Poorna Jagannathan On How Working With Meryl Streep And Nicole Kidman On Big Little Lies Helped Her Up Her Game

The actress talks about drawing on her past for Mindy Kaling's new Netflix series, why the set of a women-led show is different and seeing more diversity in casting rooms
Poorna Jagannathan On How Working With Meryl Streep And Nicole Kidman On Big Little Lies Helped Her Up Her Game

We're going to be seeing a lot of Poorna Jagannathan onscreen soon. Just hours before this interview, Netflix announced that she's now part of Mindy Kaling's new comedy series. Two days later, she'll reprise her role as soft-spoken custody lawyer Katie Richmond  alongside Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies season 2. Later this month, we'll see her in HBO film Share, which tackles themes of sexual violence. It's the best time to be an actress, she says. "There's a celebration of different-ness. It's audience-driven. People are lazy, they'll write the same things they always have. But now they see that the audience rewards diversity."

Jagannathan, who Indian audiences may best remember as the journalist Menaka in Delhi Belly (2011), has since been part of projects such as the drama miniseries The Night OfBreaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul and stage production Nirbhaya, inspired by the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. Having moved to LA in 2015, she isn't in Mumbai for long, but she's here with a plan. Having binged Delhi Crime and Made In Heaven, she's hoping there's a spot for her on Indian television. She mentions meeting producer Guneet Monga for a project based here, but can't divulge what it's about. What she does talk about, in between sips of nimbu paani, is sharing a set with Meryl Streep, feeling impostor syndrome despite that and how television has evolved over the past 15 years:

Congratulations on the Netflix series announcement, is there anything you can tell me about it?

Netflix approached Mindy (Kaling) to make a coming-of-age story and she said, 'I'm into this, but I don't want to set it when I grew up, I want to set it in today's times.' In true Mindy fashion, she put out the most hilarious, ridiculous script. There's a lot of heart. They also put out an international casting call.

Mindy said, 'I'm going to do something really new. This has never been done in American television before. Let's start from scratch.' In America, a lot of the girls who are 15 and are actors, like in Bollywood, have come up through modelling. I don't know if you remember, but when you're 15, you're just so vulnerable, so awkward and you want so much. You just want to be seen. That quality is very hard to find in actors. We don't go into the profession that young. When you see this girl (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), she's the character. We auditioned together and after every take, she'd dab. And she'd go, 'Oh my god sorry, sorry, sorry.' She's just crazy.  And she's 16.

I play her mom, a very funny immigrant mom, who is trying to raise her kid in the best way she knows within the hellhole that she sees American values as. The way I parent – I have a certain language that I've inherited from my mom. In my family, we very casually normalize violence. 'If you don't brush your teeth, I'll break your arms and legs.' or 'Get me that before I break your head.' or 'Do you want the chappal on your left cheek or on your right cheek? Which one would you prefer?' That's how the character talks. That's how we grew up. That's how I parent.

I was reading a 2016 interview in which you said: "Acting is a game of snakes and ladders and if you're a woman of colour, let's just say there are a whole lot more snakes in the game. There's a lot of stereotyping, there's such a limited number of roles available to ethnic actors." Does that statement still hold true today?

I know things are changing but the people who are changing them are still people like Mindy, Aziz (Ansari), Kumail (Nanjiani), Riz (Ahmed). We have the willpower, the resources, the backing, the belief. So I think women of colour are still really dealt pretty shit cards but there's an opportunity now for us to write our own stories. Which we didn't have before. Like who are you going to go to? Disney? What are you going to do? I have a friend called Ramy Youssef who just came out with a show called Ramy. I've seen what he's capable of doing. All you need is one person who believes in you. And that would not happen. You were a liability if you had an idea and you were a person of colour. People just wouldn't believe in you. You'd have to prove yourself and then you'd have to prove yourself again and then once more. But I think things are changing.

Which brings me to Big Little Lies – you're playing a lawyer named Katie Richmond. There's nothing overt about her ethnicity. How does that come about?

It's an open casting call. There were lots of different types of women who auditioned for it. It's definitely the space I've been occupying these last few years – I've gone from playing a lot of very ethnically specific characters to those that aren't ethnically specific, but still specific in terms of their profession. I've been Elizabeth Vogel (in Defending Jacob), but she's a doctor. It's definitely different but still feels the same. For Katie Richmond, there were all kinds of awesome women in the room. That wouldn't be the case for something like The Night Of, which was very specific. The casting rooms I used to be in, I'd go in and there'd be lots of girls I'd grown up with, we were all South Asians, we'd have long conversations and go out for tea after. It was the usual suspects, as we'd call them. Now those are not the rooms I'm in anymore.

You were a liability if you had an idea and you were a person of colour. People just wouldn't believe in you

Of all the projects in my career, Better Call Saul was the most unexpected. Even though it was a doctor role. So Hector Salamanca from Breaking Bad is paralysed and has that bell, remember? My storyline is how he got that bell and how he shows up in Breaking Bad. They wanted someone to enter the scene as a doctor and not look like they could speak Spanish. Just the fact that the character busts out into Spanish had to be a big surprise. They were really going for a blonde California-type woman. But my agent remembered that I mentioned being able to speak Spanish and so that's the part I auditioned for. I said something about the diagnosis in English and then started speaking in Spanish. The part was unexpected but fantastic.

A lot of your character in Big Little Lies episode 5 depends on her not reacting to, rather than reacting to volatile situations – what is the challenge of pulling through scenes in silence?

It's pretty scary. I remember this happened in The Night Of a lot. There was a lot of silence. It's scary because you don't know if you're doing enough as an actor, if you're contributing to the scene, but I did learn in The Night Of that silence is powerful and conveys something. Being a character who doesn't speak up is challenging, as an actor. On the other side, when you watch it, everything starts making sense. My silence is a plot point.

When Meryl Streep messed up a line, she put her feet up, wiggled them and then stuck out her tongue. She was so gleeful that something came out of her mouth that was not the line

Is the vibe on the set of a woman-led show helmed by a woman director different?

It really is. I remember shooting The Night Of or Law & Order – these very intense emotional scenes. The director, who was male, would come and say, 'Okay okay, do this and do that.' It's technical and amazing. On this set, Andrea (Arnold) would come with that same energy, but she'd be weeping at the same time. So she is directing and absorbing everything the characters are going through. She is in the story. She's a visionary, she's everything. And still the story is hitting her. I loved that. It was a lot of female energy, which means you're allowed to feel. I've never seen that from a director. It was a small group of actors, it was like a nuclear family and Andrea was the symphony conductor. She led from the heart.

I imagine the set as this acting masterclass – you've got these talented co-stars alongside you, is there something you've picked up from them?

I did. I went on to shoot a lot of stuff after Big Little Lies, including The Act and Ramy and I just know that my acting has shifted tremendously. I know it. I know it. It's happened because of what I saw them do and how I saw them approach the material. It's in how they translated what was in the script, how they worked on themselves, how they worked on the scene, the conversations they had with co-actors to help them nail a scene. There was a level of awareness and demanding excellence that I've never seen on a show. And that has influenced me tremendously.

My scenes are mostly with Nicole (Kidman). When I have a scene that is emotionally charged, I can stay in it for a long time, as an actor. Sometimes there are 30-40 takes and I am able to stay in that space. But staying in so intense a space for days or even weeks, I don't know if I have that level of mastery. With Nicole, I didn't see a delineation between her and the character. There was no casual chit chat. There was intense chit chat. We would talk as lawyer and client. I've never experienced that before.

Meryl (Streep) is delightful. I always knew I'd fall in love with her. It's a very powerful thing – you see the line in the script and you see her saying it and it's nothing like what you'd imagined. When I mess up a line, there's a sense of shame that is debilitating. I feel like I'm wasting everyone's time. It's like, 'Shit, I fucked up.' It's scary. When she messed up a line, she put her feet up, wiggled them and then stuck out her tongue. She was so gleeful that something came out of her mouth that was not the line. She's gleeful about performance, about being on a set. It's amazing to see. I was there on the last day of set, at the wrap, and someone said, 'Meryl, you've validated us.' These are ladies who are at the top of their game. No one's fucking around. But there is something about her presence that no amount of accomplishment can compare to. She brings something else to the party.

Nicole and Reese have their own production companies and they're making the kinds of shows they want to see themselves in. Is that the key to getting good work? Is that something you've considered?

I have a lot of projects that are happening and there's one fantastic story that is based out of India so definitely. It is the key. One hundred percent. You have to bring to life the stories that make your heart flutter, that you see yourself in. If you don't have people see you as different, no one's going to take the time to. Everyone's so lazy. We live in a world of stereotypes. We see someone, we make a million assumptions about them. That's it, it's game over. They see (me as) an Indian woman who must be super smart and super good at her job and conservative. To shift that perception is a lot of work. Reese and Nicole do a lot of work. People ask me how it feels to be a 46-year-old in the business and I say it's these women who are doing the work for me. They are at the forefront of creating work for women above 40 that is raising the bar for everybody. It's awesome. Anushka (Sharma) has her own production company. I want Madhuri Dixit to get her own production company. Call me when that happens. She's a fucking talented powerhouse. I want to see her stories. Women of all types and ages starting their own production companies is a powerful thing. There needs to be more players in this game. That's what will make it interesting.

There's this whole study on how children of alcoholics and people of colour both have impostor syndrome so I have that, multiplied

A lot of your projects make some sort of comment on current cultural topics – The Circle touched on concerns of online privacy, The Night Of was especially relevant given conversations about Islamophobia, BLL tackles ideas of motherhood and sisterhood and moving on from trauma. Is this something you think about while picking projects?

Complete coincidence. When we shot The Night Of, we weren't talking about this stuff. It took many years to shoot, many years to release. We started in 2012 and it released in 2016. I've been lucky, I've had projects where content and the cultural zeitgeist have met. It's complete luck.

What do you then look for in a project?

I'm drawn to excellent writing. I consider myself an excellent judge of excellent writing. I can tell by the third sentence whether it's going anywhere, if it's for me. If there's a typo in the script, that telegraphs that there's no attention to detail, it's not for me. I will be able to feel a script very easily. You have to invest so much of yourself, your time in a project. You have to bring in your past and do your research and if it's not something that I am head over heels for, then it's hard to show up. I've gotten really good at reading scripts. I can read two pages of an audition side and understand the kind of story I need to tell. That was not the case five or 10 years ago.

Poorna Jagannathan in The Night Of.
Poorna Jagannathan in The Night Of.

I was reading an old interview in which you were asked how you broke into the American television industry and you quoted Ben Kingsley, "You practice and practice until you get lucky." Do you feel like you've got to a place where it's no longer just luck?

I was lucky to have been in The Night Of. Really lucky. Things shifted for me a lot after that – the roles that I got, the way I was seen. I could say no to roles after that. I wasn't in that position of privilege before. It's a great show but what happens when a show is wrapped around a cultural context is that it amplifies the message. There was talk of not releasing The Night Of. James Gandolfini died (after shooting the pilot). That's not something you recover from. So I was very lucky to have been part of it. But I still practice a lot. I still go to class, do my research.

You've tweeted about still feeling impostor syndrome – is that something that never goes away?

Never. Nope. I'm the daughter of an alcoholic, I'm a person of colour. There's this whole study on how children of alcoholics and people of colour both have impostor syndrome so I have that, multiplied. That's the hardest part of being on a set like Big Little Lies. It's not the case on a set like Ramy or Share. You're like, 'I really belong on those sets, man.' On Big Little Lies what would really act up and what my demons were was impostor syndrome.

Does it not feel like validation though? Being on the same show as Meryl Streep?

Total impostor syndrome. Like someone made a big fucking mistake. You just feel like a clerical mistake.

The characters that I am usually cast as feel very tidy – the successful doctor, the Tesla-driving lawyer. That's not me. How can I bring that mess onto the screen?

We're living in the age of peak TV. You've been working for 15 years – how have you seen this space evolve?

I can see me on TV. I can see myself in the characters that people play. How awesome is that? We had to settle for very sloppy roles before. I feel very empowered to have my voice heard, to tell my story. My own life is very messy. There's a lot going on. I deal with being an immigrant in a country that is anti-immigration, I'm dealing with raising a teenager, I'm dealing with being in this fantastic relationship where my husband wants to be in India and I want to be in the States. I'm dealing with being a 46-year-old and a few days ago, I was like, 'Fuck, I need reading glasses.' I'm dealing. The characters that I am usually cast as feel very tidy – the successful doctor, the Tesla-driving lawyer. That's not me. How can I bring that mess onto the screen? Ramy is my favourite show ever. The show itself is a ridiculously funny comedy. In the States, there's a lot of roles that I play that don't deal with sexuality or my own sexuality. On Ramy, I'm a married woman, I'm a mom and I fucking feel like having an affair. So there we go. It's so casual. To be able to shift that perception a little bit – how great.

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