Actress Poorna Jagannathan: 'I Want To Portray The Mess Of My Life' | WOSU Radio

Actress Poorna Jagannathan: 'I Want To Portray The Mess Of My Life'

Aug 27, 2019
Originally published on August 27, 2019 7:56 pm

Poorna Jagannathan is an actress whose name you may not know, but whose face seems to pop up in many places.

She's had small roles in series like House of Cards or Better Call Saul — and bigger ones in Hulu's Ramy and HBO's The Night Of and Big Little Lies. It's a big leap from some of her early TV roles.

"I often joke that one of my first gigs, I was called 'Dr. Sikh,'" Jagannathan says, referring to a bit part on Law and Order: Criminal Intent where her character was named after the Sikh religion. "Yeah, so I've definitely come a long way."

That "way" involved getting fed up with limited roles in the U.S., and going to India, starring in some big Bollywood movies including the dark comedy Delhi Belly. In the meanwhile, Hollywood became more open-minded about casting South Asian women in complex, nuanced roles.

"It's like: Our lives are so messy, and only a certain type of people get to portray that mess, and it's not us," she says. "I want to portray the mess of my life. I'm really drawn to it."


Interview Highlights

On her nickname

I was called 'porn' from a very young age. I didn't even know what a porn was at that point. But you know, that's kind of been my nickname for years and years and years. And my Instagram handle is @poornography_. So I've just taken it on — there's no two ways about it.

On what attracts her to roles

I'm very, very drawn to great writing, first and foremost. And then, whether the story moves me. Even though I may have a very small part in the story, whether it fundamentally moves me — whether I think it'll move the needle when it's put out in the world.

On how the roles offered to her have changed over time

I've noticed a shift twice. When Freida Pinto was in Slumdog Millionaire and won the Oscar ... there were a lot more brown women integrated and woven into scripts. And personally, I noticed a big shift after The Night Of. And the truth is: A lot of people have been fighting really hard, in front and behind the cameras, to have diversity represented.

In Ramy, Poorna Jagannathan plays Salma, a Muslim mother with an absent husband.
Barbara Nitke / Hulu

On Salma, her character in Ramy, a married Muslim woman who has an affair

Ooh, I love that role. ... So I'd met [creator] Ramy [Youssef] a couple years ago. He was emceeing an event, and most emcees are just awful and terrible, and he was so crazy funny. And we just met and we started talking. He's a kid — he was, I think, 23 when I met him — he was a kid. And we were talking, we were laughing. And he was like, "Oh my God, you're so funny — I should write something for you." And I said, "I'm not gonna play your mama; I'm not going to play a depressed auntie. ... I just want to be funny, and having sex. That's what I want." And he laughed, and then a while later, he called and said, "I think I've written a part for you." ...

I think what happens, as actresses, people are always looking to put you in different boxes, right? You can move from a small box to a bigger box, but it's still a box. The golden cage that is the model minority stereotype, which is: Yes, well, you get to play these really smart people, but then when you play the doctors and the lawyers and the engineers and the head of the robotics team, you really start depriving yourself. And our community is full of — there's stories of addictions, stories of depression, there's stories of sexual violence, there's stories of not belonging, of immigration. I mean, when you get boxed into that neatly tied-up model minority box, it just [is] always calling for me to break out of it.

So that's what I was conveying. Brown women are so seldom portrayed with any sense of sexuality. I can really say that for South Asian women, especially Muslim women. So what does that look like on screen? That's what interests me; that's what fascinates me. And I think Ramy explored that so beautifully.

Kat Lonsdorf and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest is someone whose name you may not know but whose face seems to pop up all over the screen. She's had small roles in "House Of Cards," "Better Call Saul" and bigger ones in HBO's "The Night Of" and "Big Little Lies" in which he plays attorney Katie Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LITTLE LIES")

POORNA JAGANNATHAN: (As Katie Richmond) I can protect you some. You just can't look (ph) like you need protection. Do you understand what I'm telling you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, of course. I'm on my own. That's what you're saying.

JAGANNATHAN: (As Katie Richmond) You are not on your own, but we need to be careful.

CORNISH: How do you say your name? What is your full and proper pronunciation?

JAGANNATHAN: It's Poorna Jagannathan.

CORNISH: Jagannathan - what are the worst ways you've heard it pronounced?

JAGANNATHAN: I was called porn from a very young age. I didn't even know what a porn was at that point. But, you know, that's kind of been my nickname for years and years and years, and my Instagram handle is poornagraphy so...

CORNISH: Oh, so you've embraced it.

JAGANNATHAN: I've just taken it on.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

JAGANNATHAN: There is no two ways about it.

CORNISH: All right. So this is kind of crazy to me because in your role on "Little Lies," your name is Katie Richmond.

JAGANNATHAN: Yeah (laughter) yeah.

CORNISH: I'm not going to say you don't look like a Katie Richmond, but I will say for you, what was it like being cast in that role, like, going for a role like that?

JAGANNATHAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I often joke that one of my first gigs, I was called Dr. Sikh, which doesn't even - that's a religious...

CORNISH: Wait. Are you making that up?

JAGANNATHAN: Nope. Nope.

CORNISH: What - can I ask what program this was on?

JAGANNATHAN: If you IMDb it, you can see it.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: This smells like a "Law & Order" episode to me for some reason.

JAGANNATHAN: (Laughter) Yeah. So I've definitely come a long way.

CORNISH: That way involved getting fed up with the limited roles in the U.S. and going to India, starring in some big movies there and letting Hollywood become more open-minded about casting South Asian women in complex, nuanced roles, which means Poorna Jagannathan has more options now. So I asked her how she chooses between them.

JAGANNATHAN: I'm very, very drawn to great writing, first and foremost, and then whether the story moves me, even though I might have a very small part in the story, whether it fundamentally moves me, whether I think it'll move the needle when it's put out in the world.

CORNISH: How have the roles changed that are offered to you over the last 10 years? I think I'm trying to get a better understanding of how there is an evolution from Dr. Sikh to Katie Richmond. When did you start to feel a shift?

JAGANNATHAN: My biggest shift probably happened after "The Night Of."

CORNISH: And that's where you played the mother of this...

JAGANNATHAN: Yes, Riz Ahmed.

CORNISH: Of Riz Ahmed, who people have seen in "Venom" and is kind of a superstar now.

JAGANNATHAN: Oh, yeah, yeah. He's amazing.

CORNISH: But in that, you're the mother of a character who is accused of a murder.

JAGANNATHAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHT OF")

JAGANNATHAN: (As Safar Khan) An animal did that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, you're right.

JAGANNATHAN: (As Safar Khan) Did I raise an animal?

CORNISH: And it could be something that involves a lot of just hand-wringing and looking around.

JAGANNATHAN: Yes, indeed (laughter). I think, you know, I've noticed a shift twice, when Freida Pinto was in "Slumdog Millionaire" and won the Oscar and a lot more - there were kind of more brown women integrated and woven into scripts, and then personally I noticed a big shift after "The Night Of." And the truth is, you know, that a lot of people have been fighting really hard in front and behind the cameras to have diversity represented.

CORNISH: You talked about "The Night Of" and I also want to talk about your role of Salma in Hulu's "Ramy."

JAGANNATHAN: Oh, I love that role.

CORNISH: Yeah. This is really fun and this character - the show, for people who haven't seen it, is a comedy where somebody is - basically Ramy is living kind of between worlds, the worlds of a conservative world of his religion and his Egyptian family and being a, air quotes, "good Muslim" and then also just being a kind of dorky millennial (laughter).

JAGANNATHAN: Yeah, yeah, love it, yeah.

CORNISH: And we have a scene here where after we first met your character of Salma at a mosque during Ramadan, the main character of Ramy helps you home. And once you're there, you kind of - you get very candid with him, taking off your hijab and more. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMY")

JAGANNATHAN: (As Salma) I haven't had a meal with another adult in a while.

RAMY YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) What about your husband?

JAGANNATHAN: (As Salma) My husband - he's more like my roommate at this point basically. That's what he is. He rolls in whenever he wants, expects me to hand over half my paycheck, expects me to raise Ali singlehandedly. Sometimes, I really wish he was like an old-school misogynist, you know, like our dads - just expect a hot meal at the end of the day, clean house, good kid. Nowadays, guys expect you to work on top of everything else.

YOUSSEF: (As Ramy) Yeah. I think that's what we need, like, just some more old-school misogyny. That'd be awesome. Nowadays, I feel like we don't have enough.

CORNISH: This woman isn't seen very often on television or in American pop culture. How did you guys talk about this role, what she would say and how you wanted to portray it?

JAGANNATHAN: So I'd met Ramy a couple years ago. He was emceeing an event, and most emcees are just awful and terrible, and he was so crazy funny. And we just met and we started talking. He was a kid. He was, I think, 23 when I met him. He was a kid. And we were talking. We were laughing, and he was like, oh, my God, you're so funny. I should write something for you. And I said I'm not going to play a mama. I'm not going to play a depressed auntie. I'm not going to be - you know, I just want to be, like, funny and having sex. Like, that's what I want. And he - you know, he laughed and then, you know, a while later he called and said I think I've written a part for you.

CORNISH: That would be the best personal ad, by the way. I'm not going to be your mother. I'm not going to be your depressed auntie (laughter).

JAGANNATHAN: It is my Tinder profile.

CORNISH: That's perfect (laughter).

JAGANNATHAN: You know, and it just goes to - I think what happens is as actresses, people are always looking to put you in different boxes, right? You can move from a small box to a bigger box, but it's still a box, kind of the golden cage that is the model minority stereotype, which is, yes, we get to play, like, these really smart people, but then, you know, when you play the doctors and the lawyers and the engineers and the head of the robotics team, you really start depriving yourself. And, you know, our community is full of - you know, there's stories of addiction, stories of depression, there's stories of sexual violence, there's stories of not belonging, of immigration. I mean, when you get boxed into that neatly tied up model minority box, it's just always kind of calling for me to break out of it. So, I mean, that's what I was conveying. You know, brown women are so seldom portrayed with any sense of sexuality. I can really see that for South Asian women, especially Muslim women. So what does that look like on screen? I'm like, that's what interests me. That's what fascinates me. And I think Ramy explored that so beautifully.

CORNISH: It's so interesting to hear because I do hear people talking about the idea of a model minority and kind of how that can be limiting. But I guess it didn't occur to me that it - obviously, as a black person, you don't get the model minority stereotype.

JAGANNATHAN: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: That at a certain point, you can feel so disconnected from that it might as well be a person playing an astronaut.

JAGANNATHAN: Yes.

CORNISH: Right (laughter)?

JAGANNATHAN: That is next on my list.

CORNISH: Like, the head of the robotics team has nothing to do with your actual life.

JAGANNATHAN: Yeah. I mean, it's like our lives are so messy, and only a certain type of people get to portray that mess, and it's not us. You know, I want to portray the mess of my life. I'm really drawn to it.

CORNISH: Well, Poorna Jagannathan, thank you so much for speaking with us. We can't wait to see what you do next.

JAGANNATHAN: Thank you so much, really appreciate your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROMBONE SHORTY'S "IN THE 6TH")

CORNISH: You can see Poorna Jagannathan in the HBO movie "Share" right now or in an upcoming Mindy Kaling project, which is still in production.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROMBONE SHORTY'S "IN THE 6TH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.