Archie Panjabi is back as take-no-prisoners, riddle-solving investigator Kendra Malley in NBC Peacock’s thriller, Departure. And Kendra could be seen as a big sister to Kalinda.
For fans of the TV phenomenon, The Good Wife, the name of Panjabi’s character, Kalinda Sharma, will elicit giddy smiles and knowing nods. For six seasons, Panjabi played the crackerjack ace investigator for a group of intrepid Chicago attorneys led by the titular character, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). If you needed something, Kalinda knew how to find it. There was no job that was too difficult, no code that she couldn’t crack. Kalina was quite the complex character, an unabashed, randy bisexual woman of Asian descent whose past history was enigmatic at best. Panjabi won the Best Supporting Drama Actress Emmy for the first season of The Good Wife, making her the first Asian to ever win an acting Emmy.
Panjabi left after season six and proceeded to appear on a number of TV shows including The Fall, Blindspot and Next of Kin. She also recently appeared in the HBO limited series I Know This Much is True with Mark Ruffalo.
The London-born thesp got her start on the BBC and appeared in a gaggle of indie films that included, Bend It Like Beckham, The Constant Gardener, A Good Year and A Mighty Heart.
Her latest endeavor, Departure, is a pulse-pounding limited series about to debut on NBC Peacock. The show already bowed in the U.K. and Europe last year.
Departure marks Panjabi’s first time as the sole lead driving a TV series. (She starred in the British-made Next of Kin, which was seen on Sundance Now here in the U.S. in 2018.) Kendra is a former Transport Safety Investigation Bureau chief who, after suffering a tragedy, is called back to duty to investigate the mystery surrounding an airplane, with 256 passengers on board, that vanishes over the Atlantic Ocean. Panjabi’s formidable co-star is Christopher Plummer.
Panjabi delivers a nuanced, captivating performance as a woman who must solve a conspiracy as well as deal with major home life trauma.
Awards Daily had an engaging conversation with Panjabi, having just binged all six episodes in one sitting.
Awards Daily: What drew you to Kendra and the project itself?
Archie Panjabi: Well, I was sent all six episodes which was quite a treat for television, often it’s just one or two. And I’ve always had this incredible fascination with flying…I thought it would have such a universal appeal because of this fear and fascination people have with flying. I think it’s everybody’s worst nightmare to have somebody board a flight and then hear the plane has gone missing. So I thought it would make a really good binge-worthy show; six episodes in one go with twists and turns. And I particularly like the role of Kendra because she has recently gone through her own tragedy and finds it quite difficult to deal with. And she finds it cathartic bringing closure to the victim’s families. And she ends up finding some degree of closure for her own tragedy.
AD: Kendra’s so real but she’s also a bit like a superhero at work. At home it’s a different story. How do you navigate the thriller aspect with the poignancy of the domestic scenes?
AP: I know a lot of people who are brilliant at their work. They’re just perfectionists. They deliver whether they’re actors or directors or in other professions. And they devote so much of their time to their work…and then you look in on their personal life…When you dedicate that much time to your work something takes a hit. In Kendra’s life she’s so great at dealing with other people that she’s just not very good at with dealing with her own personal problems…And then she goes through this horrific tragedy and she doesn’t know how to talk about it or open up about it or deal with it. And yet her job is to look after the victim’s families. She’s brilliant at doing that. It was something I’ve seen as a common thread amongst friends who are really good at their jobs and I thought it would be a really interesting way to explore it.
AD: One of the things you do so well is the way you act in close ups, even a brief one, you seem to tell us much more about Kendra than the dialogue does.
AP: I really enjoy doing close ups because I feel the audience gets it—there’s a story going on but when they’re really close to you and the relationship is that intimate, they get to connect with you and what’s going on in your mind and you don’t need a lot of dialogue, you don’t need a lot happening, they just read it. I love that about acting. Even in a drama like this where it’s very procedural they allow for those close ups…so you can get an idea of what was going on in her head. I think as human beings we just have this natural instinct to connect to people, to connect to the human side of any character…Otherwise on paper, you’re right, this could look very superheroic, in the sense that she is able to resolve everything, but you really get to feel her pressure and her tension and her fear even when she’s making bold decisions. You can see the panic in her eyes.
AD: What was the shoot like?
AP: It was fabulous. It was incredibly challenging but…I hate doing an easy job because if it’s easy, it’s not fun. If there are lots of challenges, it just makes it exciting because you pick up new skills and you learn new things along the way. What was so unique about this was filming six episodes in one go in seven weeks, with the amount of twists and turns involved in that. It was quite challenging to film a scene from [episode] one and then jump to [episode] six where emotionally Kendra’s on a completely different level in her personal life because of what happens to her son. So we would jump back and forth. And so I thought that would be impossible. (Laughs) But somehow we managed to pull it off.
AD: Can you speak about working with the great Christopher Plummer?
AP: He’s an absolute delight to work with. I took great pleasure bossing him around as Kendra! (Laughs) We connected as soon as we met each other. He has this little twinkle in his eye and it worked great for the character because the two of them have this great chemistry. She looks up to him. He’s a mentor. But when they’re alone in the office together, they joke together and they just have this great bond. It was such a pleasure working with him. He’s a pro. He’s witty. He has this great energy on set. It was an absolute joy!
AD: You appeared in a number of indie films early in your career but the last decade your focus has been more in television, does your process differ from medium to medium and project to project?
AP: I think television is a lot more challenging and, therefore, can be a lot more exciting only because if you’re looking at a series you’ve got a minimum six hours and if you go on to episodic you’re looking at 22. You know the beginning but you really don’t know the end, whereas with film, once you’re given a script, you can know where this character is going to go within the two to two and a half hours. You have a clear idea, emotionally, where this character is going to go and how they’re going to get there. With TV, often, you don’t get all the episodes up front. So you never know where they’re going to take your character.
AD: That’s got to be so tricky.
AP: It is tricky. And after doing a lot of time on episodic TV, you have to learn to trust the writers and, hopefully, have input if something is stepping out of line or you don’t feel that it’s right for the character…And it’s tricky to come up with 22 episodes of something and always make the right choice…for six or seven years, however long these TV shows go on for, you never know but I like the risk element of it. I think it’s fun.
AD: After filming, when you finally watched Departure, what were your feelings?
AP: After filming and looking at it, uhm, [Laughs] I saw it on a massive, big screen in the Soho Hotel. When you watch that way with the sound effects, it’s pretty damn scary, particularly the first episode…it’s great escapism. This is one of those shows where you just can’t wait to know what the ending is…you just want to zip through those episodes to find out what caused that crash. That’s why I thought it would be such a great show to do, because it would be so binge-worthy.
AD: Speaking to binge-worthy, in lockdown, my husband and I discovered The Good Wife.
AF: Oh, you did! [Laughs]
AD: I had not seen one episode during its run. We’re on season six now. Kalinda is such an iconic character–such an original. And I know The Good Wife was a huge step forward career-wise. Looking back what are your thoughts about the show?
AF: Looking back now, I realize that when we were doing that, TV was going through such an exciting time because when I started, there was no Netflix. There was no streaming…There were rarely any roles with women “leading” a show. And there were barely any roles with women with my background. And I can’t remember any bisexual women of my background on TV. So it was groundbreaking on many levels…It was exciting. All the investigators I ever watched were older white men. And they just flipped it around on every level. Even when I won the Emmy, none of us thought, this is a first-ever [Asian] woman…we didn’t think of it, because we weren’t aware of it. We were just thinking, it’s a fun character and it’s interesting that people are so fascinated by the fact that she’s bisexual. So it was groundbreaking but we didn’t realize how groundbreaking it actually was. And then the whole diversity thing kicked off and we were like, oh my God, that was quite a big deal!
AD: Kalinda was an out and proud bisexual Asian woman way before sexual fluidity entered the mainstream conversation.
AF: Absolutely. And when somebody said, you were the first woman of Asian origin to play a character like this I just had no idea because I hadn’t really thought about it…It was such an exciting character to play, I hadn’t thought about her ethnicity, I hadn’t thought about her sexuality. I just wanted the character to, almost like, not have any boundaries. And just be a character that people connected to. This was just part of who she was. It wasn’t a big deal. So the innocence of that is quite nice, for all of us, that we weren’t aware we were making such a big statement about a character, we just wanted to make her accessible and likeable.
AD: Do you feel the Emmy win affected your career and what did it mean to you personally?
AP: Winning an Emmy is the best thing that can ever happen to anyone in TV so for me, even until today, it’s something I’m very grateful for. I still can’t quite believe it. Because you dream of those things and you can’t imagine them ever actually happening. And what’s been great is it’s opened up so many doors for me. I was speaking to a journalist yesterday who said, ‘Looking at the poster, your face is bigger than Christopher Plummer’s.’ I never even thought of that, so it’s just nice to lead my own show and have a nice, meaty role. It’s something that I’m really grateful for.
AD: I was super impressed with the nuanced dynamics in the relationship between Kalinda and Alicia on The Good Wife. That ended in season four. What do you make of the journalists and viewers who conclude there must be some feud going on between you and Margulies?
AP: [Laughs hysterically] Yeah, you know, it is what it is. I will say that type of relationship was a big highlight for me, personally, in terms of the character and I think it went down very well. I think people loved it. People wanted more of it but I will never really understand why they decided—why the producers or whoever they are—why they decided to have this separate [story] line for Kalinda with the husband and why they didn’t continue that relationship. I still don’t understand because I think it was one of the best parts of the show. But I am grateful for that experience, for having been on it. There’s so many decisions and choices that are made that are out of our control. And I was new. On that show. I was number four or five down the call sheet. You often don’t know what decisons are being made at the top and why they’re being made.
AD: What are your thoughts on the recent announcement by the Motion Picture Academy that there will be mandates in place to insure diversity and inclusion?
AP: [Laughs] Well, they’ve included me! So I’m grateful for that. I’m now a member! There are so many changes happening right now. I haven’t actually seen it; I’ve been so busy with filming. You mean in terms of inclusion for the voting membership?
AD: No. There was an announcement that there are new rules and guideline producers will need to follow, mandates in place to insure inclusion.
AP: Absolutely! It’s a difficult debate, diversity. It’s not like people are intentionally going out there saying, no we don’t want to get people from diverse backgrounds. You know what I say to that? Come over to Canada because Canada gets diversity spot on. Everything here is just naturally diverse because the population is so diverse, they don’t really make a big deal of it. Like for the production I’m working on, people from every single background are working on it. There was no box to be ticked, it just happens because it’s just natural here…I do hope that when they do diversity, it’s all backgrounds. Saying diverse is not a black and white issue, it’s diverse in terms of sexuality, disability, different cultures—being Asian, being from East India—it’s nice to include the whole concept of diversity on every level rather…My philosophy is if you have people from all backgrounds in TV and film that reflects society, then you are, to some degree, creating a normality for young minds which I feel does eliminate a degree of prejudice in the playground and in the workplace.
AD: Looking back on your indie film work that included The Constant Gardener, A Mighty Heart, A Good Year, etc. Do you have a favorite film?
AP: I knew that getting work, for somebody like me, was hard so every single job that is on my CV is a job that I sold my heart out to and put in as much effort as I could because I was so grateful to get it. But the one role that I really enjoyed and experience I really enjoyed the most—because they were all great—was definitely A Mighty Heart. And working with Angelina Jolie was phenomenal. And (director) Michael Winterbottom. That was a great experience. But I also had a good time working on A Good Year with Ridley Scott where I created this character and he made the role much bigger. That’s how I ended up getting The Good Wife, because he’d seen me. He’d worked with me on that and put my name forward for The Good Wife. That was with Russell Crowe and that was a very enjoyable film as well.
AD: When and how did you know acting was your calling?
AP: I think when I was born, probably. At school I was like, I don’t need to do this because I’m going to act, I’m going to Hollywood…I just felt it.
Departure launches on NBC Peacock on September 17th.