The morning of our cover shoot with Quantico star Priyanka Chopra, I woke up in my hotel room to see the following tweet, sent from her account at 5 a.m.: “As NewYork wakes I sleep…Good night world… Zzz.” The Bollywood powerhouse turned North American-TV crush and social media queen had been up all night filming for season two of the addictive FBI thriller that quickly became one of the highest-rated network television shows after its debut last year. I was a little worried—we had a packed day planned. Besides our photo shoot, there was our interview for this story (to be conducted during hair and makeup) and a Facebook Live Q&A that her fans from around the world had already been tweeting about for days in fervent anticipation. How was she going to manage all this on just a few hours of sleep?
The answer: like a boss. Seconds after arriving at the stark white studio in Brooklyn, Chopra sat down in the makeup chair, ready to get started—on everything. “Just sayin’: this is my normal.” She gestured to the hair, nail and makeup artists who simultaneously began prepping her for the shoot. While anyone else might be overwhelmed by having to give an interview with a hair dryer and makeup brushes in her face—all while balancing a plate of lunch on her lap—for Chopra, it’s second nature. She’s been doing this for exactly half her life now.
Born in the city of Jamshedpur in eastern India and raised all over the country (her parents were both physicians in the Indian army), Chopra began her career at age 17 when her mother—without her knowing—submitted headshots to the Miss India pageant. “I don’t know what got into her,” Chopra eye-rolls. After having spent her first three years of high school living with an aunt in the United States, she had just returned to Bareilly, the northern Indian city where her family had since settled, and had her sights set on studying engineering. (Those headshots? Taken for a scholarship application to a program in Australia.) “I just went to the pageant to skip my exams,” she admits. But she won. Then a few months later, Chopra took the crown at Miss World in London.
“It wasn’t my dream to be a pageant queen,” Chopra says. “It was just drive. I don’t like losing.” She’s also quick to clarify that pageants in India and the U.K. are quite different from the Trump-endorsed spectacles in the States: “They didn’t even have a swimsuit competition in Miss World. They were more focused on whether you’re a leader; how compassionate you are. At 17, I was asked to speak about the economic structures of foreign countries.”
That was hardly a challenge for the brainy babe, who lists BBC News and CNN among her current favourite apps, and has written op-eds for The New York Times, The Times of India and The Guardian condemning violence against women and female genital mutilation. During our hour-long interview, our conversation twists around topics as varied as the importance of electing empathic world leaders (she loves J.T.!) to Jennifer Aniston’s recent takedown of the media’s pressure on women to have families. “I really admire her and the fact that she called it out,” she says. “We’ve been told for eons that a woman should be a certain way, dress a certain way, behave a certain way. That’s what the fight of feminism is for: we’re asking for the opportunity to make our own choices without being judged—a freedom that men have enjoyed for centuries.”
She explains that her acute interest in world issues came from her family, with whom she is still exceptionally close—her mother often travels with her for projects across the world, and her only tattoo is a commemoration of her late father: “Daddy’s lil girl,” traced up her wrist from his own handwriting. “My parents raised me to be a thinking girl,” she says. “Our dinner table discussions were always, ‘What are the relevant issues right now?’”
That question also seems to be in the back of Chopra’s mind when choosing her roles. Pretty much every studio in Mumbai was courting her after her pageant wins, but she didn’t want to act in just anything. “I always look for parts that make an impact,” she says. Her first big success, 2003’s The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, was a romance-slash-thriller set against the backdrop of a terrorist plot threatening India and Canada. One of the highest-grossing Hindi films of that year, it was a commercial hit, but despite starring in several more blockbusters, critical acclaim didn’t come for Chopra until five years later, for her role as an alcoholic model in Fashion. “It’s a great time to be a female actor right now, especially if you stand your ground,” she says, turning in her chair so the hairstylist, Lacy, can begin creating beachy waves in the other half of her thick mane. “I won’t settle.”
Give or take about 50 (!) Hindi films later, made over just 12 years, she was already a multi-award-winning megastar in India when an ABC executive approached her about starring in the network’s new drama. Although she had never really planned on moving her career to the U.S., she found the pilot script for Quantico too irresistible to pass up: “It tackles so many issues— diversity, equality, feminism, terrorism.” Chopra plays Alex Parrish, a self-assured, straight-talking young FBI recruit who spends most of season one trying to track down the terrorist who attempted to frame her for bombing Grand Central Station—while also navigating a complicated on-again, off-again with one of her academy trainers, Ryan Booth, played by scruffy-faced cutie Jake McLaughlin. From the first scenes of the series premiere, Alex establishes herself as a badass. She meets Ryan on a plane and has sex with him in his car upon landing. On that first day at the FBI training headquarters, she bumps into him with a group of her peers in the hallway of her new residence; Ryan sticks out his hand to introduce himself as one of her colleagues. Alex barks, “We had sex in your car six hours ago.”
The show was an instant hit, becoming the number-two new series in Canada. Season two premieres September 25 on CTV—pretty soon Chopra will be as recognizable here as she is in India. “Mainstream America is getting to know me through Quantico, and now they’re discovering my Indian films,” she says. “It’s such a cool cultural exchange for me, because I get people writing to me, saying, ‘We watched our first Indian movie on Netflix.’ I feel amazing that I’ve been able to introduce a new audience to those films—and an Indian audience to an American show.”
But Alex Parrish wasn’t initially written as a woman of colour. When showrunner Josh Safran cast Chopra, he decided to rewrite Alex’s backstory as having an Indian mother and white father. Beyond that, her race is irrelevant when it comes to the plot and her character development. And that’s one of the aspects Chopra loves best about the gig. “Storytelling cannot be based on what someone looks like,” she says. I can tell she’s fired up about this topic when she momentarily forgets to sit still for her makeup. “Everyone has stories: you have a story; I have a story. They just need to be written. And casting needs to happen based on the best person for the job, not the Indian girl or the black girl. The girl next door is no longer blonde-haired and blue-eyed, nor is she brown-haired and brown-eyed. She’s not one person. And our entertainment needs to be a representation of that.”
Quantico’s not the only gig that’s been tailored for Chopra. She just finished filming Baywatch, a comedy remake of the ’90s TV series, set to be released next summer. In it she plays baddie Victoria Leeds—a character originally written as a man. “I really believe a film is only as good as its bad guy, and we found the perfect bad girl,” says Baywatch director Seth Gordon, recalling their first Skype conversation from Montreal, where she filmed season one of Quantico. “I never even talked to anyone else after that,” he says. “She understood that antagonists are best played when they think they’re completely justified, and she had a number of ideas about how this character could have found that justification. From there, it was obvious she was meant to play the role.” Gordon was so committed to featuring her that the whole cast and crew worked around her Quantico schedule, prioritizing her scenes to accommodate her flights back and forth.
Chopra stars opposite Zac Efron and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the flick and describes her character as “patronizing and mean in a really fabulous, delicious way.” When I ask about their off-screen dynamic, she jokes about teaching her cast mates to master the classic Pamela Anderson run: “I do slow motion and wind machines for a living as an Indian actor!”
“I call that the ‘Chopra charm,’” Johnson tells me. “I’ve been in the business a long time, and I’ve worked with a lot of stars, and only a handful are as driven and as sharply focused and ambitious as Priyanka. It’s intoxicating—you want to be around it because it inspires you and pushes you.”
I get what he means. At our shoot, it’s hard not to feel like there’s so much more I could be packing into my day when Chopra tells me about her weekend plans: after we wrap, she’s headed to a late dinner to celebrate her 34th birthday, then it’s straight to bed to prep for another 12-plus-hour day of shooting Quantico—with action scenes. “I do most of my own stunts,” she tells me, pointing out small scars on her hands, wrists and forearms. “I have my filmography on my body.”
Sometime over the past few years, she’s also managed to lay down vocals on tracks with Will.i.am and Pitbull, and establish a small production company, Purple Pebble Pictures, which aired its first project, an Indian sitcom called It’s My City, on the video mobile app nexGTV in January. With half a dozen films also in the works, the company’s objective is to nurture new talent and promote regional cinema in India.
Then there is Chopra’s philanthropic work: she’s been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2008 and started her own charity, the Priyanka Chopra Foundation for Health and Education, which provides support to underserved children in India.
Feeling inadequate yet? This month, she’s adding yet another title to the list: judge of the TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival, an open competition that aspiring filmmakers enter simply by hashtagging their original video on Instagram. “I’m a big believer in encouraging creativity,” Chopra says about her involvement. “And I don’t think you need big opportunities to be a creative person, especially in today’s digital age. We have these platforms, and we have the ability to share and access information at the speed of light, anywhere in the world.” Chopra’s own social media accounts have huge, super-engaged followings: 21 million on Facebook, 14.6 million on Twitter and 9.4 million on Instagram. (She’s not on Snapchat yet, but I’m sure she’ll be dominating that soon, too.) And it felt like every single one of them tuned in to our Facebook Live chat later that day, pouring out hundreds of comments and questions per minute.
Chopra credits her realness on social media as the reason she has such a dedicated fan base there. This June, when her fans nearly broke the Internet raging about her over-airbrushed armpit on the cover of Maxim India, rather than making a big deal out of it, she responded by posting an unfiltered pic of her pit with the hashtag #WillTheRealArmpitPleaseStandUp. “That’s when you know you’ve made it,” she jokes. “When your armpit is trending.” Naturally, she manages all her accounts herself.
After beholding her superhuman hustle, I’m not surprised when she tells me her 10-year plan is to own a private plane. “I travel cross-continent so often. All my shopping happens at duty -free and Hudson News,” she says, following with her signature raspy laugh. What does astound me, though, is that the plane is pretty much the only long-term goal she’s set for herself. The kind of gal who does the slo-mo Baywatch run for The Rock has a come-what-may attitude—totally the opposite of what you’d expect from such a high achiever. “I just feel like life never turns out the way you plan it,” she explains, stealing a quick glance in the mirror at her now nearly finished hair and makeup. “You can’t control everything, so you just have to go with what comes your way and do your best with every opportunity.”
Hair: Lacy Redway, Oribe Hair Care, The Wall Group.
Makeup: Mario Dedivanovic, The Wall Group.
Nails: Geraldine Holford, Dior Vernis, The Wall Group.
Art Director: Jed Tallo.
Fashion and Beauty Director: Carlene Higgins.
Editor: Briony Smith.