Woman of the World
What do you do after being crowned Miss World and becoming a Bollywood superstar? If you’re Priyanka Chopra, you prove your chops Stateside in an ABC drama - and keep working nonstop worldwide.
It took her 22 hours to fly from Mumbai to Los Angeles, where she had a fitting with her stylist, dined with friends, then headed to the People's Choice Awards in a dazzling, sequined Vera Wang number, looking like a million rupees.
After being named Favorite Actress in a New Series, she hit the afterparty with her mom and celebrated till midnight. The next day brought meetings, interviews and a photo shoot, followed by more interviews, more meetings, a team dinner, a BAFTA tea, an appearance for ABC at a TV Critics Association press conference, then a flight to Montreal so she could get back to work.
Welcome to the world of Priyanka Chopra — one of India's most celebrated Bollywood actresses, an international recording artist and the sultry star of ABC's twisty first-season suspense series, Quantico. She plays Alex Parrish, a beautiful FBI recruit who's haunted by personal demons and has been framed as the perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack since 9/11.
Go behind the scenes at the emmy magazine cover video shoot with Priyanka Chopra.
Juggling a rigorous production schedule (she's in nearly every scene) with global travel and nonstop commitments that might crush your average human, Chopra remains unfazed.
"I don't know if my body is used to it," says the actress, who did find some fleeting solitude on the beaches of Phuket, Thailand, over the year-end holidays. "But my mind is used to it. I mean, it's not a big deal for me... but physically it's exhausting."
Not since Salma Hayek's early Hollywood heyday 20 years ago has a young actress had the international allure of Chopra — or Pee Cee, as she is known in India (she's Pree, or just P, to friends, while family calls her Mimi).
Thanks to her film cred in India and her new profile on ABC, she was asked to be a presenter at this year's Oscars, where she made a splash in a strapless white-silk mermaid gown by Zuhair Murad.
But Chopra is less a globetrotting glamour girl and more an intensely focused multi-tasker with a lot on her plate. This fall, while adjusting to the grind of a new TV drama — she is the first Indian-born actress to topline an American series — she also spent weekends flying between Montreal (where Quantico has been shooting) and Mumbai to complete two Bollywood films.
"She really doesn't stop," says Johanna Braddy, who plays Quantico's poor little rich girl, Shelby Wyatt. "I don't even know if she'd like it if she had nothing to do. That's how she's learned to live. And she's really good at it."
From the series' start, Chopra bonded with Braddy and Yasmine Al Massri, the Lebanese actress who plays identical twins Nimah and Raina Amin. They became their own little chick clique on and off the set in Montreal. Like most of the cast, Braddy didn't know who Chopra was when she signed to the series last year. She became especially curious after the Indian star showed up the first day shadowed by a pair of assistants.
A quick check on IMDB showed her that Chopra is no novice; with 50-plus Bollywood films to her credit, she shoots between two and six movies a year. But, even then, Braddy says, "I couldn't quite understand the magnitude — how massive she actually is."
Here’s how massive she actually is: at 18, Chopra was named Miss World 2000. Thanks to that title, she made her Bollywood debut in 2003's The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. In 2004 she won the Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut, in 2003's Andaaz. She appeared in five films in 2004, including the thriller Aitraaz, which featured her breakout performance as a seductress.
By 2006 she was an established star of Hindi cinema, tackling genres from melodrama and rom-coms to sci-fi and action.
In 2008 she played an ambitious supermodel in the drama Fashion, which brought her the National Film Award and launched a trend in female-centric "shero" (female hero) stories. After she won the People's Choice Award in January, one of her more than 13 million Twitter followers tweeted: "Can anyone now say you're not a 'shero' #DoingTheCountryProud #NobodyCanStopHer."
In 2012 Chopra became the first Bollywood star to sign with CAA. She also released her first studio album, on Interscope Records in North America; her first single, "In My City" — featuring rapper will.i.am — topped the Hindi pop chart, went triple platinum and was nominated for three World Music Awards. The next year, Chopra released her second single, "Exotic," featuring Pitbull.
Along the way, she has found time to serve as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, promoting children's rights; to work for environmental, health and education causes; and to speak out about women's issues. Earlier this year, she was awarded the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian award. She has also been a columnist for Elle and written an op-ed about girls' education for The New York Times.
"She is a force of nature," says Patrick Moran, executive vice-president of ABC Studios, which produces the show. His former casting head, Keli Lee (who now works for ABC in London), had met Chopra at a party in Santa Monica in 2012 and was captivated by her star power. Two years later, Lee flew to Mumbai to woo Chopra to the network.
"Priyanka's very self-possessed, in a great way," says Moran, who met with her at Lee's urging that fall in L.A. "We've done such a great job presenting strong, complex iconic women, whether Kerry Washington or Viola Davis, and now Marcia Gay Harden in Code Black, Joan Allen [in The Family] and Mireille Enos [in The Catch]. We explained to her that this is what we do here."
Intrigued, Chopra signed a holding deal with ABC for pilot season last year. "I love American television," she says. "I think it's going through its golden phase right now — I watch Grey's [Anatomy], Homeland, Castle, Jane the Virgin, CSI, Criminal Minds. I'm starting Narcos now. I binge-watch when I'm doing hair and makeup or before I go to bed."
So in early 2015, Chopra came to L.A. for a month, read dozens of scripts and chose three shows she liked, including Quantico. "I wanted to do a drama," she says. "It's what I do best, I think." The others didn't get picked up, but Quantico did. Which meant Chopra had to do her first-ever audition.
Joshua Safran (Gossip Girl, Smash) — creator, executive producer and showrunner — hadn't written the role of Alex Parrish for a woman of any certain ethnicity. Though he took the character's first name from the two-fisted FBI agent played by Debra Winger in Bob Rafelson's 1987 thriller, Black Widow, he had no one in mind for his Quantico lead when Chopra walked in.
"Even though I found out later on that Priyanka had a deal with ABC — they were smart enough not to tell me that beforehand — she walked through the door the first day of auditions for that character, and I was immediately like, 'Who is this celebrity walking in?' Because she was incredibly polished, immaculately dressed, her hair was blown out and perfect. And she was gorgeous and smelled amazing.
"She was not what you think of as someone waiting outside in a line of actors. I even thought, 'Did this person walk into the wrong room?' She was clearly a superstar, but I did not know who she was."
His only real concern was her accent. Growing up in India, the daughter of two physicians in the Indian army and attending boarding school, Chopra learned the Queen's English and speaks it with an earthy Indian lilt. Meanwhile, Alex hails from Oakland, California. But within 24 hours, the actress showed Safran that she could camouflage her continental sound.
"I speak three languages now: Hindi, English and 'Amurican,'" she jokes, To meet her partway, Safran made the character half Indian, a first-generation American who spent a decade in Mumbai — which has made Alex even more complex (as if it weren't enough that she is haunted by the childhood secret that she killed her father to protect her mother).
Chopra understands the lasting scars of teen torment; that's part of what makes her so relatable in Quantico. Though she and her brother, Siddarth, grew up comfortably, moving often with their parents before settling in suburban Bareilly outside Mumbai, she describes her younger self as a gawky kid with low self-esteem.
Maybe that's because she is prone to setting the bar so high. "[I was] head of the class, teacher's pet, always knew the answers, always in honors classes," Chopra says. "My parents never treated me like a child. They made me make my own decisions, told me to think about the pros and cons. I grew up having my own opinions and knowing what that meant.
"But I was always really conscious of the way I looked, and high school is hard for anyone."
It didn't help that she had to wear a uniform to school in India — which she hated. "It's very British," she explains. While visiting relatives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her mom and brother, she attended school with her cousin and was invited to become a student there, "I just loved the fact that they didn't wear uniforms," she says.
So she convinced her mom that she should stay. "I attracted a lot of attention. Nobody looked like me in my school. I was skinny with crazy, frizzy hair. It was like Mean Girls." After most of a year there, she moved to Queens, New York, with her relatives, then to Newton, Massachusetts, where she encountered enough racism to send her packing.
"There was one girl who was just super evil. She kept calling me Brownie, and saying, 'Go back to your country, you smell like curry' — and I didn't, by the way. She was so mean to me. And she wasn't even white. She was black. In retrospect, it was the weirdest thing."
Back in India to finish high school, she had her photo taken for a college scholarship application. The photographer, impressed by her emerging beauty, asked to take extra shots. While she was studying for final exams, her mother submitted the photos to the Miss India competition without telling her — and she was selected.
"I went on a whim because I wanted a break from studying — and I won," she says. She was 17 when she became Miss India. The next year, she won Miss World, and ... "Life just took over. I was literally out of a school uniform into stilettos standing in front of global media talking about the economy of Uganda. It was bizarre. I didn't have time to gain perspective on my life, because it was a whirlwind. I never thought it would become my career."
For the rest of the story and much more, look for emmy magazine on newsstands June 1.