One of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars talks to us about the contest that started it all, and her road to international superstardom
It’s a classic tale of beauty and brains: since bagging the Miss World title in London 17 years ago, Priyanka Chopra (of India) has parlayed the beauty pageant victory into a blooming onscreen career — first in Bollywood, becoming one of its highest-paid actresses, and now in Hollywood.
With a lead part in the crime series Quantico, where she plays a promising FBI recruit-turned-terror suspect, Chopra has become one of a handful of Asian actors to have scored a starring role on US prime time television.
She’s also taken on the big screen, relishing the villain role with gusto in this year’s Baywatch. She co-stars with Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron on the film. An upcoming drama titled A Kid Like Jake — with the formidable Octavia Spencer, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons — will also allow her to display even more acting range.
Still, she’s able to find time for her advocacy work — in 2010, she was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for children’s rights — and a quick but lively chat with Smile, on breaking through to an international audience, and dealing with rising popularity.
The Miss World pageant happened a long time ago. Looking back, how do you recall the event?
I had my photos taken for a scholarship program. The photographer was like, “Oh, you’re really pretty. Can I take some more pictures?” With my teenage girl’s ego, I was like, “Sure.” He took pictures — soft focus, with me sitting like that. My mom sent the pictures to the Miss India pageant organizers. Between us, there was never any conversation about that. I wanted to be an engineer. I was studying physics. I still don’t know what my mom was thinking. Anyway, she sent them in and I got selected. And then, they called me. I’m competitive by nature so I wanted to win. If you tell me to paint a wall, I’ll do the best job I can. I’m that kind of person.
And then you won it…
So, I went and I won it. As Miss India, I was sent to Miss World, and then I won that too. Then movies came my way. I had never been to acting school. I didn’t know anything, so I learned it on the job. I credit it to my ability to never give up, to keep taking on these challenges and to not say, “I don’t know this. I won’t do it.” You have to be willing to learn new things at whatever age you are — just keep going like the Energizer Bunny.
But now you’re a fast-rising Hollywood star. How have you been handling your increasing popularity?
I started working when I was 17 years old, so for more than half my life, I’ve been a public person. Having been a part of Indian films for so long, I’ve become familiar with the notoriety that often comes with being a star. It’s very important to have people around you to remind you about how you’re just a normal person — a daughter, a sister or a friend. Relations like that keep you level-headed. The fame, affection and adulation you get as a public person can make you big-headed. My mom puts me in my place all the time.
What’s the best advice she’s ever given you?
I’ve hung on to a piece of advice; I tell all the young people that I meet that my mom always tells me to have the courage of conviction. My mom told me, when I was a pre-teen of 11 years, that whatever decisions I made, I would have to answer for eventually. You can never blame anyone. You can never be like, “You did it” or “It was your fault”. No one’s holding a gun to your head, so have the courage of conviction. Even if you make a mistake, say, “All right, I made a mistake and I won’t do it again.” To this day, I believe that admittance gives you integrity.
What were some of the challenges you faced while you made your transition into Hollywood?
When I started getting parts, I was really put into a box — my Bollywood background entailed certain acting roles. People expected me to come out with face jewelry. I don’t personally like facial jewelry. I had to explain to people the amalgamation of Eastern and Western cultures in modern India. Be that as it may, I wasn’t offended by the expectations; I didn’t expect people to know the ins and outs of my culture. I remember people being taken aback, whenever I walked onto a set, about the fact that I understood the technical aspects of being an actor. I did action moves, stood on my mark, delivered my lines, and understood how lighting worked. They were surprised.
Will you stay in Hollywood?
As an actor, I want to be able to work in different countries. English and Hindi are my first languages; I have working proficiency in both. Essentially, I go where my abilities takes me. I also love Hindi movies. Everything that I know as an actor is from the genre, so I definitely want to be able to act in those movies too. At the moment, I have exciting work coming my way in the US. I’m trying to figure out how much work I can take on now.
It’s a hectic lifestyle in Los Angeles. Does any of that get in the way of more soulful things like, say, meditation?
Oh, no, no, no! Let’s just say there’s a lot more spirituality in LA, a lot more yoga [laughs] than I have seen in Mumbai. Mumbai is a lot like New York and LA. It has a crazy, hectic environment. You never sleep. Everyone’s trying to get somewhere and everyone’s in a rush. I’m spiritual by heart but I never took to meditation — much to my dad’s chagrin. He was like, “You’ve got to try it.” But I’m the kind of Indian girl who doesn’t drink chai, and doesn’t know how to meditate. I break the stereotype.
I was raised Hindu, so the one ritual that I did and do have is praying every morning. I have a little temple that I take with me everywhere I go. In fact, for Alex’s character in Quantico, I also created a little shrine, to accentuate the fact that she’s Indian. I thank God for everything that I have, for being as privileged as I have been, and for giving me the opportunities that I’ve had. That’s the only ritual that I follow. Now, the world will know I don’t meditate.
What do you miss most about India? Do you miss the food?
I need Indian food when I get home each day. That’s rice, roti or some form of carbohydrate — I love my carbs, which is a little unfortunate. I have a cook at home who makes the best Indian food. She travels with me when I’m working because I need my soul food at night. So, I don’t miss Indian food. When people ask me for my opinion on New York’s best Indian food, I say, “I don’t know. It’s at my house!”
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Smile magazine.