“I miss the English bants”: Parminder Nagra on ER, Bend It Like Beckham and the new science fiction Intergalactic | TV and radio

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is I can’t tell if the painful expression on Parminder Nagra’s face is due to the poor Zoom connection or the words I can’t help but scramble the moment it appears on my screen. She’s sitting at a table in her Los Angeles home, the Californian sun streaming through the sash windows into a living room dotted with memorabilia from her many movies, and all I can think of to say is, “I am. can’t believe I’m talking to Jess about Bend It Like Beckham! I loved this film!

We’re supposed to be discussing the actor’s new role in Intergalactic, a dystopian sci-fi drama about a group of female high-security inmates who hijack a spaceship and set off in search of freedom. But instead, we discuss the role Nagra played almost 20 years ago, playing Jess, a teenage girl who finds herself on the soccer field, while also navigating her Indian heritage and British life. Is it boring that people are still talking about Bend It? “No,” Nagra said, “because it’s such a big part of my life. I just got old. I keep thinking that people are going to think that I look the same all the time, when I don’t. But I’m still proud of the film. This is probably what I am most recognized for.

Nagra et Keira Knightley dans Bend It Like Beckham.
“I’m still proud of it”… Nagra and Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. Photographie: Allstar / BSKYB / Sportsphoto

Bend It, directed by Gurinder Chadha, was a box office success, launching Leicester-born Nagra’s on-screen career, as well as those of her two co-stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a 17-year-old unknown. , Keira Knightley. . Bend It was particularly meaningful to a generation of British South Asians, myself included, who had rarely seen their lives reflected on the big screen, especially not in a project led by women. How do you top it off? For Nagra, the answer was ER.

She played Neela in the medical juggernaut for six years, dealing with everything from claustrophobia to a helicopter crash, once again joining a cast of relative strangers who would become superstars: George Clooney, Linda Cardellini, Julianna Margulies. “When I started,” she said, “one of the first things they said was, ‘Can we put you in a relationship with so and so? And I said, “Could you just not for the first year?” She has always pushed against the kind of limiting intrigue that is often given to women and people of color. “They asked why and I said, ‘Because then this character would be purely defined by his relationship.’ And they really listened.

When the last ER aired in 2009, Nagra had just married longtime partner James Stenson, and by the end of the year she had given birth to a boy. Since then, notable roles have included a CIA agent in NBC’s The Blacklist and a school counselor in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. “I was about to play a director the other day,” Nagra laughs. “My brother pointed out that I had covered all professions. I said to mom, ‘Aren’t you proud? I played a doctor, a teacher – all the things you could have wanted me to be!

She also played Ellen Nadeer, a reactionary senator in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. “My son is a huge Marvel fan. I was completely nervous: I had to do an American accent. But it was my chance to do something a little different. I liked that. I always tried to push the boundaries when I was allowed to. I don’t often have the opportunity.

“She has diapers”… in Sky drama Intergalactic.
“She has diapers”… in Sky drama Intergalactic. Photographie: Des Willie / Moonage Pictures Ltd & Motion Content Group / Sky UK LTD

Despite her credentials, Nagra regularly finds herself in smaller roles with little room to explore, roles that sometimes border on pigeonholing. She has played many doctors, including one in Bird Box, the post-apocalyptic horror film starring Sandra Bullock. Nagra was invited to deliver his lines with an Indian accent. “Why did they give Parminder Nagra an accent?” asked a reporter on Twitter. “They let the White Murderer keep his British accent. She’s British too. Nagra replied, “Ask the powers that be. “

She has mixed feelings about Bird Box, which was directed by Susanne Bier, whose most recent drama was The Undoing, starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman. “I wasn’t thrilled to be playing doctor again,” says Nagra. “But it’s amazing work with an amazing director, and that’s Sandra Bullock. I wish I hadn’t done the accent. It’s hard. There are times when the doctor roles come up and you want to say no, but you want to work. “

This begs the question: why isn’t Nagra more famous? Does she feel like she has received the recognition she deserves? “I can’t start to dissect it because I’m going to go crazy,” said the 45-year-old. “I just think life comes, work comes, and we’re all at the mercy of both of us. A lot has happened in my life over the past decade that I have had to adjust to. It means I can’t do some things.

She talks about her son who had previously interrupted our interview. “Kai,” she told him sternly. “I’m in a really important interview. Can you please leave? It’s a reminder that despite Leicester’s fairy tale in Los Angeles, Nagra is a working mom, and a single mom too, after breaking up with Stenson in 2013. “I have to juggle the life of mum and my career, ”she says. “I don’t want to be away all the time.”

Resistant to romance ... Nagra in the emergency room.
Resistant to romance … Nagra in the emergency room. Photograph: AF archive / Alamy

But I wonder if there is more. In an interview with The Guardian in 2009, Nagra spoke about the lack of complex South Asian characters. Have things improved? ” I think [executives] know they can’t get by without being diverse. But I’m afraid they’re thinking, “Oh, we’ve got to have that kind of person here, so we’re going to put them in that role” – to tick a box. And I don’t understand why, if there’s a role between 35 and 45, and not specific to a family, why can’t I be seen for it. It’s frustrating. People say it’s getting better, but I’ve had this same conversation for years, and it bothers me. But I continue. And the landscape is changing for South Asians – watch top performances from Oscar nominated Priyanka Chopra and Riz Ahmed. Maybe we are able to tell our own stories a little more or get into unusual things.

Nagra met Intergalactic director Kieron Hawkes when they worked together on Fortitude, the Sky Atlantic thriller in which Nagra played another doctor. In Intergalactic, she is Arch Marshall Rebecca Harper, a powerful police officer whose daughter is one of the women who broke up. “She is the mother of a girl who has been wrongly convicted. So she has diapers. Nagra mentions his diverse cast and his own “tomboy” tendencies towards spaceships, adding with a laugh, “And Harper is hardly an Indian name. It would be more like Harpreet.

Shot in Manchester, Intergalactic is truly a British production with a cast that includes Craig Parkinson, best known for his portrayal of DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan, perhaps Line of Duty’s meanest curved brass to date. In recent years, British actors of color, including Idris Elba, have highlighted a ‘glass ceiling’ in the UK that is turning them to the US, where they are better appreciated and offered more. of opportunities. It is therefore good to see that it is happening the other way around: Nagra, the British actor who left for the United States, finding his appreciation at home. Will we see it more on our screens?

“I think some of the most interesting things that are coming out right now are from England. And I am English! So I want to be part of it. Even with Intergalactic, just being on an English set with the jokes – or the jokes, as we like to say – made me miss England. I want to come back and I want to be able to work. I hope I will have the opportunity to do so. “

Intergalactic is on Sky One and Now TV on April 30.

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