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Parminder Nagra: “Los Angeles oozing Indian culture? No way”

The actress talks to Alice Gribbin about ER, East London and planning for the future.

Before you made your new film, Twenty8k, did you have any connection with east London?

I did one of my first jobs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s changed beyond recognition; parts of it are becoming very gentrified, and I hope this is going to generate a good experience for people all across the board. But – as the film shows – it’s a really difficult one.
Did you follow the riots last August?
I first saw news about it on Twitter and then some videos. Even though I live in Los Angeles, I’m still part of that culture, and to see that happen, kids behaving that way, made me really sad. I remember sitting here trying to debate why it was happening . . . If you’re going to do something for a cause, surely there’s another way? The video of the [Malaysian] boy with the guys surrounding him made me feel sick.
There’s an important thread in Twenty8k about corruption within the establishment. Do you think that resonates at the moment?
I want to believe people are genuine, but that may be the naive optimist in me. It’s so disappointing. I wanted to be able to trust these figures, but even your doctors . . . these institutions that you should believe in.
You acted in six series of ER – a long time to stay with one character. Did you watch the show before you were on it?
I did, and I absolutely loved it. I said “yes” right away; there wasn’t even a question.
Did you ever forget you didn’t have any medical knowledge?
The good thing about my character is she went in as an intern, so when you see me looking like “what the hell is going on?” that’s just me. Unfortunately I got very good at saying the medical terms so they kept flinging more jargon my way.
You were in a modernised version of Twelfth Night on Channel 4. Would you like to act in classical Shakespeare?
Do you know what? I’ve not thought about it. I was scared of doing Twelfth Night because I never had any formal training and here I am playing Viola. Thank God someone like Tim Supple was directing, because we worked hard delving into it, researching and rehearsing to pull it off. I’d go back and do it if I was given the opportunity. It was a different muscle.
You recently played a character in Alcatraz, a sci-fi series. Is comedy a genre you haven’t tried?
I just did something for a comedy show in the US called Psych. There were times on ER where you got to exercise being quite dry and I loved those moments. Pure comedy is a nice break.
Is Hollywood an easy place for you to live and celebrate your Indian heritage?
No. If I want to experience that, I almost have to go and find it, unlike somewhere such as the east coast or London, or even Vancouver, where you’re almost forced to interact with the city. The first few years in LA weren’t easy. It’s home now, but in terms of oozing Indian culture – no way.
Has that lack of integration been trickier since you became a mother?
You have to make the effort. Recently I went and found a Sikh temple but it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be here and raise my child in the way that I was. I spoke Punjabi in the house and English when I left; that came naturally. [In California] I don’t even have all my family, so it becomes more difficult to do bilingual things. My son understands English; he’s three now. And it makes me a little sad because it was natural for me to speak in two languages.
How has your heritage affected your professional life?
When I first arrived there were not many roles but now there are a lot more Indians on TV in the US. But not only am I an Indian, I’m an Indian Brit going on American TV shows. Sometimes people wouldn’t automatically think of me. The producers have to think, “Actually, we can fly with this and give it a much more interesting backstory.”
Is it true that the plot for Bend It Like Beckham was written with you in mind?
I believe so. Gurinder [Chadha, the writer/dir­ector] says she saw me in theatre. I remember her coming up to me and saying she was writing this football film. I thought: “Why would you want to do that?” Then lo and behold, a few months later, the script lands on the doorstep. Later there were references to my home put in.
When did you last kick a football around?
You know what, on this comedy show I just did they have me kicking a football. I’ve not played for so long . . . I think maybe they were expecting “oh, she’s going to be fantastic”.
Do you vote?
Yes. When I can.
Was there a plan?
No. I plan for short bursts, but as a career it doesn’t really allow for planning.
Are we all doomed?
Oh no! We’re just misguided for a little bit. 

Defining Moments

1975 Born in Leicester
1994 Moves to London, acting for small Indian theatre companies and on radio/TV
2002 Stars with Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, a surprise box-office hit
2003 Joins cast of ER, playing the physician Neela Rasgotra. Is longest-term actor in the series when it ends in 2009
2012 Her latest film – Twenty8k, about gang violence in London – premieres in the East End Film Festival
  • Twenty8K will be released 1 October 2012, courtesy of Cine-Britannia

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.