When Poorna Jagannathan found out that she had landed a role in the star-studded HBO series Big Little Lies, and would soon be acting with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, she wanted to make sure she didn’t embarrass herself on the set.
“My only goal: don’t laugh too loudly at jokes you don’t understand. That’s a giveaway,” she smiles, mimicking the laughter of an overenthusiastic person trying to fit in.
Playing it cool seems to have helped. Jagannathan has warm memories of her time playing a lawyer on the show’s second season, describing it as “a very loving set with a very strong feminine energy.”
When the first season of the Emmy Award-winning show was released in 2017, “I couldn’t afford an HBO subscription”, the LA-based actress says frankly as we settle for a cup of tea at Mumbai’s Soho House.
Jagannathan, who shot to fame with Aamir Khan-produced Delhi Belly, finally watched the first three episodes of the show on a longhaul flight and got herself a subscription to the streaming platform so she could finish it.
“I was blown away. My initial scepticism of watching a show that was predominantly white vanished as it was telling such a vital and universal story of motherhood, violence and abuse,” she says.
But the thought of actually acting in it never occurred to her.
“There’s no way I could even dream that big,” she recalls.
Though the profane, impish Delhi Belly was a success, and Jagannathan had got great reviews, she found that the going was slow in Bollywood. In 2015, after cracking a part in HBO’s The Night Of, she decided to just shift base to LA with her husband and children, instead of juggling between two continents and three cities. Not that the journey was much easier there.
For the 46-year-old, born to a diplomat and raised across different cities in the world, making it in LA was fraught with rejections, condescension and prejudice—a rite of passage for most non-white artistes working in Hollywood. Work trickled in but wasn’t “abundant”. The Night Of had been shot but it hadn’t premiered so Jagannathan was still surviving on the stereotypical doctor/lawyer role mandated for Indians in shows such as Law and Order.
“There would be roles for which I knew I was perfect but I’d never get it,” she says. She earned rave reviews for her role, of Safar Khan in The Night Of, which put her in the spotlight. Variety called her performance ‘quietly devastating.’
“It was a very masculine show and I was one of the few female characters, a maternal figure, so in a way, I become the show’s emotional anchor.”
The Night Of was instrumental in getting Jagannathan her next gig, the Naomi Watts-starrer Netflix thriller Gypsy, where she played Larin Inamdar, Watts’s best friend and colleague.
But the manner in which she’d end up on Big Little Lies still remains a surreal memory for her.
When the casting call first came, Jagannathan actually turned it down.
Why would she reject any role in a show like this, with probably the greatest ensemble in TV history?
“In order for your career to start kicking off, you need to learn to say ‘no’ to stuff,” says Jagannathan. The role she was offered first was that of a doctor, not of Celeste’s (Kidman’s) lawyer, which she currently plays.
“I was tired of being straitjacketed.” And that was that.
Except, not quite. Months later, another casting call came in, this time for the role that she would eventually go on to play. To prepare for the part, Jagannathan spent weeks at a family court in downtown LA, studying how real-life lawyers spoke and behaved.
“I had done a lot of work beforehand. I rehearsed more than four times a day because family lawyers are very different than the hyper-aggressive lawyers you see on those law shows.”
The set, which had Streep, Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley, was the scariest she had ever been on.
“All of them knew each other not just because of Season 1, but also because they know each other in person. For me to be on this set, I should have had at least two law degrees,” she jokes.
How did she break the ice with Streep? After the first episode, Jagannathan went up to her and said, “You know, Meryl, you are really good in this. You exceeded my expectations,” with generous doses of sarcasm.
“You were great in it too,” Streep replied without missing a beat, even though Jagannathan wasn’t in that episode at all.
“She’s very nice and accessible and there’s just so much to learn by watching her,” says the actress.
But it was Kidman, with whom Jagannathan shares the most number of scenes, who really left an impact on her.
“What I saw was when an actor completely lose the boundary between the real person and the character. That was scary. Because I wasn’t there yet. She was completely immersed in Celeste and she’d stay in that space long after the scenes were done.”
With streaming platforms helping actors of colour gain more visibility and land well-fleshed-out roles, the white-dominated culture of Hollywood is slowly shifting but it still isn’t enough. People like Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj and Riz Ahmed are also changing this, bringing in new voices and telling more nuanced stories of being a brown American.
Is it the best time to be an actor of colour in America? Not quite, but it’s getting there.
“I can spend the rest of my life in a lab coat (playing doc) and make decent money. But as an immigrant in the US, you want to tell real stories of your community that are rooted in your experience,” Jagannathan says, smiling at her friend and Delhi Belly co-star Shehnaz Treasury, who’s at the next table.
The cost of being reduced to playing only a particular kind of role because of your ethnicity, Jagannathan says, is severe.
“Where are the stories of our oppression, of persecution, of racism and of violence? As South Asian women, we don’t get to tell stories of what it means to be caught between cultures or stories of our sexuality.”
Quite often, she says, you become the token brown person to tick the diversity box.
“I miss my voice.”
That’s especially the case right now. With a wave of right-wing populism engulfing the world, it’s crucial to counter the villanisation of immigrants through a more realistic, nuanced narrative of the brown experience in a white nation.
“Isn’t that the point of art? But in India, it appears as if the industry seems to have conformed to majoritarian politics instead of questioning it.”
The idea, she says, was to tell stories that capture a particular cultural moment and draw from individualistic experiences, one of the reasons why Big Little Lies resonated with her.
She grew up in a household where she witnessed alcoholism, domestic violence and addiction.
“That’s my past. I didn’t grow up and have a Tesla for my first car or go to Harvard for school. I’m messy. I come from a messy family. I want to tell those stories. To simply present a tidy version of myself feels like a betrayal. I can’t just tie a bow to my life stories.”
In a video for WEvolve Global, Jagannathan spoke about her father’s struggle with alcoholism and facing sexual harassment by a neighbour.
Her next gig, a Netflix show with Mindy Kaling, is closer to the kind of stories she wants to tell and participate in. She will be playing mother to young Mindy, 15, who is finding her identity in America. The entire show, says Jagannathan, is expected to be laced with Mindy’s hysterical humour.
“I’ve been itching to play someone who’s really trying to make a go at life in America, far away from home and her struggle to raise a good kid. Which is really tough. Because America invariably corrupts.”
(Big Little Lies will air on Star World in September and is currently streaming on Hotstar)