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Quantico's Priyanka Chopra Wants To Kick Ass Like A Girl

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Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images.
Update: We've been waiting all summer, and Quantico finally premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC. Take this opportunity to get to know its star, Priyanka Chopra.

This story was originally published on August 28, 2015.
When Tupac Shakur died in 1996, Priyanka Chopra wore black and went without makeup for 20 days. Call it teen naïveté, but she had every intention of marrying that man. Chopra, who grew up in Jamshedpur, in Northeastern India, later moved to Newton, Massachusetts, where she attended a public high school, and spent her adolescence listening to TLC, Destiny’s Child, Blackstreet, and the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy. She used to save her lunch money to go shopping at The Salvation Army and Walmart. And, since schoolwork came easily to her, she spent a lot of her free time thinking about fashion and beauty. “When I emptied my locker, once I was going back to India, I only had clothes and shoes. I had no books.” At that point, she was an American teen.

Yet, she points to high school as a time when she felt ostracized because of her background. As a new student from India, her shyness and low self-esteem made it hard for her to socialize. “I didn’t know if my [accent] was the barrier — the way I looked was a barrier,” she says on a sweaty July afternoon in New York. “I didn’t look like anyone else, so all of it made me really afraid.” She recalled how, for her first two months at school, she would buy a bag of chips from the vending machine and eat in the bathroom alone. It’s a scene straight out of Mean Girls.

Chopra, 33, is a former Miss World and one of the highest-paid actresses in Bollywood, where she’s spent the entirety of her career, singing and dancing her way through dozens of Hindi-language films. Now, in a major professional gear shift, she has returned to the U.S. — on wildly different terms than her angsty teen years. Chopra is the star of ABC’s new drama Quantico (which premieres September 27), playing Alex Parrish, a new FBI recruit who's barely set foot at HQ before she's arrested on suspicion of treason. “I literally feel like a freshman in high school, starting all over again,” Chopra says. If she finds herself eating in the bathroom these days, it will likely be to escape the noise of a chaotic set, and to enjoy some hard-won solitude.
If there is any irony to the fact that Chopra —who has had a history of feeling out of place in American culture — plays the lead in a series that challenges xenophobia and ethnic stereotypes with a diverse cast, she herself is not dwelling on it. Nor does she seem to be preoccupied with the myriad of other hot-button issues, including sexism in the workplace, that Quantico tackles. When I ask her what kind of conversations she hopes the show will spark, she shrugs, and says, "I have no idea.” She can usually predict the reception of her projects, but America’s a whole new market for her.



It’s hard to imagine that American audiences won't want to get to know Chopra. She’s warm and outgoing, but still maintains her chill. Hospitality is important to her, which is why our interview takes place on the balcony of her hotel room, instead of some conference room at an ABC office. She loves Twitter. “And Instagram. I really like Instagram.” She adores Taylor Swift. “I’m sorry, but I really, really like her sizzle.” Why should she be sorry? “Because people say…” she trails off. “I love her music. I think she expresses herself, and plus, you can’t deny the music that she makes.” Chopra is the kind of woman who touches your leg when she laughs. When she does reach her hand out, I notice her evil eye bracelet, sapphire ring from her mother, and the necklace of charms that belonged to her late father. On the side of her right hand, there is a tattoo that says, "Daddy’s little girl.”

“I lost my dad two years ago to cancer, so this is his handwriting,” she says. “I got him to write it, then I traced it, and tattooed it in Ibiza. I was really drunk when I got it.” At this, Chopra's publicist recoils, but Chopra laughs, revealing perfect teeth and sweeping aside her big, beautiful hair. “Thankfully, I didn’t get something stupid.” Here, is a woman, who is comfortable talking to reporters.

I ask Chopra if she’s afraid of being typecast. “As what?” Fair point! So, I explain that, in the U.S., minority women are often relegated to stereotypical roles. She admits the thought has crossed her mind. “When ABC came to me with doing this talent development deal, that’s the one thing I told them, especially being Indian: I wanted to play an ethnically ambiguous part,” she says. “I wanted to be an actor before I was brown, or Indian, or before I was a girl, or before I was a brunette —whichever box you want to put me in.”

The network delivered, sending her 26 scripts, of which Quantico was her first choice. “I’m an FBI agent. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Indian or whatever my ethnicity is.” Chopra thinks of Parrish as a “female Jason Bourne,” who doesn’t sacrifice her femininity as she takes out bad guys. “I may be kicking ass, but it doesn’t mean I do it being masculine.”
A distinct pro-woman vibe runs through Quantico. You might even use the f-word to describe it. But when I float this idea by Chopra, she balks. “I don’t think it’s feminist, but it’s empowerment,” she says. “It’s got very strong female characters, and I don’t think it’s a bra-burning feminist show where you’re like, we hate men, but we have really strong male characters, too.” Still, Chopra acknowledges that Quantico is forward-thinking. “It gives females an opportunity to be equal with the boys, and I think that’s really progressive.” (So...kind of feminist.)

That equality extends to places we don’t normally talk about on TV. In one scene in the pilot, Parrish has sex with a man named Ryan, who later turns out to be a fellow recruit. When he’s unsure of how to handle seeing her at the academy later, he pretends they’re meeting for the first time. Parrish calls him out. “We had sex in your car,” she says matter-of-factly, in front of their classmates. “I didn’t think you’d want people knowing that,” he replies, echoing the ancient sentiment that women can’t also be promiscuous.

Chopra loved this exchange. “I love the fact that she treats boys the ways boys usually treat girls — as dispensable,” she says. “Everyone is judged for their sexuality, and I think it’s going to be a while, especially for girls, [before things change]. I think it’s really great that the tables have been turned, and I get to turn them.”

Like so many of us, Chopra wants to be remembered. “I just want to be able to leave a legacy,” she says. Could Parrish be the role that makes that happen in the States? “That’s my bucket list. Like when I’m dying, I want to be remembered for prosperity. I want to have done work worth being remembered for.”
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