I can’t tell if the pained expression on Parminder Nagra’s face is because of the bad Zoom connection or the words I can’t help blurting out the moment she appears on my screen. She’s sitting at a table in her home in Los Angeles, the California sun streaming through sash windows into a sitting room dotted with keepsakes from her many films, and all I can think to say is: “I can’t believe I’m talking to Jess from Bend It Like Beckham! I loved that film!”
We’re meant to be discussing the actor’s new role in Intergalactic, a dystopian sci-fi drama about a group of female high-security prisoners who hijack a spaceship and set off in pursuit of freedom. But instead we’re discussing the role Nagra took on almost 20 years ago, playing Jess, a teenager who discovers herself on the football pitch, while navigating her Indian heritage and British life. Is it annoying that people still talk about Bend It? “No,” says Nagra, “because it’s such a huge part of my life. I’ve just gotten older. I keep thinking people are going to think I still look the same, when I don’t. But I’m still proud of the film. It’s probably what I’m most recognised for.”
Bend It, directed by Gurinder Chadha, was a box-office smash, launching Leicester-born Nagra’s screen career, as well as those of her two co-stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a then-unknown 17-year-old, Keira Knightley. Bend It was particularly significant for 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 that? 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 unknowns who would go on to be superstars: George Clooney, Linda Cardellini, Julianna Margulies. “When I started,” she says, “one of the first things they said was, ‘Can we put you in a relationship with so-and so?’ And I went, ‘Could you just not for the first year?’” She has always pushed against the sort of limiting plot lines that are often given to women and people of colour. “They asked why and I said, ‘Because then this character would be purely defined by her relationship.’ And they actually listened.”
When the final ER aired in 2009, Nagra had just wed her long-term partner James Stenson and, by the end of the year, she’d given birth to a boy. Since then, notable roles have included a CIA agent in NBC’s The Blacklist and a school counsellor in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. “I was up to play a headmaster the other day,” Nagra says with a laugh. “My brother pointed out I’ve covered all the professions. I said to Mum, ‘Aren’t you proud? I’ve played a doctor, a teacher – all the things you might 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 bit different. I enjoyed it. I’ve always tried to push the envelope when I’ve been allowed. I don’t often get the chance.”
Despite her credentials, Nagra still regularly finds herself in smaller roles with little room to explore, roles that occasionally border on pigeonholing. She’s played numerous doctors, including one in Bird Box, the postapocalyptic horror film starring Sandra Bullock. Nagra was asked to deliver her lines with an Indian accent. “Why did they make Parminder Nagra have an accent?” asked a journalist on Twitter. “They let the murdering white guy 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 about playing the doctor again,” says Nagra. “But it’s an amazing piece of work with an amazing director, and it’s Sandra Bullock. I’d rather not have done the accent. It’s hard. There are times when doctor roles come up and you want to say no, but you want to work.”
It raises the question: why isn’t Nagra more famous? Does she feel she’s given the recognition she deserves? “I can’t start dissecting it, because I’ll go mad,” says the 45-year-old. “I just think, life happens, work happens, and we’re all at the mercy of both. Lots of things have happened in my life over the last decade that I’ve had to adapt to. It’s meant I can’t do certain things.”
She’s talking about her son who had earlier interrupted our interview. “Kai,” she said to him sternly. “I’m in a really important interview. Can you please leave?” It’s a reminder that, despite the Leicester-to-Los Angeles fairytale, Nagra is a working mother, and a single one too, having split from Stenson in 2013. “I have to juggle life as a mum versus my career,” she says. “I don’t want to be away all the time.”
But I wonder if there’s more to it. In an interview with the Guardian in 2009, Nagra talked about the lack of complex South Asian characters. Have things got any better? “I think [executives] know they can’t get away with not being diverse. But I worry that they think, ‘Oh, we need to have this sort of person in here, so we’ll put them in this 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 I can’t be seen for it. It’s frustrating. People say it’s getting better but I’ve been having this same conversation for years, and I’m bored of it. But I keep going. And the landscape is changing for South Asian people – look at Priyanka Chopra leading shows and Riz Ahmed nominated for an Oscar. Maybe we’re able to tell our own stories a little more, or put ourselves in things that are atypical.”
Nagra met Intergalactic director Kieron Hawkes when they worked together on Fortitude, the Arctic-set thriller from Sky Atlantic in which Nagra played yet another doctor. In Intergalactic she’s Arch Marshall Rebecca Harper, a powerful police official whose daughter is among the women who break out. “She’s the mother of a girl who’s been wrongly convicted. So she has layers.” Nagra mentions its diverse cast and her own “tomboy” tendencies toward spaceships, adding with a laugh: “And Harper is hardly an Indian name. It would be more like Harpreet.”
Filmed in Manchester, Intergalactic is very much a British production with a cast that includes Craig Parkinson, best known for his portrayal of DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan, possibly Line of Duty’s nastiest bent copper yet. In recent years, British actors of colour, Idris Elba among them, have highlighted a “glass ceiling” in the UK that makes them look to the US, where they are better appreciated and afforded more opportunities. So it’s good to see this happening the other way round: Nagra, the British actor who left for the US, finding appreciation at home. Will we be seeing more of her on our screens?
“I think some of the most interesting stuff coming out right now is from England. And I’m English! So I want to be a part of that. Even with Intergalactic, just being on an English set with the banter – or the bants, as we like to say – made me miss England. I want to come back and I want to be able to work. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to do that.”