Interview with Parminder Nagra: ‘An Indian British girl in 1960s Alcatraz, what’s going on there?’
The Hollywood actress best-known for her roles in ‘Bend it like Beckham’ and ‘ER’ spoke to Neela Debnath about her new film ‘Twenty8k’ , working on science fiction series ‘Alcatraz’ and opportunities for actors from ethnic minorities.
It’s not often I meet someone who shares the same name as me, well sort of. I’m in the lobby of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel waiting to speak to Parminder Nagra. The Leicester-born British Asian actress, best-known for her roles as a football-obsessed teen in Bend it like Beckham and Dr. Neela Rasgotra in US medical drama ER is in town to promote her new film Twenty8k.
As we sit down to talk she does not miss out on the fact that I share my first name with her ER character and asks if I was sent along because of this coincidence, to which I confirm that this was not the case.
Following the success of Gurinder Chadha’s Anglo-Asian comedy Bend it Like Beckham in 2002, Nagra was propelled into the limelight and it was not long before Hollywood came knocking on her door. She was soon cast in ER and remained a fixture on the show for six years until it finished in 2009.
The role required her to relocate to LA, where she still lives, however Nagra recently returned to Britain to make Twenty8k. The gritty urban thriller set in the East End is penned by Jimmy Dowdell and State of Play writer Paul Abbott and draws on The Long Good Friday. Nagra plays Deeva, a young woman desperately trying to find out who has framed her brother for murder, in true Abbott style, the plot goes much further than a simple killing with a complexly-woven underlying story.
For Nagra the biggest draw was the script, ‘I got to work with writing by Paul Abbot and Jimmy Dowdell which was the first and foremost thing that made me go ‘wow, I’d love to be a part of that’’, she goes on to say ‘but the chance to just play a strong female lead was a really great opportunity.’ The film could just as easily have been fronted by a man given the genre and the dark subject matter, therefore it is refreshing to have such a strong female character leading it.
Twenty8k was her first project since giving birth to her son Kai in 2009 and Nagra waxes lyrical about returning to acting and to London, ‘it was just great, it was great coming back to the East End, it was great working with that backdrop, it was great working with that cast that we had’.
She stars alongside a great mix of old and new British talent, from established faces like Stephen Dillane and Kierston Wareing to emerging actors such as This is England’s Michael Socha and Skins starlet Kaya Scodelario. She was particularly excited to work with Dillane, ‘I didn’t have a tonne of stuff with but I was just relishing the opportunity to work with someone like that but incredibly scared all at the same time because he’s amazing’.
Despite a decade passing since Nagra first shot to fame in Bend it like Beckham, starring alongside a pre-Hollywood Keira Knightley and a pre-Tudors Jonathan Rhys Meyers, her role as Punjabi teenager Jess continues throws up questions of whether the entertainment industry has become more diverse and whether there now more opportunities for actors from ethnic minorities.
Nagra pauses, ‘it’s really hard because I feel like things have certainly moved on. They’re certainly a lot better than what they used to be and you’ve got people like Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhasker, who are creating and making their own projects and are very much a fabric of the industry’.
‘So I feel like creative aspects of it here, in terms of people taking the bull by the horns and going ‘right, we’re creating our own stuff for our generation and we’re getting on with it’. Obviously, it can be difficult sometimes, especially if you’ve got a lot of period pieces on for quite a while, there’s not going to be many ethnic faces in those, so what do you do?’
Period dramas to one side, generally it seems that the careers of British actors from ethnic minorities flourish across the pond. There appears to be far more choice in the roles that are open to them when compared to the British industry. For example, Homeland star David Harewood has found international acclaim after trying for years to make it big in the UK, while Idris Elba only received recognition after his turn as Stringer Bell in The Wire.
From Nagra’s own CV it’s obvious that she has played more interesting roles since her move to the States, such as a doctor transported from the 1960s to present-day San Francisco in science fiction series Alcatraz, produced by Lost co-creator J.J. Abrahams.
Her character in the series shows just how open the American industry seems to be, ‘Here’s this Indian British girl who’s in 1960s Alcatraz, like what the heck is going on there?’, she laughingly adds ‘they [the makers] loved that it was cool and I loved that they thought it was cool. So, it takes people like that who are slightly…a bit mad’.
However, Alcatraz was cancelled after one season and left viewers with an unsatisfying ending. ‘I wasn’t really surprised to be honest with you but I really wish we’d had the opportunity to close it out with some sort of explanation as to what was happening. I think that I and the audience would have liked to have seen why were these people jumping? What was that all about?’
It appears to be a bone of contention and she explains, ‘they were saying ‘we had some really cool stuff for you coming up’ and I’m like ‘I don’t want to know that now, honestly I really don’t want to know that now.’ By the way you’re fired and you were going to get some cool stuff to do. Great.’
Despite her chagrin she is not averse to venturing into the science fiction and fantasy genre again and if she got the chance to work with Abrahams again it would be a no-brainer because ‘it’s as good as it gets really’. After Alcatraz she had a recurring role in the American police procedural comedy Psych, where she played Dulé Hill’s new love interest.
Looking towards the future, Nagra says she would like to do ‘a really quirky, off the wall type thing’ in the vein of Wes Anderson or a gritty drama either in the UK or America. Since returning to acting after becoming a mother she is eager to get her teeth into a meaty role and she refers back to her character in Twenty8k.
‘I think it’s like this character Deeva, somebody who’s a little bit complex, I miss being able to flesh something like that out which I got the opportunity to do on ER. I really got the opportunity to explore that, having had the luxury of exploring that I’d like to do something like that again.’
‘Twenty8k’ is out now on DVD and Blu-RayTagged in: Alcatraz, Bend it like Beckham, ER, JJ Abrahams, Lost, Parminder Nagra, Twenty8k
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