Chopra Jonas recently spoke with Gold Derby’s Christopher Rosen about what made her interested in “The White Tiger,” her role as an executive producer and what lessons she’ll take from the experience. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I wanted to start by asking you a little about your interest in the project. I read an interview where you said you were so excited when you heard the book was being adapted into a feature film. What was it about the book that really struck a chord with you and made you want to pursue the film?
Priyanka Chopra Jonas: First of all, hi, Chris, and thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor. Second, I loved the book when I read it. It had come out in 2008 and I thought it was hard-hitting and provocative and sarcastic and funny and dark and I remember it was such a fast-paced page-turner for me that when I read actually on Twitter, it was in one of the trade magazines that “The White Tiger” was being adapted by Ramin Bahrani, who was a director I admired, but also the book was dedicated to him, I knew that he had inside knowledge about the book and then I read that it was being adapted for Netflix. So I called my agents immediately. I remember this was early in the morning.
I just about had my coffee and I was like, “Guys, you’ve got to call the producers, offer my services. I really want to attach as an EP,” for two reasons. One, I really do think that this book is a self-reflection on society, which is very, very pivotal and relevant to right now, especially after COVID. We’ve seen the divide between the haves and the have-nots that has become so apparent with this last year and this book is sort of a reflection of how privileged society is desensitized to the rest of the world. I mean, how many times have we driven past a homeless shelter and not really thought about it? So it’s sort of a conversation around that. But also it’s a provocative, entertaining, dark thriller, and I was really looking for an immersive experience. I’ve had the opportunity to play really incredible parts in India and the Hindi movies that I did. I’ve worked with amazing filmmakers and I was really seeking the opportunity to do a dramatic part here as well. So this kind of checked all my boxes.
GD: I want to talk a little about your character, Pinky. I found her really fascinating, especially with what you’re saying. I think you’re right. The film obviously is so about the economic divide and she’s a character who in India is very much a member of elite society and then we find out through her backstory, she’s an immigrant in America and her parents have run a bodega and she learned in her basement, I think she says. Maybe a traditional immigrant story in America, but where she would not be part of the elite class. And playing a character like that who has a foot in both those worlds I found really fascinating, especially with what the movie’s about. So I was wondering if you could talk a little about that aspect of her character. That part of it I found really, really interesting.
PCJ: I think to me, it was actually very interesting because it was the opposite for me. I’ve grown up predominantly in India, even though I went to high school in the U.S. for a little bit. I am basically Indian, whereas I was playing a girl who was American. I’ve done that in the past before, of course, but that’s a very different experience. I had to come into the movie and erase my knowledge of the complexities of India and the complexities of the economic divide, especially in developing countries, because I kind of grew up with it. Here, I was playing this girl who comes in from being really woke and having a perspective of relating with Balram and saying, “I’m the Balram of America,” basically, is what she was saying. And she said, “I relate with you. My circumstances defined my future, too, but I pulled myself out of it.”
It came from a great place, but it was also a little bit privileged. The vortex of poverty is a very complex thing. It’s not as easy as choosing to want to get out of it and here was this girl who comes from America and says, “My parents worked in a bodega.” But you had a roof over your head! You didn’t have to worry about your next meal. So it was a really different thing for me also to sort of inhabit and at the same time, I think she was also conveniently woke. When it was convenient to her, she stepped back and she was like, “All right, I’ll let you take the hit.” So it’s such a testament to the gray of human nature. As much as you try to live on the positive side or the good side, you’re good ’til it’s convenient. I think all the characters in this movie are so gray. It’s about the complexity of human nature more than a kind of people or a culture.
GD: Yeah, for sure. When you talked to Ramin about the movie, when you got to talk to him, what were some of the conversations you had? What was it like talking to him about what you wanted to accomplish with the adaptation for audiences?
PCJ: I think the one thing that we wanted to, and Ramin was very clear about from the beginning, is that he really wanted to keep the pace of the novel in the adaptation. This is a piece of fictional marvel, I think. I’m a big fan of Arvind Adiga and his writing, the novelist. This was a Booker Prize-winning novel. It was a “New York Times” bestseller. I think it was very important to me specifically, and who am I to tell Ramin Bahrani on how to make movies, and I think for him as well, the tone of the movie was very important. So you see, the music with such a large character. The pace was such a large character. Being very true to the lead character, which is Balram, was very important because this is him looking out at all of us. This is not us looking into his story. This is him talking to us direct and saying, “This is my world and this is the time of the brown and the yellow man and God save everyone else.” As provocative and bold as that. That was most important to be able to preserve and I think Ramin has really enhanced bringing the novel to life.
GD: Yeah, it’s a very entertaining film, like you said. I think the pacing is great, the way the film opens and just backtracks through time and the narration, I think all that blends together really well to make it, like you said, a very entertaining watch and universal in themes. I read an interview with you from the other day where you talked about wanting to make sure there was more South Asian representation in Hollywood and in films and how important that is. I found this one, especially, I think if people have maybe outdated, preconceived notions of what a film like this could be, I feel like this is a way into that for audiences who are not maybe familiar with South Asian cinema or all these different things. Can you talk a little about your work there from an executive producer standpoint and wanting to do more of that, making sure that voice is being heard going forward?
PCJ: I think you hit on a really great point because the idea is to normalize being able to see a South Asian story on mainstream entertainment, just as normal as it would be to walk past a South Asian in the city that you’re in or meet them in a doctor’s office or wherever. That’s what diversity is and it has to be normalized to be able to see different kinds of people in mainstream entertainment. I don’t think a movie like “The White Tiger” would have been made with the kind of budget that it had five or six years ago with an Irani director, with an all-Indian star cast, shot in India, based on a novel written by an Indian person. I think it’s kudos to Netflix that recognizes the global reach of entertainment. Now, “The White Tiger” is going to open in 160 countries around the world, and that is insane compared to what it would have been if it was theatrical.
So I think it’s a great time for us to be able to bring diversity to the fore, to normalize different kinds of stories, to create a cross-pollination of cultures and entertainment that represents so many different kinds of people. I think it’s a really wonderful time, which is a big reason why I wanted to align with this movie as an EP and add support to it so that it gets seen by as many people and consumed by as many people within mainstream pop culture, because having movies which are provocative and interesting and amazing and not be judged as South Asian cinema or a South Asian story and just be seen as a great movie with great characters, I think that’s going to be a big win. That’s the direction I want to sort of walk into.
GD: Can you talk a little more about your role as an EP? How involved were you? Pinky is a supporting role and I’m not going to spoil what happens, but obviously, she’s a supporting character in the larger narrative. So when you weren’t on the set as an actress, can you talk a little about what your role entailed as an EP?
PCJ: Well, predominantly my part is before and after the movie is made. The creative process was something that we’d spoken about, of course. The co-producer on the movie, Mukul Deora, he was also amazing to collaborate with and talk about. Sara Bremner, another EP that we had who was there with us during the shoot, and Ramin, of course, just to be able to collectively discuss the tone of the movie or the cultural sensitivities around it, which I may or may not understand, I think that was a really cool part to be able to bring a perspective and also before and after the movie’s made to be able to make sure that it has the support to be seen and be promoted in a way that I think would make it mainstream and undeniable.
GD: You were talking about the tone. Were there specific films or reference points beyond, obviously, the novel that you guys had in mind? I saw some reviews, at least one compared it to “Goodfellas.” And I can see that with the framing.
PCJ: The close-ups, yeah.
GD: Were there things like that that you guys talked about, like reference points, not that you’re copying that, obviously, but other points?
PCJ: Of course. You should ask this question to Ramin because he really had an intentionality and definitely had a few films, and “Goodfellas” happened to be one of them, especially when you think about in this movie, the story has such a voiceover that you see the usage of close-ups a lot to tell his story. You go from these amazing wide shots, establishing shots, to really tight behind the ear because it’s a very intimate narrative. I think it was very important for that to translate into how the movie was told as well. It was a voiceover. You had to kind of be in his head. So it was really wonderful to see Paolo [Carnera], who was our DP, and Ramin really create that as we went along every day. There was a lot of handheld work as well just to create the tension and the movements. The camera was always sort of breathing and moving with us. So it was very intentional the way the camera work was used in this movie.
GD: Yeah, and I think from a viewer standpoint, it gives it an energy, I think, like you were saying, the pacing, that really kind of comes through. One last thing here before we wrap up. You’ve been a performer, obviously, for a long time, you’ve done a lot of different things. Was there something that you’ll take going forward from this performance in this movie? Like, “Oh, as an actor, that’s something I maybe never thought of or I’ve never done before in a performance that I think I’ll try to bring with me to the next project”?
PCJ: I think the one thing that I would remind myself with this project is to be uncertain and allow myself to be uncertain in my performances. Ramin as a filmmaker really pushes you and he doesn’t give you direction. He depends on you as an actor to bring what your character is thinking and what she’s going to do. His favorite word is, “Let’s search,” and we search for hours and we talk about it for hours and he never says, “Action.” So it’s like, whenever you want. It’s a very actor-controlled environment and he likes it to be that way. He loves improv. You have to know your character really well to be able to do that and I think that’s something I want to remind myself. I used to do that very often and then I kind of forgot that along the way because I was running so much. But this reminded me again how much joy there is to actually just pause and relish understanding and knowing your character so much and really immersing yourself. It was such a joy to be able to do that.