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Quantico premiere preview: Priyanka Chopra, showrunner Joshua Safran speak

‘When I grew up, I never saw anyone looking like me on [American] TV,’ star Priyanka Chopra tells EW

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Eric Liebowitz/ABC

A crowd has gathered in front of the New York Public Library, stopping foot traffic on Fifth Avenue, to snap photos of a stunning dark-haired woman who just stepped outside. “Who is it?” a passerby asks, pushing through. Her friend shouts back, “It’s Selena Gomez!”

Nope, not even close. It’s Priyanka Chopra, one of India’s most beloved celebrities (though still a relative unknown in the U.S.) and the lead on ABC’s new action thriller Quantico. The series focuses on a fresh class of FBI recruits at the titular Virginia academy who, months after their training, become the primary suspects behind a terrorist attack on New York City. Chopra plays Alex Parrish, the recruit found at ground zero of the attack in the show’s first scene. She has to fight to prove her innocence (unless, of course, she’s actually guilty) by revisiting her time with her fellow trainees — or die trying. 

On this Sunday morning, scores of Chopra’s loyal fans have tracked her whereabouts and come out in droves to catch her filming a reshoot, hoping for an autograph. “I’ll come back, okay?” she tells a fan asking for a selfie. “If I do this with you guys, I’ll get in trouble.” Considering this is her first time as the lead on a fast-paced action series, the last thing she wants is trouble. “It always makes me nervous when I try something that I haven’t done before, so I’m a wreck, honestly,” Chopra admits. “I just want to sleep for days when it premieres. I want to shut my door, get under a blanket, and 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?!’ ”   

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Chopra may think she faces high stakes, but so do the viewers. As the FBI investigates the bombing, each episode will show the recruits — who include slippery Ryan (Jake McLaughlin), two-faced Nimah (Yasmine Al Massri), wired Simon (Tate Ellington), pious Eric (Brian J. Smith), sharp-eyed Shelby (Johanna Braddy, swapping the glitter of this summer’s UnREAL for the gunfire of Quantico), and cocky Caleb (Graham Rogers) — learning a new lesson at the academy. The show is structured to give those at home the fodder to play FBI agents themselves, showrunner Joshua Safran says, by using the evidence they see to deduce which character might be the culprit. “We’re designing it so the audience will have more information than the characters will,” Safran explains. “Everything’s connected, and nothing is extraneous, and everything is a clue.” Even the academy’s heads, Miranda (Aunjanue Ellis) and Liam (Josh Hopkins), have possible targets on their backs. Ellis jokingly suggests viewers take notes as they watch. “Make a chart,” she says. “Every week, write down who you think is guilty, who you think is not guilty. People’s loyalties are going to change from week to week.”

Guy D'Alema/ABC

Quantico didn’t start out so complex. Safran had initially wanted to do a straightforward action show, for a change of pace from the string of soapy dramas he had been making, like Smash and Gossip Girl. “I said to myself, ‘What can I do that stretches me a little bit? What else do I love?’ ” he recalls. “I love musicals, I love period pieces, I love soaps, and I love action movies. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do action.’ “

Over time the soapy drama trickled back in, along with some of his personal history: Safran had a relative who may have been involved in the CIA, and as he began to write, he wove his own questions about that person into Alex, whose complex family history also haunts her throughout the series. He later rewrote the role with Chopra in mind after the actress, who had a talent holding deal in 2014 with ABC, auditioned. Alex became a character with an international background who spent time living in Mumbai, among other places. The actress understands what her casting means for TV diversity. “I see this as an opportunity,” Chopra says matter-of-factly. “When I grew up, I never saw anyone looking like me on [American] TV. 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.”

But ABC isn’t just banking on the series’ intricate premise or Chopra’s star wattage to attract viewers. The thriller is both knotty and naughty — one of the first scenes shows Alex having hot car sex with a stranger mere hours after meeting him. From the time-hopping mystery to the multiethnic ensemble, it’s a formula that’s worked for the network before, with How to Get Away With Murder. “The show is as much a sexy romance as it is a political thriller,” Safran explains. “It’s like, what would Die Hard be if Die Hard was weekly and was also a soap?” Alex and the trainees won’t be hunting terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza — they’re the ones accused of being terrorists, remember? — but Safran promises the body count will be just as staggering. “Oh, they all know they can die at any time,” Safran says. (He’s not kidding: One recruit eats it by the end of the pilot.)

Eric Liebowitz/ABC

Yet, like the viewers, the cast is in the dark about their fates. On a Monday afternoon in Montreal’s national library, which has been dressed to look like an academy classroom, they’re restless as they prepare to film. Rogers walks over to Safran and pointedly asks where his character heads in the season. Safran just laughs. He knows the terrorist’s identity — he knew it when he pitched the show — and says the reveal will likely happen before the season concludes. And if the series succeeds, Safran has more twisty plots up his sleeve for FBI trainees to tackle. “I see several years of it, where we’re constantly bringing in new people, new recruits,” he says. “It’s important to me that the series every year has a new event. It’s like, if this is Die Hard, season 2 is Die Harder.” Look out, Bruce Willis: Priyanka Chopra could steal your terrorist-hunting, action-hero crown.

If she survives the season, that is. After shooting a brutal fight scene the night before, the actress has been limping her way across the Montreal set while the rest of the cast rush to their places. “I’m so sore right now,” Chopra says. “I’m walking like a 90-year-old.” She laughs. “Way to go, being an action star!” Hey, even action stars need training.

RELATED VIDEO: Priyanka Chopra makes her American TV debut on Quantico

Want more? EW’s Fall TV Preview mega-issue has the scoop on 115 shows! While the issue has left newsstands, you can still buy it here.

Quantico premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. 

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