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Priyanka Chopra knows a thing or two about playing a badass. As Alex Parrish in ABC’s Quantico, Chopra has taken down a rogue FBI agent-turned-mass murderer, hunted terrorists across downtown New York, and protected the country from crippling attacks. But in this summer’s Baywatch, she won’t be playing a hero. Instead, she’ll be up to no good.
Her Victoria Leeds, a wealthy and ambitious entrepreneur using the beach to smuggle in drugs, is the reason why elite lifeguards Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and Matt Brody (Zac Efron) are forced to work together. Well, “forced” might be an exaggeration: Victoria’s at the Florida beach to build an empire, not to fend off scantily-clad, wannabe law enforcement. “She has a point to prove,” Chopra explains. “She’s a woman in a man’s world. She’s not just a random woman with money, she’s self-made. This is not just drugs and money for her, it’s power. That’s the cause.”
The character was originally written to be played by a male actor, but director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) realized Chopra would prove a better, more formidable opponent. “As soon as I spoke to her, I knew she could do it,” he recalls of their first Skype meeting. “I really loved the idea of Dwayne going up against a female antagonist. Her approach is purely psychological. It’s about outsmarting, it’s about out-winning, it’s about taking advantage of the male ego, all that stuff… She really was just a much more interesting person for him to go up against, because it wasn’t going to be just brawn or grit.”
Chopra in turn leapt at the opportunity to tap into a villain’s mind — and to dive into a world she has loved since she was a child. “My mom and me, it was our favorite thing to watch,” she recalls of the original ’90s series. “I loved the theme song, I loved how everybody was backlit, running in slow motion. When I became a Hindi movie actress, I used to take inspiration and do all of my slow motion acting from Baywatch.”
Victoria, on the other hand, is less impressed by her slow-mo-friendly foes. “They’re a nuisance,” Chopra says. “She’s just like, “Oh my God, they’re so annoying!” Case in point: When Victoria has Mitch on the ropes in one scene, he doesn’t back down, instead firing off a line that he’s “Baywatch, motherf—er!” — a comeback that in real life left Chopra in stitches. “The first time he did it, I was trying so hard to be serious, because I have a gun pointed at him,” she says. “And he just says all of those things, and I think I started laughing and then he started laughing and then Zac started laughing and it was just…” She cracks up again. “It was very hard to keep a straight face.”
“You can’t help but enjoy yourself,” Chopra continues, pointing out that filming Baywatch meant occasionally being in Miami instead of frigid Montreal, where she had been shooting the first season of Quantico. “I remember Dwayne would joke to me all the time, ‘Oh, you’re just coming to us for vacation.'”
A vacation for her — and for theatergoers this summer. “There’s so much in the world that’s happening right now that’s dark and heavy, and I think people need a reason to smile,” she explains. “You want a break from the news for a second. Somewhere you want to believe in humanity and people and good over evil, and just laugh. Baywatch gives you all of that.”
Baywatch hits theaters May 25.