting down to have an interview as opposed to an audition, where we were in the hot seat — and then she just gave an incredible read.”
For Safran, Chopra landed the part of Alex right then and there, despite the part being written as an American. So with her help, he set out to tweak the role to reflect Chopra’s roots, and Alex became Indian-American. “I believe the show very much deals in where these characters come from … where they're from is not just a plot point, it's the fabric of their character,” Safran said, adding that the only major change to Alex after Chopra’s casting was that following a childhood tragedy, her character had now spent a decade in Mumbai.
“We wanted to create a person,” Chopra said of those initial conversations about Alex. “She wasn't created for an Indian person; so now that you've cast an Indian girl, should her name be Indian? That's a stereotype to me. Alex is mixed breed — if you would call it that. She's half Indian, half American; her dad is white, so obviously my last name is going to be Parrish. Yeah, I could have had a more Indian name, but I didn't think you actually needed to change that. She's an individual. She could be anyone from anywhere; it's that kind of role.”
Still, the Anglo last name paired with the American accent Chopra uses on the show has given some of her many Indian fans pause. But Chopra insists Quantico has gone to great lengths to ensure her Indian roots are front and center. “We've not run away from me being Indian at all. … I wear this om bracelet and the first shot of my show is this bracelet, which is considered lucky in India,” Chopra said, turning her wrist to display the charm. “I'm just really happy the first shot of the show is this. Alex is very close to her Indian roots. She's lived a decade in India, but she's an American citizen. … I still have an Indian lilt, but it's American because she's technically lived her whole life here. So we talked about all of those things before we shot the pilot and came to the consensus that this is how she should be. She's a modern-day global citizen who happens to be an Indian-American, and there are millions of people in this world like that. ”
But television has taken a while to reflect that. Almost more than any other network, however, ABC — with Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, How to Get Away With Murder, and Scandal, among others — has been proactive about the better-late-than-never realization that viewers demand onscreen diversity and begun casting actors who mirror global citizens. “It's incredibly important to show all ethnicities on television and be realistic to the world,” Safran said. “The FBI has all ethnicities, so I think it's incredible that I have Priyanka, the actor, as Alex, but I think it's also great to see an Indian woman at the center of a television show. It's important to show diversity whenever possible.”
With Quantico, Chopra joins a network lineup that includes Scandal’s Kerry Washington, How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis, Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, American Crime’s Regina King, and Blackish’s Tracee Ellis Ross. “We looked at Priyanka and thought, she’s a fabulous actress, she’s incredibly relatable to our audience, she’s empowered and fierce the way only ABC heroines are empowered and fierce,” ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee said at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August. “She’s a sort of iconic ABC star, and we think the whole world is going to be talking about Priyanka as we come through into the fall and start our big marketing campaign for that one.”
The campaign Lee referenced is now in full swing on billboards, buses, and buildings from New York City to Los Angeles, selling Quantico on the strength of a single element: Chopra’s face. It’s a savvy move, given that she boasts more than 30 million fans across social networks and speaks directly to an audience the network clearly believes is underserved. “It’s like hanging out with Beyoncé,” Safran said of his experiences in public with Chopra. “Wherever she goes, people know her, they notice her, they talk to her, they want things from her, yet she takes it all in stride and is so calm, cool, and collected, and so emotionally available and open. She's one of a kind.”
Yes, ABC’s marketing strategy puts a lot of responsibility squarely on Chopra’s shoulders; and while many would buckle under that kind of intense pressure, she clearly takes it all in stride. “I’m not presuming everyone who is Indian knows me and likes me, but we are one-fifth of the world’s population — at least I can get them in,” Chopra said with a laugh.
It helps that she’s used to the promotion of a project hinging on her. This time, however, it’s in new territory. “One of my friends came to L.A. and said, ‘Oh, it feels like Mumbai,’” Chopra said, as a playful smile broke out across her face. “I feel like after working in movies for 15 years, like, whoa, I’m coming to another country and feeling those same jitters that I did when I saw my first billboards go up.”
But she wants to make clear that having an American series doesn’t mean she’s leaving Bollywood behind — in fact, Chopra is working twice as hard to maintain her place in Indian cinema while working on Quantico. All her spare weekends are spent flying home to complete two upcoming movies (adding to the 15 flights per month she generally averages), and she’s already reading scripts for the movie she plans to make once filming on the series wraps. “I want to balance both my careers because I love doing Indian movies and I get withdrawal symptoms if I don't do a song,” Chopra said. “It doesn't matter what language I speak. I don't think art should be restricted by borders or language or race or creed or anything. I could be anywhere in the world. I go wherever the work takes me. Like this, for me, isn't my big chance to make it in America. I don't want to prove a point.”
Chopra may not have set out to prove something with Quantico, but the effects of its potential success are widespread. From a financial standpoint, ABC could have a show with innate global appeal and the ability to sell it to international markets that might not otherwise buy a series about FBI trainees. Additionally, if Quantico is a hit, it could mean a lot more work for Indian actors in America. “Most Indian actors … fare like Aishwarya Rai, who had a big American launch with much publicity and pomp, only to be reduced to embarrassing bit-roles,” Sen wrote. “Because of this, Indian actors declare they’d rather stay in their own backyard where they can call the shots as loudly as they like.”
Now there’s a chance Quantico could change all that. “If Chopra does strike gold, you can bet a lot of them will hire accent coaches overnight and start rolling their R’s,” Sen wrote.
But regardless of how the show fares in the ratings, sells internationally, or immediately influences Hollywood’s casting practices, Chopra has already broken down a significant wall for burgeoning Indian actors who can now see that breaking into American television is at least possible. “I feel very privileged to be in this position,” she said. “When I was in high school in America and watched TV, I never saw anyone who looked like me. I feel very privileged that I'm one of the first few people to do that — but that's not the reason I'm doing it. I come from an extremely small city called Bareilly in India. Both my parents were army officers. I come from humble beginnings, and to sit in front of Sunset Boulevard and see my face the size of a building is pretty nutty. I have no blessed beginnings or superpowers that have brought me to where I am, except for the fact I'm not afraid to work hard. I'm not afraid of being tired or being pushed. So I feel like I’m saying that if I can do it, anyone can. I really believe that.”
Quantico premieres Sept. 27 at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT on ABC.
Chopra is from Bareilly. A previous version of this story misstated the city.