Priyanka Chopra: “Failure scares me; she’s my enemy”

Priyanka Chopra is many things — fashion darling, smasher of stereotypes, and mega-star of a hit American series. Now, as Quantico returns to screens worldwide next month, she opens up for a special chat with show-stopping actor-comedian Hasan Minhaj, to talk about life, the universe and everything in between.

Hasan Minhaj: How do you wrap up after a long day?

Priyanka Chopra: You have to disengage. I have a ritual: I wash off my day when I come back home. First, I take off my make-up. Then I shower, turn on some music, and have my moment. Maybe I’ll have a glass of wine too.

HM: Do you watch TV?

PC: I love watching TV.

HM: Do you get that anxiety when you’re on Netflix or HBO, and you’re like, “What am I going to watch?” It becomes a whole ordeal.

PC: It really does! Because you don’t know what you are in the mood for, and what will be right for you. It really kills your life if you start something, and then you’re like, “Oh, this sucks.”  Then suddenly, it’s half-an-hour later, and you’re like, “I still haven’t picked something!” I have a solution to that, though: your friends and family watch TV, so you watch trailers of whatever they recommend and find out whether you want to invest your time in it or not.

HM: What is your solution for when your friends say, “Priyanka, season one and two are a little slow, but season three is really good”? When my friends do that, I’m like, “You’re telling me to invest 48 hours and then on the 49th hour, it’s going to get amazing?” Yeah, I can’t really do that.

PC: I can’t commit for five episodes, and say I’ll be forgiving with my time and energy. I’m very critical of the TV I watch, which is why when I started doing television as well, I was like, “Oh my God!” When I was sitting with 23 scripts that ABC had sent me, the first thing I thought was: I’m such a TV snob! But then, everybody has stuff they like and stuff they don’t like, right? I love watching network TV. Sometimes cable is too cerebral for me. I love watching stand-up too, but it depends on the mood I’m in. I think I’m a snob in a way where I’m not forgiving at all. If I don’t like the pilot, I’m just going to be like, yeah, I’m not doing this anymore. 

HM: Did you like the Quantico pilot?

PC: Hell yeah, I loved the pilot. It was amazing. This badass character for Alex, and then these amazing co-actors with really strongly written characters, and then to get to butt heads with them. The diversity, the culture, the non-justification — it all just made it so interesting.

HM: You had to audition, right?

PC: I had to. It was one of my first auditions after doing 50 movies — it was really funny. The scariest part was that I was playing an American girl. I am not American-Indian. I am Indian-Indian. Just Priyanka, you know.

HM: Yeah, you’re not an NRI.

PC: I’m not. So, to convince America every Sunday that I am Alex Parish, the daughter of an Indian and a Caucasian, and that I am an American, and that I’m bloody going to save the country…that was my biggest challenge. 

HM: I know. I give you guys — ‘pure actors’ — a lot of props.

PC: It’s so hard, Hasan. I’m not even kidding. I’ve done films in Marathi and Punjabi, and that was hard too. My first languages are Hindi and English, so to convince viewers that I’m a Maharashtrian or Punjabi is hard. And then here, I remember there was a whole conversation about, “Should we change Alex’s name to an Indian girl’s name?” The show wasn’t written for an Indian girl. But then suddenly, I was being considered for it. I remember telling Josh (Joshua Safran; producer) that my job, as an actor, is to convince you that I can be Alex Parish. And if he had to change the name and tweak it for me and for the way I look, then the fight’s not worth it. I mean, I am more than my ethnicity, more than where I come from. I’m an actor, and I need to have that ability. 

HM: That’s so gangster. I would change the name.

PC: But you know, that’s what happens to us, as South Asians. We get dragged into what we ‘can be like’. The more we just put people in the box and generalise and stereotype…that is such a personal peeve for me. I feel like you see actors of many different ethnicities, whether they are black, whether they are white, whether they are [from] Southeast Asia, and sometimes [they] can get away with playing American characters, and no one questions it. Why should we be questioned? Why should I have to explain that my parents emigrated from India 50 years ago and that’s why I exist here? That does not need to be an explanation for third or fourth generation South-Asian Americans, or even first- or second-generations for that matter, who are as American [as anyone else]. Alex is that character; Priyanka is not. I’m Indian all the way. I’m as desi as it gets. I carry my achaar with me. I’m that desi, but Alex is not.

HM: You know, the feeling of the glass ceiling, with all these expectations that are put on us…I felt that same thing — it’s why my fingers were crossed for Black Panther. I was like, “Oh my God, please let this work.” Because if Black Panther turned out like Green Lantern (2011), you know, no disrespect to Ryan Reynolds, but if it was like that…it’s over. We’re not going to make a movie like that again. If it doesn’t work, they are not going to give us another shot. Do you feel that way ever? There is so much pressure, especially for people of colour in America.

PC: I don’t know if I feel that they wouldn’t give us another shot, because I don’t see myself as a messiah. I’m just a girl who is ambitious and driven, and I want to see my career be the best it can be. And on my journey, if I happen to inspire people, that’s great. But yes, I know that few of us get the chance I did. I watched the pilot [of Quantico] while it was airing in New York. I was so scared, and thought: if people hate me or don’t respond to who I am, then I’ll have let down the people who looked at me like I was someone who could do it. I felt that pressure. 

HM: Is it just us performers who feel this way? That if we mess this up, we’re not going to get another shot? Or is that just that way for people who are coloured, the way the institution of the game is designed?

PC: I think when it comes to people of colour, and when it comes to women, we have continually been told, “The best one will get the boy,” or “The best one will get the job,” and “There’s not enough to go around.” The same way with people of colour in America, in global entertainment, we’ve been told one person will get the part in the show, otherwise it will be too many Indians… it will be an Indian show…you know what I mean? I think that’s why we instill the pressure. We are not normal in pop culture — yet. And the fight is to normalise it, to look at me and not talk to me like…not say, “Namaste,” or be like, “Oh, I went to India five years ago.” 

HM: Do you know your range, or do you feel like your range is limitless? That’s what I really think is amazing about actors.

PC: You have to work on it. There is no free lunch in the world. My prep is extremely solid. I do workshops, I work with my directors, my writers. I understand my character. The character I play becomes my best friend. I have to know her so well. On Quantico, our writers, directors, people I know, come to me and say, “What do you think Alex will be drinking in the scene?” or “What are you thinking?” Because I know her. Between what is on paper and what you see on celluloid or on TV, that’s my job. The translation from paper to life, that’s what I get paid the big bucks for, and it’s a huge responsibility because that’s what people watch, and I take that very seriously. I don’t take it for granted. 

HM: What is your process? How do you prep for a role?

PC: I prep for my character. So, if I’m playing a 32- or 35-year-old living in New York City, who’s been through whatever she’s been through, like say the pilot of Quantico, or a 17th-century queen in Bajirao Mastani (2015), I find a backstory for my character. I know the periphery. I know the parameters of what she will be like as a personality. And when it comes to lines, unless it’s a monologue or something where I need to prep, I read my lines when I’m doing my hair and make-up. I listen to music and create an atmosphere. It’s almost like I’m putting on the mask of my character, in a way. I was a science student… maybe that’s why I’m really good at memorising. I read lines and think of what my character would be thinking when she says it. 

HM: This is why you are a movie star. In my limited acting experience, it’s amazing to see someone who can just know exactly what they’re supposed to do — know all the intimations, and the turns and pivots of a scene.

PC: It takes experience. When I started, I would rehearse every scene by reading the lines and telling myself, “Okay, this is where I’ll turn,” or “This is where I’ll get angry.” But when I got on set, I wound up being mechanical because I had prepped for it. Over time, I discovered that what I feel organically and in the moment on set is when I really become my character. 

HM: How much do your lines change? Do you stay close to the script or do you change stuff up a lot on the fly?

PC: I might change around words here and there, or switch around lines, but I stay very close to the script. Film, television is a writer-director’s medium and we, as actors, need to know that. The writer on TV, and the director on film — more like that. Sometimes, we give ourselves too much importance, and take ourselves too seriously, where we’re like, “But I think this is right.” It’s not your story. It’s the writer’s story. It’s the director’s story. So, you have to follow their intention, and then be able to sell it when you’re convinced. That’s my job. My job is not to go in there and be like, “This is wrong.” There is no world in which I would say that. 

HM: Do you now sometimes see the puppet strings when you watch TV or movies, where you’re like, “Oh, they shot that scene really late at night”? 

PC: Always, especially when I watch movies with my mum, I’m like, “Oh man, that was bad,” or I’ll be like, “They probably shot this at 2 in the morning because she’s so tired.” And my mum is like, “Stop screwing up the movie for me, stop messing it up. I don’t want to know what’s happening behind the camera.” And I’m like, “I can see the camera in the reflection.” I can literally tell stuff like that. It is hilarious, but I sometimes have to remind myself that not everybody around me knows. 

HM: Do you still get star-struck?

PC: I do not get star-struck by actors. I get star-struck by musicians. 

HM: Oh, like Bono or something.

PC: My 30th birthday was brought in at Bono’s house. It was quite a spectacular moment. But for me, the rock star life was all about rebelliousness, music, creativity, art — everything that came with it. Being able to play music, write it, read it — all of that. Music to me is something that’s so close to God. It has the power to change your thoughts, change your mind, change your emotions. It’s so powerful. So when I see musicians do what they do, on stage and in the studio, I get really excited. When I was on my own music journey, I think half the reason I did what I did was to be in the studio with the most amazing artists in the world:, Pitbull, Pharrell [Williams] and Red One. And I was going to the Grammys and the Billboard Music Awards. I was hanging out with Wiz Khalifa. It was just amazing! It’s times like these, when I get not star-struck, but enamoured. I had a little bit of a moment at the Golden Globes with Meryl Streep. She was just so sweet. I really appreciate actors, and I admire their work because I know what it takes. But musicians, man, I get really excited by them. 

HM: Yeah, it is wild. I was in the car today and I heard ‘What’s going on’ by Marvin Gaye. It’s so crazy that this song has been playing for generations, and it still holds.

PC: I mean, imagine that! It’s on another level.

HM: Every movie doesn’t hold, especially comedy — it doesn’t hold really well over time. There are certain things you watch as a kid, and I sometimes wonder: will my kids think this is really cool, or will they be like, “Dad that was really corny.” But music is really powerful.

PC: It transcends generations, borders and languages. There are songs that can actually bring the world together.

HM: Do you ever think of getting back into it?

PC: I mean, I love music. I’ll do it intermittently. But it’s never going to be a chapter. It is too important to me. It is a learning process, because I didn’t do it professionally. I learnt it on the job, exactly like the movies. When I started [doing] movies, I didn’t know anything about it. I wanted to be a freakin’ aeronautical engineer. So, I learnt on the job. And that’s not hard to do. I mean, it is hard. But if you put your mind to it, I guess you can. Music will always be part of my life. I will keep dipping my feet in it. I would love to do it. I want to do so much of it. I’m producing so many things right now, whether it’s in America or in India, whether it’s TV or regional movies. Music is an integral part of all of it for me.

HM: What still scares you, artistically?

PC: Failure scares me. I hate failure. She’s my enemy. I am really bad at failing. I’m a poor loser. I have tantrums. I go into my room, sit in my blanket, and eat pizza. I’m that kind of loser. Losing anything scares me — my family, my friends, my loved ones, my work. It all scares me. And so do ghosts.

HM: Me too. Especially the health of our families, like, oh my God, that’s everything.

PC: Don’t ghosts scare you?

HM: No, not at all. Ghost stories?

PC: Not stories man, just like ghosts.

HM: Not at all. My dad would say, “Shut up, you’re being an idiot.”

PC: Shut up, you’re just being too cool for school right now.

HM: I remember this made me laugh so hard. When I was growing up, I asked my dad, “Are you scared of ghosts?” He said, “If a ghost came into this room right now, I would tell him to kill me because I have to pay this rent.” It was such an Indian-dad thing to say. Like, I have to pay the mortgage. If a genie comes in here, I’ll just say can you pay the mortgage.

PC: I just think it’s a middle-class dad thing.

HM: It just made me laugh so hard.

PC: The supernatural scares me.

HM: I guess going to the woods and stuff scares me, if I’m alone. While camping or something, it gets kind of creepy.

PC: There was a time in my twenties when I loved Paranormal Activity (2007). I loved watching horror movies, but now I don’t know; mortality is something to think about. I think about ghosts I guess, because I’ve been living alone in New York. I don’t know why the supernatural and serial killers scare me. I guess it’s because I watch crime shows.

HM: Don’t watch Black Mirror before you go to sleep.

PC: Don’t watch Criminal Minds before you sleep.

HM: This is a selfish question Priyanka, but this year has been very crazy for me, professionally and personally. There are two projects I’m working on now, so it’s going to get even crazier. And I know you probably went through a moment like this in your career. What is a piece of advice you can give me, as a friend?

PC: Be aware of the fact that the place you are in is an opportunity. You represent people who look like you (and me) all around the world, who want to make a mark in global entertainment in whatever way they can. We have that opportunity. So, what I will tell you is this: be aware of how blessed we are, and how grateful we should be to do what we do. As South Asians, we don’t have a seat at the table yet. We still have to kick down the door. We are at the crack of the door, like, “Hey, we’re here.” And people like you are helping make that happen. You’re giving people who look like you and me the opportunity to say, “Oh my God, there’s someone like me on television.” And that’s such a powerful thing. Be aware of that, and understand the responsibility that comes with it. Enjoy the process of being where you are, and be true to the art.

HM: That was great. You should run for president. 

Priyanka Chopra’s stunning shoot from the March ’18 issue:

[Gallery id=”1184″]

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