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“For eons, women have been told how to be or think or dress. I come from a part of the world where this debate is so heated, especially because we’re a country that has goddesses. We pray to women. But at the same time, we prey on them.”
Priyanka Chopra and I are sitting on leather couches in a basement dressing room full of female solidarity. It is a late weekday afternoon in August, and she is on break from filming scenes for the sophomore season of her hit ABC series, Quantico. About to head to makeup for a touch-up, she offers another opinion about what it’s going to take for women to get what we’re owed in this world. Spoiler: It’s dudes doing their fair share. “Feminism needs men to understand that we don’t want to berate you or kill you or hate you,” she says. “We just need you to stand by us.” Insofar as it is possible to nod enthusiastically, I do.
Like the rest of the internet, Chopra and I are both momentarily obsessed with a 1975 Helen Mirren interview that resurfaced and went viral in the waning days of summer. In it, a TV host basically calls Mirren a slut. (He actually quoted a theater critic who said she has a gift for telegraphing “sluttish eroticism,” but don’t let his posh English accent trip you up). Mirren pushed back perfectly, one insulting dig at a time.
“How epic was she?” Chopra asks, an obviously rhetorical question that I respond to anyway. (Sooo epic.) “That’s what feminism is. Don’t judge me for being me, just like you don’t judge the boys. That’s all we want — equality in treatment.” I am on board with this broad-stroke definition of feminism, as well as most of the other pro-woman party lines with which Chopra shores it up. We are a two-person consciousness-raising group, Chopra and I. Gloria Steinem would be proud.
Except. A decidedly un-Steinem-like thought keeps popping into my head while we are talking empowerment and equality and the overall boss-ness of Helen Mirren, and also eating meatballs. (Chopra likes an afternoon meatball.) That thought is this: Chopra might be the most stunning person I’ve ever seen in the flesh. While Priy — that’s what people call her — is thoughtfully answering my questions, I am distracted by the way her lips move, the shape of her eyebrows, how unfathomably shiny her hair is. A shameful corner of my brain is trying to work out a scenario in which she might let me examine her pores at close range, perhaps with a magnifying mirror. In between bites, I scan her face to evaluate its symmetry. Even in crappy lighting, she is basically a goddess herself.
“I didn’t even know I was beautiful until — I don’t even know it now,” Chopra says, and this from the winner of the 2000 Miss World pageant. The wild thing is, you actually believe her. “I don’t think I was the most beautiful girl in the world. I think I won because I was well spoken and I was decently turned out. The stars aligned that day. But I taught myself to be the best version of myself over the years.
“Beauty is so subjective, whether it’s art, whether it’s human beings, whether it’s nature. What is one person’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is not someone else’s, you know?”
But I’m not ready to back down here until, with a sigh, the subject becomes officially tiresome. “Beauty has nothing to do with me,” she says. “I was born with it. But I don’t want to be known by the fact that I’m beautiful. I want to be known for the fact that I’m an achiever. Not even an actor. I don’t want a label. I don’t want a box. I want a legacy.” With that, she’s beckoned in front of the camera.
Right now, I am watching Chopra jam her elbow into a grown man’s groin. She and her sparring partner, Quantico star Jake McLaughlin, are battling it out in a transparent box, and he has her in what I have to say looks like a very sexy, solid choke hold. She is struggling against the crook of his arm, trying to escape, when her face nearly slams against the wall. Then she taps out, and the training exercise is over.
This is TV. But that does not mean it is not impressively athletic. “I’m not, by nature, physical,” Chopra says. She doesn’t train or keep a regimented gym schedule. Mostly, she assumes she’ll get a little beat up on set. It’s all in a day’s work.
I remember reading that when Chopra won Miss World, her dad put wrought-iron bars up on her windows after one particularly ardent admirer tried to sneak in. That was almost two decades ago, and my guess would be that the assault on her private life has only grown commensurately with her fame. “It’s a hazard of the job,” Chopra tells me, blithely. “It’s like, if you’re a fireman, you’re going to get burned.”
The jump from Miss World to silver-screen superstar was never something she planned for, Chopra insists. She says that she didn’t know that she needed to have actual life aspirations until she was a teenager, after spending a couple years in America. (That, by the way, was not a highlight of her childhood. She says going to school in the Boston suburb of Newton was like living through her own personal version of Mean Girls, in which she played the victim. She returned to India for her senior year.)
“I wanted to be an engineer, because both my parents are doctors and I don’t like the smell of formaldehyde and I faint at the sight of blood,” she says. “So, yeah. I decided to go in another direction.”
Chopra has one tattoo, on her right wrist, that reads “Daddy’s Lil Girl.” It is written in her father’s handwriting. He passed away of cancer in 2013. For eight years, she flew him around the world for different treatments. “I’m a really tough girl,” Chopra says. “I’m really good at fixing things and dealing with things. When the big shit hits the fan: I’m the one who’ll stand up and say, ‘Alright, this is the solution. We can do this. This is fixable.’ But I couldn’t do that with my dad.”
Celebrity legend has it that Chopra was in the process of applying for college scholarships when her mom secretly submitted her headshots to the Miss India competition. Chopra went through with it, she says, mostly to get out of exams. After she won, film producers came knocking. She made over 20 movies in her first five years acting. She started making music, too, with artists like Will.i.am and Pitbull. It was basically a Bollywood fairy tale.
But while she is a megastar in the rest of the world, until relatively recently, Chopra has had a low profile in the U.S. I remember the first time I saw her: in the red carpet photos from the 2016 SAG Awards, in a long tulle dress with hot-pink lace overlays. She was all anyone could talk about for a few days after that.
Confession: When I first saw those images, I immediately wondered if anyone that good looking could also be equally interesting. I regret this thought. But as Chopra puts it: “Women pull each other down all the time. That’s our weakness. The boys come together — like bromance. Why can’t girls do it, too?”
When she scored her first offer to star in her own series, Chopra declined. “I said no, because it’s a really long commitment.” She was in the middle of a bunch of movies in India, and couldn’t imagine taking on anything more. But after she read the Quantico script, she reconsidered. The catch? Alex Parrish — the lead role, and the one Chopra was gunning for — had been written for an American actress. “I’m not even Indian-American,” Chopra says. “I’m from another country. I speak Indian. I think Indian. I look Indian. I really had to wrap my head around who Alex was, to convince not just the writers, but the American people that I’m an American girl.” She wound up nabbing the part and making headlines for being a South Asian woman headlining a network thriller.
But while she’s more than happy to be associated with breaking barriers, she’s sensitive to the language surrounding such achievements. When I ask her about what it might mean if she became the first woman to play James Bond — in an interview earlier this year, Chopra said she’d be keen to take on the role — she set the record straight.
“I know everything is about diversity right now. But I think it should be about humanity. It’s 2016. It’s so easy to separate ourselves and become smaller and smaller pieces of humanity,” she says. “I don’t like the phrase ‘woman of color.’ I feel like that puts women in a box. I’m a woman, whether I’m white, Black, brown, green, blue, or pink — whatever. I think we need to start looking beyond that. It would be a big win for women, period.”
Quantico isn’t the first time Chopra’s taken a role expressly written with another kind of actor in mind. When she was approached to co-star in Baywatch, slated for release next spring, she had her own ideas about the part she wanted to play. Chopra pressed director Seth Gordon to cast her as the villain, Victor, which had clearly been written for a man. Ultimately, she won out, and Victor was rewritten as Victoria. (This, of course, was not the first time a Victor became a Victoria, but it does give the whole thing some nice sublayers.)
Don’t expect to see her in that iconic red suit, though. “I’m this gorgeous bombshell in couture on the beach,” she says — and stilettos, no less. She calls her character delectable and evil, and confesses that she loves to play the antagonist. “This was so much fun, because it was not like a badass villain who’s getting into a fight. This was a woman using her woman skills to be a villain.” A complicated woman playing by all her own rules: I can get behind that.
We eventually circle back to Bond. “Look,” she says. “It’s a story about a British guy who happens to be a white dude. There’s nothing wrong with that, whoever came up with it.” But the way she sees it: If Victor can become Victoria, then James Bond can be played by a woman. “And not Jane,” she says, with emphasis. “She should be James Bond, and she should be able to sell it. Why not?”
At the end of the day, Chopra just isn’t into labels. “I want to be able to conform, to evolve, and be whoever and go wherever. Just like everyone else.”
She is also exceedingly pragmatic about her growing celebrity. She knows the game and the rules of engagement. “If I walk out on the streets and there are paparazzi taking my picture, I’m not hypocritical enough to turn around and say, ‘Don’t take my picture,’” she says. “It’s their job to do it. I feel like 90% of my life is an open book. I don’t even save any pictures. Any time I need to show a reference of myself, I google it. Anything about me is on Google.” (A cursory search confirms this. In the last three minutes I have become very familiar with her elementary school photos. Also her baby pictures, which are adorable. You should google them.)
In that way, Google is sort of like her own personal Facebook, and she’s just populating the newsfeed. “I live my life for the world. Those lines are very clear for me. When I step out of the house and I go to work, I’m someone else. When I finish work and come back, then I’m me.”
As for her personal life, Chopra is gracious but firmly private. “I feel like something should be mine, so I protect myself,” she says of her stance on discussing her romantic life. “Not that I have not been in relationships. I have very much. Right now, I guess I’m in a place where it’s complicated. Thanks, Facebook.
“I’m young enough to be okay. To say that I don’t need roots. I want to free fall at the moment. But I’m also old enough to want roots as well. So I’m at that place. Which is hard.”
Quantico, and Priyanka Chopra, return to television on September 25. In the season 1 finale, Alex Parrish is offered a gig with the CIA. Expect conspiracy theories, more romantic entanglements, and, of course, Chopra busting lips and taking names. Of the character she’s been playing for more than a year now, Chopra says: “She’s tough when she needs to be. She’s soft when she needs to be. Just because you’re in a man’s world and you’re bending the rules a little bit, doesn’t mean a woman needs to lose her femininity. That’s Alex. She is who she is. Unapologetic.”
We’re on the phone, and a few beats after this Chopra has to hang up. She tells me that she’s really sorry for all the back and forth, that she’ll give me a ring shortly when she frees up again, but that right now she has to run. It’s the last time we wind up speaking. I get it, though. She has a lot of work ahead of her.
“There’s a saying in India, that drops of water make the ocean,” Chopra tells me. “You have just got to consistently work at it. Because no one’s ever going to give it to you.” No one is ever going to give it to you. Even if you’re the most beautiful woman in the world, even if you’re a huge star who has spent almost half her life by now on screen, even if you are Priyanka Chopra, Miss World: You have to earn every win, every drop in the ocean, for yourself.
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