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Quantico: Priyanka Chopra is TV's next breakout star: Interview

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Craig Sjodin/ABC

Priyanka Chopra’s career may be just heating up Stateside, but in her native India her stardom is something akin to Angelina Jolie’s — she’s one of the country’s highest-profile (and highest-paid) actresses and has won a National Film Award — the equivalent of an Oscar — for Best Actress. But being a megastar was never part of her plan — it wasn’t until she won the Miss World competition at age 18 that she even thought about acting.

It turned out she was a natural. Chopra, 33, has since starred in more than 40 Bollywood films, hosted the Indian version of Fear Factor, and released several hit singles. Nabbing the role of FBI trainee-turned-possible terrorist Alex Parrish on Quantico means she’ll be the first Bollywood actress to star on American television, but Chopra’s not concerned about becoming a household name yet — she just wants a challenging part. “I never thought of my roles as a step to anywhere,” she says. “It’s not about furthering my career — it’s a way of life.”

In August, Chopra talked to EW in two separate interviews while filming the upcoming ABC action thriller. Those conversations have been condensed and edited into the Q&A below, in which Chopra talks not only about her background in India — from regular teen to Miss World to Bollywood star — but also about the significance of her casting in Quantico as part of the conversation about diversity on TV. Chopra, poised as always, spoke thoughtfully about how nervous she was and the anticipation she feels for the project:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get to Quantico, I’d like to talk more to you about your career in India. You didn’t get into acting until after you became Miss World in 2000. Do you remember that experience, that feeling when you won the crown?

PRIYANKA CHOPRA: When I won Miss World, I wasn’t even 18, and I only remember, like, I thought of it as a day in the races or something. It didn’t feel like it was Miss World of the Millennium Year, the change of the century. I didn’t understand the magnitude of it for at least a couple of years. Like, a couple of months before that, I was in 12th grade in a school uniform and from that I went on to modeling with the biggest designers and traveling the world, and sitting in front of world press talking about the economy of Zimbabwe, and I’m like, what am I talking about?

Do you feel that way now? I’m sure you know you’re the first Bollywood actress to lead an American TV show. Has the magnitude of that fact hit you?

[Pauses] I don’t know if I see the magnitude of it as much as other people. I hear a lot of people telling me that it’s the first time it’s happened for an Indian person.

Right, including me with this question, being like, “Are you feeling it?”

[Laughs] No, but it’s true. For me, there was never going to be any other way to make an international foray, I was very clear about it. If I wasn’t doing this in America, I would have done it in Australia, or anywhere. [Coming to American TV] is just an extension of what I want to do. This is my step forward in trying to do something new. I don’t know, I’m excited about it. It’s a new world for me, a new culture for me. I want to be true to who I am. I think that’s the difference between doing Miss World then and doing this now is that at that time, I felt like I was a kid, and I needed to be what the world wanted to see me as, and now I feel like my flaws are what make me unique. I think the 30s did that to me. [Laughs]

Personally, I remember when I was in Mumbai and I had just become Miss India [World] and I was just starting movies. There was a place in Mumbai called Chowpatty Beach, where there are like six holdings [another word for billboards] back-to-back, where they advertise big movies and big things. I had just come into Mumbai and we had just moved in — me and my best friend — and so one night, we were just walking on the beach, and I remember we sat outside, and we looked up at it, and I had just started doing moves at that time. I was like, “One day, I want to be on all of them.” And I was, five years later. I had my movies on each one of them. [Mimes pointing to each billboard] One, two, three, four, five, six. So it feels sort of like a beginning, like that, in a way.

WATCH: ‘Quantico’ challenges viewers to keep track of every FBI recruit’s secret

What has it been like so far, then, shooting your first American TV show? This isn’t the first time you’ve been Stateside, of course — you launched a music career here a few years ago and you went to high school for a few years in New York.

It’s totally new! I had to work on my dialect a lot for the show, and plus, with all the action, I had to do a lot of training for it. I’m on the run, so they literally have me running! [Laughs] No, I’m kidding, I love my job … The music was new for me, it’s not something I always did, but acting is something I’ve always done. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know. I’ve done it since I was 17 years old.

Tell me about how you got involved with Quantico.

I had a holding deal with ABC, to find me a show, and I was very clear about the kind of show I wanted to do, because Indian people have always been seen as, well, we’ve been put in a box, about who we should be like. There’s nothing wrong with [who we are] — both my parents were doctors, and I wanted to be an engineer, but that’s how we’re seen.

So I wanted to sort of break that box, and I was very sure that whatever part I do, what I said to ABC when they came to me in India to talk to me about the deal, was that if that’s something you’re willing to see me as, as an actor and not the color of my skin or the way I speak or the accent with which I speak, if that can happen, I’m fine doing the deal. ABC was sure they would find the right fit for me, and I think Quantico is. It’s me as an actor. [Alex] wasn’t written for someone with my ethnicity, but I am Indian in the show, so I’ve been rooted with my culture in the show, but that’s not what the show is about.

Speaking of Alex, tell me more about your character. What’s special about her?

They’ve written Alex as a female Jason Bourne. She’s as smart as that, but she is also vulnerable and soft. I didn’t want to make Alex extremely macho, I wanted to celebrate femininity. You can be an absolute woman and also be smart and tough and not lose your femininity. I also love that in the show, Alex treats boys the way boys usually treat girls, as dispensable. She has no place for them in her life.

Were there other shows you considered that ABC offered?

I read 26 scripts, almost every pilot they were planning, and I made a top few list that I liked. Quantico was my first choice. Actually I mean, The Muppets was my favorite, but I was told Miss Piggy won’t allow anyone else on her show. [Laughs]

You mentioned you wanted to break the stereotype box in this role. How do you see your casting fitting into the larger conversation about diversity on American TV?

You know, I’m very curious to find out, because there’s no reference to say if it’s going to turn out well. It hasn’t happened before. I’m really looking forward to finding out. Is America ready for it? Are we ready for it? Is India ready for it? [Pauses] Am I ready for it? [Laughs] I have no idea, but I think for me, my Indian movies have never been stepping stones. I love what I do, I’m going to divide my time between my Indian movies, whatever work I get and my show and fly across the world wherever work takes me. That’s how I’ve always treated it.

I really see this as an opportunity. When I grew up I never saw anyone looking like me on TV, you know? I’m so glad to see a lot more of us on television, whether it’s Mindy Kaling or it’s Irrfan Khan or Freida Pinto. You know, I hope, like, little girls across the world can just look at me and say, “Ah, I want to be that!” Indian or not, it shouldn’t matter. It’s really cool to see how that will open up.

We’re still a few weeks away from the premiere. How are you feeling right now? Where’s your head at?

I’m very nervous. I just want to sleep on the 27th of September, I want to be woken up on Tuesday morning, two days later, so I don’t have to go through the process of, “Oh my God, it’s going to air,” and “Oh my God, it’s this scene,” and “Oh my God, what are people saying?” I just want to sleep through it. I’m definitely not going to be watching. [Laughs]

Quantico premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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