Emmy-winning actor Archie Panjabi stars alongside Jack Davenport in espionage thriller Next of Kin. She tells DQ about taking the lead in her first British drama and explains why she thinks the series will provoke a timely discussion among viewers.
Growing up in the humdrum north London suburb of Edgware, Archie Panjabi knew she wanted to be an actress but saw very few Asian role models on television. There was a family in EastEnders and there was Amita Dhiri in This Life, and that was it.
“There really weren’t very many roles for British Asian actresses,” says the star. “Even in the cinema there was nobody from my background apart from in Bollywood films.”
However, things are changing, slowly, and Panjabi is leading the way. Having first found fame in films such as Bend it Like Beckham and The Constant Gardener, she is best known for her Emmy-winning role as the enigmatic Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.
But it is only now that the 45-year-old is taking to the screen in her first lead role in a British drama, Next of Kin, an exciting contemporary series set in the world of terrorism and espionage. It is made by Mammoth Screen for ITV and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
“From the moment I read the script, I wanted to read the next one but it was the character of Mona that really excited me,” Panjabi says. “I’ve worked my entire career to get an opportunity like this and I think for the whole shoot I was just smiling away. It was amazing to get an opportunity like this. When I was younger all I dreamed of was having a small part on television; I never thought my career could take me to America or a job like this.”
She’s still smiling when DQ visits ITV’s London headquarters shortly after the show has wrapped. Written by Vera and Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman and his novelist wife Natasha Narayan, Next of Kin was conceived as they watched the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris.
Since then, sadly, there have been many other atrocities for the writers to draw inspiration from. But while sympathy always, obviously, lies with the victims of the attacks and their families, Next of Kin looks at the story from the other side.
Punjabi’s Mona is a GP whose family emigrated to Britain from Pakistan when she was two. Her older brother, Kareem (Navin Chowdry), who is also a doctor, still has ties to Pakistan but she is married to an Englishman, played by Jack Davenport, and feels British, as do her two younger siblings Ani (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and Omar (Mawaan Rizwan).
The story unfolds in both Pakistan (filmed on the Indian border) and the UK. The story begins in the former as Kareem is kidnapped just before flying home to Britain. Meanwhile, in London, as they wait for news of Kareem, the family witnesses the smoke from yet another terror attack on the capital.
Debuting in the UK on January 8, Next of Kin was filmed last summer in London as the country reeled from a series of terrorist attacks. They were filming not far from London Bridge when eight people were murdered by Jihadists in July.
“There was a weird energy on set the next day,” recalls Panjabi. “It felt a bit surreal. On one hand, we are using art to talk about a subject that is happening right before us, a subject we don’t fully understand. But on the other, people have just died because of this subject. It was odd and sad and I think it made us all reflective. It was a strange, sad time.”
In the show, it rapidly emerges that there may be a link between the kidnapping and the terrorist attack; what is unclear is how much Kareem’s son Danny, Mona’s nephew, had to do with each. What follows is a Homeland-style thriller but one very much with a family at its heart.
“It’s a timely piece; it really shines a light on the area of the families of terror suspects and I think it will provoke a discussion,” says Panjabi of the six-part series. “One of the things the show doesn’t do is seek to explain it or understand it, because it’s such a complex thing to understand. The focus is very much on what happens to a family when a younger member is suspected of being radicalised. How does that affect each member of the family?
“I do spend a lot of time crying on the show,” she adds. “It was emotionally draining and also emotionally challenging. Her brother has been kidnapped and her teenage nephew is suspected of something by the police. She believes 100% – at the beginning, at least – that he is innocent. She is fighting tooth and nail for him but, at the same, time she’s struggling to keep this big family unit intact. So it is traumatic for her, and playing her is quite traumatic because you don’t just want to cry all the time – you have to build up a whole different repertoire of crying. I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity to do something like this before.
“Every time I felt stressed I could hear my mother saying, ‘Well, you wanted to be a lead!’”
For Panjabi, the icing on the cake of getting the role was working with Pirates of the Caribbean actor Davenport, who starred in This Life – the show that inspired her so much.
“I didn’t tell him this, he has no clue,” she giggles. “But it was one of my favourite shows. It was such groundbreaking drama at a time when I was just starting out acting, and I remember thinking how wonderful it was that the characters were so messed up, so flawed and yet so immensely likeable. They were always the kind of characters I want to play, even now. So working with Jack was kind of like a dream come true.
“He has this quality where he’s very strong and confident but he’s also very charming and not afraid to be affectionate.”
Panjabi is currently living in New York, where she keeps her Emmy hidden in a box, but wouldn’t rule out a return to the UK should more work arise.
“We are making so much good-quality stuff now in the UK that every American actor wants to come here, so it’s a very exciting time because we’ve really caught up,” she says. “I feel lucky to be part of both worlds.
“There isn’t very much difference apart from the budget. In America, when you’re offered a coffee, you’re offered coconut milk, almond milk… whereas in England it’s just milk! You also get a chair with your name on it over there. But other than that, I think the etiquette is pretty much the same; you have a group of individuals who want to make something magical and memorable.”
In the meantime, Panjabi is pleased that at an age when actresses were traditionally put onto the scrapheap, she’s going from strength to strength.
“People from my background say it’s tough for us but I think it’s tough for any actor, especially when you get older. Someone once said when you turn 30 that’s it, so I think I am lucky. From growing up at a time when there weren’t that many roles for British Asian actresses, I’ve found that I have been working pretty solidly so I feel very grateful and so very lucky.”