Parminder Nagra is “dead chuffed”, she tells me. Also, “absolutely delighted”. A veteran of Bend It Like Beckham, E.R. and Psych, the British actress has another hit on her hands.
“I’m over the moon, I really am,” she says, her enthusiasm flaring down the phone from a snow-bound New York.
“People have really got on board with this new show. I just think they like a bit of mayhem. They’re after a few thrills and spills.”
The show in question is The Blacklist (Sundays, TV3, 8.30pm), in which Nagra stars alongside James Spader, a man who’s such an incorrigible ham, you can imagine him glazed, studded with cloves, and hanging in a delicatessen window. She plays CIA agent Meera Malik, who may or may not have a few dark secrets of her own. He plays former FBI agent-turned-master criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington, who has turned himself in and volunteered to help the FBI round up other such criminals, presumably in order to get rid of the competition.
The show is winningly ridiculous. Spader’s character is locked up in a hi-tech Hannibal Lector-style isolation room and let out occasionally to meet with Asian mafia figures in underground lairs. Assorted terrorists with Eastern accents wander around Washington DC, killing people in broad daylight. People who refuse to co-operate are stabbed in the windpipe with ballpoint pens, then gasp out helpful clues. Dudes in balaclavas abseil from helicopters to kidnap a politician’s daughter who’s clutching her teddy, then speed off in a jetboat up the nearest river.
Through it all, Reddington will only share his secrets with rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone from Law And Order: LA) and, in hilarious homage to that infamous Darth Vadar/Luke Skywalker “You My father No! Really” final-reel twist of a bygone era, broad hints are thrown about that he may even turn out to be her long-lost dad.
The show has elements of Homeland, Silence Of The Lambs, Breaking Bad, Miami Vice, 24, the entire CSI franchise – hell, even Boston Legal, given Spader’s superior air and deadpan jokes – all tossed in a blender and pulsed to a chunky puree.
“Yes, I feel like this show pays homage to every favourite action movie you’ve ever seen, bit by bit, as the episodes go on. But I love how entertaining it is. The writers have done a nice job; they’ve covered the crime procedural elements of the show but mixed in with all that action are intriguing characters everyone wants to know about, because you’re never entirely sure who these people might be. They don’t give you all the answers at once. People can just plug into this roller-coaster journey and root for these peculiar characters, even when they know they shouldn’t.”
As with Homeland, Breaking Bad, Rectify and The Sopranos, everything orbits around an unsympathetic central anti-hero many viewers want to see succeed, despite his dark and damaged personality.
“I think so, yes. You have to remind yourself that Red is this criminal mastermind who thinks nothing of using blackmail, torture and murder to get what he wants. He’s not a good guy, but because it’s James Spader playing him, there’s something oddly endearing about him. People love him! They forget he’s this heinous person!”
Parminder’s character, meanwhile, seems more the strong, silent type: Calm, efficient, brainy, a collection of useful skills clustered around a strong moral centre.
“It’s a strong female role, and it’s empowering to be one of the two main female roles on the show. There’s only Megan and me, and both our characters are tough cookies. We have a lot of grit. My character’s in the CIA, and has a dark history of past deeds that no-one knows too much about. The writers could take her in all sorts of different directions.”
And, unsurprisingly, they do. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to reveal that before this series concludes, Parminder’s character is suspected of divided loyalties. Could she be a double agent
“Well, I won’t give too much away. Let’s just say that nobody is really who they seem.”
S O – WHO is Parminder Nagra Born in Leicester in the English Midlands, the daughter of two Sikh factory workers who emigrated from India during the 1960s, she has been a professional actress since the age of 17.
Her big break came in 2002 when she was cast alongside Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, playing a teenaged Sikh who defies her parents to play football.
The low-budget film became a modest international hit, and Nagra was invited to join the cast of E.R. soon afterwards, playing Anglo-Indian doctor Neela Rasgotra.
“It’s been a strange ride. I’ve been doing this a long time, so hopefully I know what I’m doing by now. I was 26 when I made Beckham, but it’s amazing to think that I’d already been acting for 10 years before that.”
So now, at the age of 38, could we safely call her a veteran of the dramatic arts
“Ha! You could, but you and I both know that’s just a codeword for old! But yeah. I certainly never pictured a career like this when I was in the school play back in Leicester. The fact that I’m still here working in the States, with my accent, is hilarious to me.”
That accent, incidentally, is polite middle-English. There’s no hint of an American twinge creeping in, despite years spent living in California. Indeed, Parminder once told a reporter that Hollywood hadn’t changed her in the slightest; the first thing she did after moving there was to find a shop that sold chapati flour and lentils.
“Yes, and that’s still what I do. If I take any job here now, it’s really important that there’s either an Indian shop or a few good Indian restaurants near the set.”
Nagra’s ethnicity was considered significant when her career began to gain traction in the US. Many early interviews proclaimed her the first British actress from an ethnic minority to make it big in the States. Did she think of it in those terms herself
“Not at all, no. But when I came out to do E.R., people kept saying – you know, you’re the first Indian doctor on American TV. They thought it was a big deal. But I never even thought about it, honestly. I was more aware of it years earlier, when I did my first traditionally blonde-haired, blue-eyed part in a Christmas play, and I thought, wow – I’m automatically politicised, even just standing here doing my job. But as far as flying the flag, I’m glad if anybody from my sort of background got inspired by seeing me succeeding on screen.”
Still, Nagra’s had her share of failures, too. Most recently, she starred as a psychiatrist alongside Sam Neill in Alcatraz, a 2012 sci-fi drama that seemed promising but lasted only one series before getting canned.
“I was so disappointed when that show didn’t continue, because we played such great characters, and I love Sam. He’s a top guy and a good friend – very generous and charismatic. While we were making that show we lived opposite each other in Vancouver, just a little ferry journey apart. He’d phone up and say, ‘OK, come over, now’, so I’d hop on this little boat and go across so we could go out somewhere for dinner. He also used to take me out making these little silly videos to put on his website where we both acted like angry dinosaurs. I’ve had some weird parts in my career, but that really was ridiculous!”