Priyanka Chopra’s star is blinding as she takes on the globe and leads the pack at home
...but it might also be her downfall
“It was miserable!” Priyanka Chopra announces in that should-be-trademarked Indian-Anglo–accented husky voice. “It was brutally cold and apparently winter’s not even here yet, but we braved it and did lots of pull-ups and push-ups in the rain.”
The “globalisation of popular culture” is a mouthful, and it’s a theme that has doubtless inspired a million high-minded essays. But know that its most perfect manifestation may be ABC’s Quantico, one of three breakout hits on American TV this season (along with Blindspot and Supergirl), which not incidentally features the ravishing 33-year-old Chopra as a driven FBI recruit going through basic training at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia — and which is filmed, for reasons of network economy, in chilly Montreal. Her character, we learn in an elaborate nine-month-later flash-forward sequence in the pilot, is also being framed for the inside-job bombing of Grand Central Station. The show is, to be sure, OTT: watch her character, Alex Parrish, kick ass in hand-to-hand combat, and bed the cute guy with whom she shares a dorm bathroom, and elude capture with a bag of high-tech counterintelligence tricks, all in about five minutes’ worth of small-screen jump cuts. But it’s intensely watchable, thanks to Chopra, who radiates megacharisma (the show’s “strongest human asset,” according to The New York Times) and whose well-toned physique looks as natural doing trainee calisthenics as it does moving through the elegant gyrations of Bajirao Mastani.
“It’s popcorn television,” she breezily says of Quantico, which returns from hiatus this month. “And I’m a big fan of pop entertainment — I watch Castle! I believe as an actor I can create anything into my own form of art.” She would know. In the last 15 years, Chopra, the daughter of Army physicians, has evolved from Miss World to Miss World Domination. After some 50 films — in which she’s played, among other roles, an autistic woman (Barfi!, 2012), a boxer (Mary Kom, 2014) and a tough cop in this month’s Jai Gangaajal — Chopra draws audiences not only in India but throughout Southeast Asia, the UK, Australia, Germany and Canada. That economic clout has allowed her to launch her own company, Purple Pebble Productions, and create a foundation that ensures that the children of her 200-plus employees receive health care and an education if their parents can’t afford it. “Hard work can never be denied,” is how she describes her philosophy, with the kicker, “unless you’re, like, a bungling fool.”
All of which is to say that when American television began to assiduously court her two years ago, she was “a little skeptical”. Chopra was one of those fortunate few for whom accepting a lead role on a network TV show meant a significant pay cut. And to the degree that she had a coherent plan to take on the West, music was supposed to be her beachhead: she signed a deal with Interscope Records that to date has translated into a couple of singles, including a semi-autobiographical duet with Pitbull titled ‘Exotic’ (per his rapped lyrics, “Bollywood to Hollywood, it’s all about the money”). Instead, ABC sold her on Quantico, a project she picked from the 26 that the network dangled before her. She dazzled in the pilot, ABC got another diversity feather in its cap (see Black-ish, Dr. Ken and How To Get Away With Murder), and this Bollywood superstar just bought herself nine months of the year shooting in mostly cold weather. “I do love a challenge,” she says, explaining the logic. “It’s my folly, and it will be my downfall someday.” Consider the notorious 14-hour-a-day shooting schedule common to hour-long dramas as TV’s own form of boot camp. “It’s a beast,” Chopra says. “I did freak out a little bit at first.” (For those first few months, she’d fly back to India on the weekends to finish Bajirao Mastani.)
The pace exacts a price; for instance, in the romantic department. As breathlessly chronicled in the tabloids, over the years Chopra has been involved with at least two of her co-stars, but she’s currently single. “Why should a woman have to pick between global domination and having the love of her life?” she asks rhetorically, if wistfully.
Still, she’s determined to carry an American TV show and maintain a workload back home, shuttling back and forth the way Sophia Loren did between Hollywood and Rome, a comparison that doesn’t displease her. “Exactly,” she says. “It’s about getting on a 16-hour flight, reading a book, and arriving.” Smitten American colleagues can’t help but project. Says Josh Hopkins, late of Cougar Town and now her FBI handler on Quantico, “The other day I was doing a scene with her, and I had this realisation that I’m going to be buying tickets to see her in Hollywood movies for years to come. She’s just got it.”
On Chopra: Valentino. Photograph: Cedric Buchet. Styling: Barbara Baumel. Make-up and hair: Kevin Ryan