Priyanka Chopra Lost a Movie Role Because of Her Skin Color
Money is power, and women aren’t getting their share of it. In America, men earn 20 percent more than women, and that disparity is even greater for women of color. Now is the time to close that gap—and these are the women doing it.
“We’ve been taught for eons that women need to fight each other, clamber and climb on top of each other to get that one job,” says Priyanka Chopra. “And, now we’re seeing through it.”
The actress, 35, is in Dublin wrapping the third season of her hit ABC series Quantico (premiering April 26) when she calls. She’s hung up her gloves as CIA agent Alex Parrish for the evening, but she delivers her real-talk feminism with a one-two punch befitting the character.
In this case, Chopra is talking about the well-documented reality that men and women are not paid equally for the same work, a topic that gets her particularly fired up. After all, she’s been dealing with it for almost half her life and in two film markets.
I first met Chopra—Priy, as she’s known to her friends—two years ago, shortly after Quantico premiered. She was already a superstar in India, where being crowned Miss World opened the door to a high-demand Hindi film career, comprising more than 50 movies to date. Her reputation in the States—where she’s “still building,” as she puts it self-effacingly—caught up fast. Quantico catapulted her to instant fame in the West, followed by magazine covers and her first U.S. blockbuster, Baywatch. The next time I saw Chopra, she was cohosting an event with Kate Hudson. Still, the actress feels that in both countries, she gets shortchanged, compared to “the boys.”
“I feel it every year, especially when you’re doing movies with really big actors, whether it’s in India or America. If an actor is getting 100 bucks, the conversation will start with max, like, 8 bucks. The gap is that staggering,” she says. In her eyes, the only difference is the language that sugarcoats discrimination. “In America, we don’t talk about it as brashly, whereas in India the issue is not skirted around. I’ve been told straight up, if it’s a female role in a movie with big, male actors attached, your worth is not really considered as much.”
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When Chopra was recently lowballed for a role in a Hindi-language movie, the studio cited her gender as the reason, making no attempts to soft-pedal. “A producer-director said to me, ‘Well, you know how it is in these big tentpole movies with the big boys. This is the budget for the girl, and we can’t move beyond that,’ which was, like, a measly five percent of what [the male lead] was getting,” she says. “It happens in both countries, it’s just that here, it’s hidden behind other things. In America, everyone is so worried about being liable that they don’t want to say anything wrong, but they end up doing it anyway.”
But Chopra’s no defeatist. Her mother, a double MD who worked as a physician in the army, taught her the importance of financial independence when she was a pre-teen. “I grew up in an environment where a woman led the household,” she says, noting that her mother did their taxes and handled money decisions. Her father, who passed away four years ago (Chopra has the words “Daddy’s lil girl” tattooed on her hand, in his handwriting), was also an army doctor and a progressive who celebrated her and her mother’s talents. “He was man enough to say, ‘Listen, my wife does this way better than me.’ And nobody even questioned it. So when I came out into the big, bad world of entertainment, I was like, ‘Oh, well the world’s different than my house!’”
Chopra is convinced that if more people took her parents' approach, “so many of these problems wouldn’t exist. I just think merit should be the name of the game. Stop looking at women as women and men as men—just look at us as our ability to deliver at the job given to us.”
It may sound idealistic, but Chopra is determined to live by that principle. When she auditioned for last summer’s Baywatch, she landed a role originally written for a man. With her in the running, the Bond-ish villain Victor became Victoria—because why not?
Chopra is devoted to her craft, but she’s not precious about her work as an actor. She respects ratings and the box office—she’s a businesswoman, and that doesn’t come second. Part of what drew her to Quantico is the fact that it’s a mainstream network drama. Chopra is disarmingly beautiful, but she wasn’t interested in making her American debut as an exotic stereotype or in a niche show; she wanted to play the conventional primetime lead.
Chopra also knows exactly how much she’s worth. “I’m a producer, so I understand how much of an asset, as an actor, I would be on a project,” she says, which determines her negotiating tactics. “I don’t negotiate—I make my [agent] negotiate. That’s step one. But I think negotiating is important. I’m not someone who is demanding. I’m conversational. So when I talk money, I’m not going to be asking for ridiculous amounts that I might not be able to bring back. It starts with me being logical and saying, ‘I deserve that much in remuneration. These are the returns that I see myself bringing to the table.’ And, usually most people come around when you place it like that.”
As the first South Asian actor to headline an American primetime show, Chopra is keenly aware of the additional barriers women of color face in Hollywood. In fact, she’s lost parts solely because of her skin color. “It happened last year,” she says. “I was out for a movie, and somebody [from the studio] called one of my agents and said, ‘She’s the wrong—what word did they used?—‘physicality.’ So in my defense as an actor, I’m like, ‘Do I need to be skinnier? Do I need to get in shape? Do I need to have abs?’ Like, what does ‘wrong physicality’ mean?” Chopra pauses. “And then my agent broke it down for me. Like, ‘I think, Priy, they meant that they wanted someone who’s not brown.’ It affected me.”
Now, Chopra is comfortable in her skin, but as a teenager who left India to live with her aunt and uncle in the Boston suburbs, she wasn’t as self-assured. Her school experience in the States was filled with vicious bullying and name-calling, and she returned home for her senior year. The racism that seeps into castings may be more subtle, but it shows up. “No one will say that a woman is getting paid less because she’s a woman of color, but the numbers mostly end up reflecting that,” she says.
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So how to we begin to close the gap? Chopra sighs. In Hollywood, she says, “It happens at the casting level. There are not enough meaty, strong lead roles for women where we don’t have to compromise on every level just to get the best job.” That makes it harder to negotiate. Women are taught, “don’t ruffle feathers—you won’t get the next job. It’s that conditioning we need to break.” From there, one problem feeds another. “I think one of the big steps is to first of all recognize it. I see a lot of people explaining why the pay gap exists. Producers have told me, ‘Well, when you have even the biggest actress in a movie, it still doesn’t make the returns that it would if you cast a guy.’” Studios, in turn, allot smaller budgets to female-centric films, and we’re back to square one.
In that sense, Chopra thinks that part of the responsibility falls on viewers. “I want to see the day where female-led movies get as much of a run as the boys do, which means the ticket-buying audience needs to be open to that. People don’t go watch females in movies because they don’t believe that they can be heroes. The world has to change the way they look at their heroes. Specifically how men can help is changing the ‘locker-room talk’ conversation. Nothing will change until we break the stereotypes of gender in our normal, day-to-day life.”
“It’s all a big, dirty muddle of muck,” Chopra says with an exasperated laugh—adding resolutely, “which here we are to clean. It’s going to take years, but we’re doing it. Our voices are louder. We’re standing by each other despite the fact that only a few women will eventually get the job. And I’m hoping that through the fight, it’s going to change for the next generation. I hope I’m a part of that revolution.”
There’s a nurturing positivity to Chopra’s feminism, which is grounded in the notion that women should lift each other up. But don’t mistake her for soft. She sticks to her guns and claps back with razor-sharp wit, which is part of what makes her so joyful. When I ask what she thinks is the most common “mistake” women make with their money, she responds, “First and foremost, how can I generalize 50 percent of the world’s population? Then I’ll be feeding into that stereotype.”
As for her own finances, she says, “I’m actually really careful with my money. I’ve earned it with a lot of hard work.” That comes back to her financially savvy mother, who still has Chopra’s first modeling paycheck framed. “When I was 16 or 17, I was just about to start working and I got one modeling job. I got a check, and my mom was like, ‘There’s no way in the world I’m cashing this.’ I was very proud.”
Once Chopra’s next batch of paychecks came in, her mother taught her how to invest, advising her daughter to purchase small properties and rent them out as office space. “It really paid off for me. Every month, you take a little bit out and invest it. It doesn’t have to be big investments, because I know how hard it is. Five years later, I was like ‘When did this happen?!”
Maybe Chopra gets a little carried away spending money on indulgences sometimes, she says, admitting that her mother still has access to her credit card statements and will lift an eyebrow after a particularly extravagant purchase. “I burn a little bit of plastic if I’m feeling emotional,” she says, chuckling. “And when I mean burn plastic, I don’t go, like, shopping at Saks,”—she pauses—“I’ll buy a car.”
But then again, in Chopra’s view, indulgence is the best thing money can buy. “I like to give myself a good life because I’ve worked really hard for it—I like having good homes, good cars, good clothes and shoes. I treat myself,” she says, “’Cause ain’t nobody else going to do it!”