There can’t be many people who can claim to have had their careers kickstarted by EastEnders’ Simon ‘Wicksy’ Wicks, but actress Archie Panjabi belongs to that rarefied group. She was 13 and determined to become an actress, ‘but because there was no internet back then, I wrote to everybody on TV, begging them to see me. I had a crush on Nick Berry [who played Wicksy] so I wrote to him,’ she says – and to her surprise, he actually wrote back, ‘which only made the crush develop even further’.
He advised Archie to get an agent, which she did, and a few years later she made her first screen appearance in the ITV series London’s Burning. As luck would have it, she also auditioned for a part on EastEnders as the girlfriend of character Ricky Butcher. ‘It didn’t work out and I was devastated not to get it, but facing that rejection at a young age was a good thing. It definitely toughened me up.’
Rejection may have been valuable for Archie, but it certainly hasn’t been a recurring theme in her career. Having first captured the attention of British audiences in her breakout role as football-mad Meenah in the acclaimed 1999 indie movie East is East, she has gone from strength to strength, playing the feisty sister to Parminder Nagra’s football-playing lead in Bend It Like Beckham, before starring with Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart as well as opposite Russell Crowe in the comedy A Good Year.
Then in 2010 she beat Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss to win an Emmy for her role in the US series The Good Wife, the show that put her on the Hollywood map.
She is perhaps even better known in the US than she is in the UK, thanks to her electrifying turn on the series as the bolshie, bisexual, leather-wearing private investigator Kalinda Sharma – a role typical of Archie’s choices in that there is nothing typical about them at all.
The characters that Archie plays have always tended to buck stereotypes. ‘I never look at the cultural identity of a character,’ she says. ‘I only look at the personality. My culture is British and I have Indian parents, so I’m sure that influences my choices, but I never go out there trying to prove a point [with my characters] just to be different, because the aim of any drama is that it’s about the people.’
Her latest project is case in point. Next of Kin, a six-part ITV drama, features Archie as Mona, a family woman and ‘a doctor, so my parents are very proud’. Mona’s life is suddenly blown apart, however, when her brother Kareem (Navin Chowdhry) is brutally murdered while working for a medical charity overseas. As if that weren’t bad enough, his teenage son comes under suspicion of having been radicalised. ‘It’s a huge shock for the family,’ says Archie. ‘When they discover that their youngest member is involved with a dangerous group it tears them apart.
‘The creators [Natasha Narayan and Paul Rutman, who made the Channel 4 series Indian Summers] examined it from a modern-day British family’s perspective. My character is constantly saying how English she is and the family is filled with different characters – some are straight, some are gay; some old, some young; some religious, some not – and we really see how this affects them all.
‘It shines a light on the subject of radicalisation, and sadly terror attacks are frequently a reality now. But it also explores the themes of family, love and loyalty. Mona immediately takes it upon herself to fight for her nephew’s innocence, while also trying to keep the family intact. It was fascinating for me to see how, as a woman, she tries to make everybody happy – which, of course, is impossible.’
Her husband Guy is played by This Life’s Jack Davenport. ‘It’s very refreshing to see a mixed marriage that isn’t about a culture clash,’ says Archie. ‘They met at university and have a very solid, loving and caring relationship – although as the series progresses, it’s put under immense strain and the question is whether their marriage is strong enough to deal with those issues.’
Having Jack as her TV husband was, she admits, a case of wish fulfilment, ‘because I used to watch This Life when I started out as an actress and it was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do; all the characters were so flawed yet so likable. In fact, when I was on The Good Wife, I suggested that Jack play my husband [the part eventually went to Marc Warren], so I was delighted when he was cast in Next of Kin. We’re both married, so we fell into the roles of husband and wife naturally. He’s warm and not afraid to be affectionate in character or worried that he won’t come across as masculine enough.’
The series looks set to be another hit for Archie, who has managed to quietly carve out a successful career somewhat under the radar. Gentle and thoughtful, she is a rarity in Hollywood, her big career unfettered by a correspondingly big ego. We meet in the bar of a hotel in Los Angeles and while the other guests around us are chatting loudly, Archie speaks so softly it’s a strain to catch what she’s saying. She moved to LA two years ago after leaving The Good Wife, for which she was based in New York for six years.
‘I love the contrast with both places,’ she says. ‘New York is similar to London because of the culture and the weather and the fact that everything is easy to get to, but I also like LA. Obviously, the weather is gorgeous and it’s a little more laidback. But I miss London a lot and it was lovely being back there to film Next of Kin.’ So she hasn’t gone full-LA with morning walks and kale smoothies? ‘Well, I try to be healthier out here,’ she says. ‘But I do like my food. I love Indian food, which is extremely calorific. All I can say is, thank goodness for Spanx.’
She’s talking nonsense, of course. Archie is petite and looks a good decade younger than her 45 years. It’s a youthfulness that stood her in good stead when, as a 26-year-old, she won the role of 16-year-old Meenah in East is East. ‘That was such a special film for me. It was so funny in the beginning and then [halfway through the plot] just turned and became dark and upsetting. It was an incredible experience early on in my career.’
Growing up in Hendon, North London, Archie (short for Archana) knew from the age of three that she wanted to become an actress. ‘I remember as a child always being fascinated by people,’ she says. ‘I was intrigued by accents and often mimicked them. I would watch my uncle and aunt and their gestures and behaviour.’
Her father Govind was a restaurateur, her mother Padma a teacher of children with additional needs. They emigrated to London in the 1970s. ‘My parents always encouraged me to be both Indian and English,’ says Archie, ‘so we’d celebrate Diwali but also go to Sunday school and it meant that my brother Ashwin and I always felt very English. My mother was a schoolteacher, so I guess she wanted us to assimilate. I didn’t experience any racism. I come from a family that didn’t question things and fitted in quite well, so even if it did exist, I wasn’t aware of it. Growing up in Hendon there were lots of Jewish people, Indian people, people from all walks of life; it was a very mixed community.’
When Archie expressed a desire to get into acting her parents were supportive, but their friends in the Indian community less so, deeming it ‘a low-class profession. The community was more conservative and sceptical because at that time, there weren’t many women of my background on screen. Also, I don’t think it was a highly respectable career in their eyes. My parents always encouraged me, though, and said that as long as I also studied, it was fine. Having their support gave me real confidence, and having the blessing of your parents is one less thing to worry about, so you can go off and pursue your dreams.’
Archie got a degree in management studies from London’s Brunel University while, having secured her agent thanks to the sound career advice of Nick Berry, pursuing her acting dreams. ‘It was my agent who told me at 13 that I needed to lose weight. I loved burgers and fries, so it wasn’t easy. But I was going for roles and not getting them.’ Wasn’t that harsh advice for a teenager? ‘Well,’ she shrugs, ‘I actually like honest criticism.’ A few years later, her brother was involved in a serious road accident that left him in a coma for three months, ‘and stress dissolves the weight off you. It just dropped off during that time.’
After her on-screen debut in London’s Burning in 1993 and her standout role in East is East came the 2002 hit Bend It Like Beckham, which catapulted its stars, including Keira Knightley, to fame. ‘I haven’t seen Keira since we made the film,’ Archie says, ‘but she was lovely and we knew even then that she had a quality that was just right for Hollywood.’
Archie’s own Hollywood debut came three years later in the movie adaptation of John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes, and in 2006 she played the assistant to Russell Crowe’s city slicker in A Good Year. ‘Russell was really fun and very naughty – we’d mess around with a lot of ideas for the film.
One day I practised an Indian accent and they said: “Why don’t you go with that in the movie?” Russell tried it too, bless him. It wasn’t bad, but let’s just say his jokes were better.
The following year Archie starred in the film A Mighty Heart – about Mariane Pearl, the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped by terrorists and murdered in Pakistan – as Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani opposite Angelina Jolie. Angelina, says Archie, ‘had a good heart and a very calming energy. We worked together for seven weeks and formed a good friendship. Certain heroes or heroines disappoint you when you meet them, but she was one who really blew me away.’
Though she also starred in the Gillian Anderson-Jamie Dornan series The Fall as pathologist Reed Smith, there is no question that Archie’s most memorable TV role to date is Kalinda, the brilliant if occasionally unscrupulous private investigator in The Good Wife. Despite Archie exiting the show two years ago after an alleged fall-out with the show’s lead Julianna Margulies (their final scene was rumoured to have been CGIed so they didn’t have to film together), her character is still loved by the show’s fans.
‘People were besotted with Kalinda,’ says Archie, ‘and her fanbase seemed to be from all walks of life. She was a force of nature and people felt inspired by her because she was so unapologetic about who she was.’ Even Archie’s mother was a fan: ‘She said to me, “You always play these naughty characters!” I was nervous as well as excited about the role because when we started filming [in 2009] it was relatively new to see a woman of that background who was so strong and used sex in the way that Kalinda did.
I was worried that it would be seen as something bad. But relatives and people within my community liked her. I was really shocked.’
When Archie collected her Emmy for the show in 2010, her husband, tailor Rajesh Nihalani was by her side. They have been married for 19 years, having been introduced by Archie’s mother – a fact that would make any daughter balk and which, Archie admits, ‘brought out my rebellious streak because I thought her taste in men was not going to be like mine. It’s never been an issue for him to support my career, although my family doesn’t like me mentioning them in the press, so I have to respect that,’ she says. The couple have no children, ‘and I don’t know if I’m going to have them. It’s not something I’m thinking about right now. To be honest, I still feel like a child myself.’
At the moment, work is keeping her occupied – ‘I’ve got about ten scripts to get through’ – and she has recently finished filming the pilot for US series Controversy, a drama tackling college campus sexual assault. Given the scandal currently engulfing Hollywood, ‘it’s so topical – almost too topical, in fact,’ she says. ‘I’m fortunate in that I haven’t experienced it, but it’s good that the silence around it has been shattered. There’s still a long way to go, though, in dealing with the problem.’
A supporter of many charities, Archie is particularly proud of her involvement in the campaign to end polio. ‘We’re not far away from it being completely eradicated,’ she says. ‘I think my getting involved probably goes back to my mum wanting to help children with disabilities. In those days she was allowed to bring the kids home for a treat and although I knew they were different, I couldn’t pinpoint why and after a while, I didn’t even see it. It taught me from a young age that people are just people and they’ve always been fascinating to me.’ Both in her life and career, it’s an attitude that has stood her in good stead. We owe Wicksy a huge debt of thanks.
Next of Kin will be on ITV in the New Year
- Styling: Conrad Nadeau. Make-up: Lilly Keys. Hair Jaime Diaz