Very early in her career, by realistically portraying the negative role of the predatory seductress Sonia Roy in the 2004 film, “Aitraaz,” Priyanka Chopra broke new ground in more than one way. Circa 2015, with “Quantico,” this Bollywood star again punctured many preconceptions about Indian American and other South Asian actors in Hollywood.
After navigating the dark world of espionage in the taut ABC thriller, throwing punches and delivering flying kicks, the Indian actress is switching gears in her debut Hollywood film, “Baywatch,” where fans will see the swashbuckling actress in an all-glam avatar, albeit an evil one.
“In ‘Quantico,’ I beat people with my own hands and in ‘Baywatch,’ I make other people do it because it’s more powerful,” Chopra told India-West two days before “Baywatch” arrived in theaters.
“Quantico,” in which Chopra portrays the lead role of Alex Parrish, turned this Bollywood star into a global sensation. The FBI drama recently scored a 13-episode third season renewal to the collective delight of her legions of fans.
Even though her positive and aspirational role on “Quantico” fortified her position in Hollywood, the 34-year-old told India-West that she loves to play antagonistic characters. Chopra plays the couture-clad, smoky-voiced villainess in “Baywatch,” who goes up against Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and Brody (Zac Efron).
“It’s always fun playing the bad guy,” she revealed. “Any actor around the world with concur with me that there is something so liberating about playing a bad guy because you don’t get to do that in your real life. It is a lot more fun, I have to be honest.”
She also divulged that she and her mom were big fans of the “Baywatch” series and used to watch it, so being a part of the reboot of the ‘90s classic show, which starred Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, was nothing short of thrilling.
“I remember calling my mother and she laughed and said, Oh, my god!” Chopra recalled to India-West. “I guess, life is so short in a way as to who would have thought? So, it’s really cool and especially to be playing the villain in this movie was more fun because I had to bring my originality to it.”
And the fact that the role offered to her – to bring a new dynamic to the character –was initially written for a man was the icing on the cake.
“I am so happy that they changed it to being a woman for sure because it’s such a fun, kickass role to play. I was initially very excited to hear that. It made me want me to be even better,” she stated.
Explaining her character of the patronizing, super rich and purely evil Victoria Leeds, who runs a high-end beach resort on the Emerald Bay, Chopra, who never plays herself in any of her characters, said: “Victoria doesn’t care about anybody else but herself.”
But her character also addresses sexism in the film.
“One of my favorite lines is when I am going to kill Zac in the movie, and he turns around and he tells me, ‘you are crazy.’ And I look at him and tell him, ‘If I was a man you’d call me driven.’”
Chopra, who made history as the first Indian actor to star as the lead of a TV drama series, not only met lofty expectations but also exceeded them. In January 2016, she won a People’s Choice Award for her role in “Quantico” in the category of ‘Favorite Actress in a New Television Series,’ again making history as the first Indian actress to do so; in April 2016, she was featured on the cover of TIME magazine’s coveted TIME 100 issue, as one of the ‘Most Influential People in the World’; and in 2017, she won her second People’s Choice Award for ‘Favorite Actress in a TV Drama.’
“I don’t know what I did differently. I only know that I was very true to myself whether it’s in India or America,” Chopra told India-West. “My choices have been very different. I didn’t depend on what someone else had done or what I thought I should do. I just instinctively fought for the roles that I think I wanted to play.”
While Chopra is cracking the glass ceiling of the predominantly white industry, several prominent Indian American actors in Hollywood, from Aziz Ansari to Kal Penn, have often lamented how South Asian actors are relegated to stereotypical roles.
“I had offers which you are talking about but the reason I decided to do a talent deal with ABC instead of just signing a show is because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t put into a box,” Chopra explained to India-West. “And that’s what I did differently. I am who I am. I am an actor first and it’s my job to be more than what I look like. I want to create characters and play characters and that’s been my choices in Indian films as well, and it will always continue to be my choices wherever I continue to be in the world.”
It is indeed a great time in her career and Chopra is visibly “excited” with all the happenings and relishes in her uniqueness.
“I definitely wanted my work to be successful because that is important, but I didn’t come here ‘ki mujhe jhanda gadna hai’ (prove a point),” she expressed. “I am someone who is always looking for good work. I am just as nervous when my film is releasing on Friday in Mumbai or as it is now releasing in New York.”
Chopra balanced a grueling shooting schedule, splitting time between “Baywatch’s Florida and Georgia location shoots and “Quantico’s” New York set. In between, she continued her India trips and work commitments. Managing such a taxing schedule can be very exhausting, but as Chopra put it, no pain, no gain.
“Eventually, what you want to achieve you have to work for it because there are no free lunches,” she said. “If I wanted to be where I am today, I cannot be afraid of things like sleeping less, being jetlagged. I just believe that hard work gets you where you want to be. You cannot be afraid to working hard and putting yourself out there. I am fearless about that.”
The Indian actress, often lauded for her warmth, honesty and, not to forget, fashion hits, never bows down to her haters.
“People will judge you, say a few things, but who cares?” she told India-West. “Eventually you are making your own lane and that’s what is important.”
For a generation of TV fans the world over, the name “Baywatch” conjures up images of sun, surf and statuesque lifeguards, running in slow-motion in form-fitting red swimsuits. “Baywatch” is edgy and irreverent but Chopra said fans should not expect the TV show on the big screen.
“It’s the spirit of what ‘Baywatch’ was,” Chopra explained. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously; we are laughing all the time at us… in the movie as well. And what is fun about this film is the spirit of the TV show wrapped in adult R-rated film. Go in there, have fun, because I think, the world needs a good time right now.”