Simply listening to Priyanka Chopra
navigate her bustling schedule, you cannot help but wonder if the Indian actress is a machine or superhuman. The 34-year-old is currently in New York City heading up the second season of the intense ABC thriller Quantico. On this particular Sunday—a rare “day off” for Chopra—she has just finished a photo shoot, is doing this interview, then taking “one or two” meetings and finally getting to the one thing she won’t compromise on: a good night’s sleep. “My one definite rule is I get eight hours of sleep. I have to fight for it with my team,” she says. “That’s something I try and maintain because then you can function at your optimum, and you can [work] crazy hours.”
“Crazy hours” doesn’t do it justice. For the actress who in less than two decades has amassed 50 movies on her résumé, Chopra’s career is in high gear right now. Aside from her role as FBI recruit Alex Parrish, which has won the actress two People’s Choice Awards, she is about to make her live-action U.S. film debut (she voiced a character in Disney’s Planes in 2013) in the highly anticipated Baywatch movie—a project she filmed during her hiatus and on weekends all while shooting Quantico. In the cheeky homage to the ’90s cult series, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron as Los Angeles lifeguards, Chopra plays villain Victoria Leeds, a powerful private-club owner who isn’t afraid of going toe to toe with her male costars—literally. “There’s this one scene in which I was supposed to threaten my henchmen. So, I take my heel and I put it in one of their toes, while having a conversation with them,” describes Chopra. “[During] the entire scene, my heel is in his foot. It was so much fun.”
The movie offer was one Chopra says she reacted to “with every part of her being.” One, it brings back happy memories from her childhood in India. “I used to love the show. Watching it was my mom’s and my tradition,” she says. “It was our favorite show, and I remember when the theme song would start, we’d run to the couch with popcorn and make a thing out of it.”
But the reboot, helmed by Horrible Bosses director Seth Gordon, also offered Chopra an opportunity to play a powerful female character who believes her actions have no consequences. “When Seth and I started talking, we created [Victoria as] this delectable, mean, evil villain. She has no remorse for whatever she does in life, and I thought that was so much fun to play,” says Chopra. “Baywatch was always about the girls being beautiful and about slow-motion running, but I love the fact there’s so much substance to the character I play.”
In wielding power on-screen or off, the outspoken feminist doesn’t shy away from using tools mainly associated with a woman’s femininity. “When you’re in heels, you’re so much more intimidating,” says Chopra. “I wouldn’t do my scenes with Dwayne when I was in flats. In all of my scenes, I insisted on having the highest of heels because then I could look into his eyes. It gives you a sense of power. I’ve always liked heels in real life, but I understood why after doing Baywatch.”
Mixing the feminine and feminist sides of herself appears to come naturally to Chopra: the daughter of two doctors in the Indian Army was raised to speak her mind. Yet she got her start in what few would describe as a competition embracing female intelligence. In 2000, her mother entered 17-year-old Chopra in the Miss India contest. She won the title and the opportunity to represent her country in the Miss World pageant, where she was also crowned the winner. Chopra, however, is adamant her experience in these pageants was anything but sexist. “I have a very strong point of view on this,” she says. “The idea with the pageants I was a part of—and I can only speak from my experience—was they gave so much importance to being a woman of substance. Being eloquent, well-spoken, able to hold a crowd, a philanthropist [and] someone who can represent not just your nation but an institution [is] not really about who looks the best in a bikini. It gave me confidence to stand up in the world at 18 years of age.”
Movie offers started to pour in for the new Miss World, and suddenly the girl who was planning a career in aeronautical engineering embarked on a completely unknown path. “Nobody knew I could act. I didn’t know I could act,” admits Chopra. “When you’re casting Miss World in a movie, it [makes] business sense. So, I learned on the job. Everything I have learned today has been on the job.”
Some lessons, like what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, were hard-earned. “[Once], a producer told my manager that if I couldn’t adjust dates according to the male actors, then I would be replaced because women are replaceable in films when there’s a big male actor,” she recalls. “I was replaced, and it felt terrible. I went home in tears, and I told my dad, ‘Why couldn’t you be a powerful producer?’ My poor dad.” Chopra can laugh at this now, but recalls it being a turning point for her. “Instances like that made me think about how I could be irreplaceable. What could I do to make myself strong enough [that] no one would have the audacity to say that to me or do that to me again?” she asks, pausing for thought. “I don’t like the feeling of failing.”
Chopra isn’t sure if ambitious really describes her as much as fiercely competitive. “I always liked winning. If I was given a task, I had to be the best at it,” she says. “And I mostly compete with my own work. I’ll [think to myself], ‘No, I can’t do this because I’ve already done it. I need to do something better.’” It worries Chopra that she won’t live up to her own achievements, which at this age includes being the first Southeast Asian to headline an American network series; Time magazine naming her one of the world’s most influential people; and being awarded the Padma Shri (the Indian knighthood). “My mom and I were in tears. It was such a big moment,” she recalls.
Because, she says, she is too trusting of people—much unlike the characters she plays—Chopra surrounds herself with lots of family and a few close friends, whom she calls “the family you choose.”
“My family and friends matter the most to me,” she explains. “I wonder how they would describe me? Tenacious, maybe. A crier? I’m very sensitive. I cry at the drop of a hat. I’m very fun-loving.” She also audibly perks up at the idea of a family of her own. “I want as many kids as I can have. I want a family. I want the smell of pancakes or dosas on Sunday mornings,” says the actress. But as hands-on as Chopra has been with her career, she refuses to schedule that part of her life. “I feel like it has to happen when it happens. I think there’s too much pressure put on women about when is the right time for them to have a family or to start thinking about who they want to be with. I don’t think women in today’s day and age need to feel that pressure. We’re at such a great time where with science, technology and the world today, you can take charge and have a sense of power when it comes to that.”
And ultimately, Chopra is a big believer in destiny. A chance encounter with ABC’s Vice President of Casting Keli Lee at a dinner party opened the doors for her career in America, and her foray into show business was built on her unexpected turn in the Miss India pageant—why would destiny not show her the door here as well? “Let’s just say I’m at a very interesting place where I’m meeting very interesting people,” she teases. “But let’s see who is in store for me—I don’t know.”
In the meantime, she will continue to navigate her career as if it’s an adventure sport. “My professional career is like whitewater rafting. You have to maneuver it, and it’s just so much fun,” she says gleefully. In fact, Chopra estimates she hasn’t taken a vacation in 17 years. “I’ve built a life [from which] I don’t feel a need for a vacation. Whatever I want to achieve in life, I can do it while I’m working,” she says. “I’m at a place where I could, but I love what I do. Like Selena Gomez says, ‘I mean, I could, but why would I want to?’”
Photo Assistants: Stewart Isabell and Po Ewing | Digital Tech: Chris Rice | Fashion Assistant: Helena Kontos | Styling Assistant: Kevin Ericson
Main Image: Geranium Nero extra compact cotton taffeta patent calf dress, $6,300, Bottega Veneta, South Coast Plaza; Design Legend ring, $2,300, Bulgari, South Coast Plaza.