Underrated she may be but Archie Panjabi remains one of the most bankable actresses on TV
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Talent and recognition don’t often go hand-in-hand in the industry.
Yes, more actresses are helming critically-acclaimed TV shows these days. But that doesn’t immediately translate into success. In many instances, fame only finds them several years later.
Such has been the fate of Archie Panjabi, who is one of the most underrated actresses in mainstream offerings. And she is joined by the likes of Anika Noni Rose, Katerina Graham, Jurnee Smollett, CCH Pounder and Lorraine Toussaint, to mention a few.
If you’ve seen any of these actresses in a show, you will concur that they are worth their weight in salt. Honestly, this is what grates me most – the delay in getting their dues.
Panjabi has been in the industry since the mid 1990s. The British actress initially planted her feet in the industry with roles that were more of the pigeon-hole ilk. But when you are starting out, this is a right of passage in earning your stripes.
Fortunately, being cast in Gurinder Chadha’s hit comedy feature, “Bend it Like Beckham”, propelled her into the limelight.
Several years later, she was cast in Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year” alongside Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard.
I remember watching her in “The Good Wife”, where she played Kalinda Sharma, a resourceful private investigator with personal demons that surfaced from time to time.
And, boy oh boy, did she own the role. She was mind-blowing as she flirted between being assertive and sassy.
And it was enough to bag her a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.
This was in 2010, making her the first actor of Asian descent to walk away with a coveted Emmy.
Since “The Good Wife” ended, she’s gone on to do “The Fall” and “Blindspot” but it was Departure where she shone once again.
Cast as Kendra Malley, a lead investigator with the transport safety and investigations bureau, she is a tour de force in the series, which sees her brought aboard after a major incident involving a major passenger transport company.
In the first season, she had to look into the disappearance of a British passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean.
Her character was conflicted about accepting the job as she was still grieving the loss of her husband to suicide. And there was her son to take care of.
Time has passed and she is definitely in a more focused space. And that is where we find her in season two – in a similar role but a different playground.
This time, she is looking into the horrific crash of an automated high-speed train bound for Toronto from Chicago.
Aside from the trail of dead bodies, Kendra’s investigation stirs a hornet’s nest and she finds herself in the midst of political agenda, conspiracies and a cover-up.
Panjabi flourishes in layered roles like this. Her tenacity is underpinned by her ability to suss out the anomalies in the case.
In a recent press conference, she shed light on where we find her character.
She said: “I think in season one we saw Kendra was still deeply affected by the loss of her partner in that tragic car accident.
“I think in season two, she’s in a slightly better place because she’s been recruited over to America and is now working with a new group of co-workers.
“I think it is refreshing for her but, as you will see when you watch the series, she is still suffering from a degree of pain. But the new company and the co-workers give her a fresh start.”
Although Christopher Plummer reprises his role as Howard (Kendra’s mentor), due to the fact that the show was shot during Covid-19 restrictions, their scenes are conducted over the phone.
She said: “Well the great thing about Christopher Plummer is he’s such a joy to work with.
“And last season I got to spend so much time with him.
“He’s a legend but he’s also such a wonderful actor to work with and he has such a lovely, mischievous streak about him.
“And as you know at the end of season one, he’s done something quite unforgivable, so this season – conveniently – he has a lot of his scenes with Kendra on the phone, and those are scattered throughout all the episodes.
“They were incredibly easy to do because we had built up such a great relationship in season one.
“So when we were filming the phone calls it felt like he was just next door.
“We didn’t struggle with those and those phone calls are some of my best and favourite scenes, and thus working on them, even though he wasn’t on the other end of the phone with me, and I wasn’t on the other side of the phone for him.”
Although we are only a handful of episodes into “Departure” season 2, there’s still a lot to come.
Kendra’s rapport with her team is easy going. And when it comes to uncovering clues, they share that doggedness in leaving no stone unturned.
The 49-year-old actress, who is like fine wine and just looks better over time, said: “One of the challenges she faces when she goes to Michigan is that she is an outsider, and she’s leading this huge investigation with the entire world watching her.
“But initially, she feels like a complete outsider, she doesn’t look or talk like most of the people from there, and she’s the boss. So there are challenges, but the beauty about the character of Kendra is the very nature of her job involves her having to establish rapport with people from all walks of life within a very short period.
“So while it is a challenge, it’s also something that she does for a living – you know being able to talk to people, and connect with people and gain a rapport – so she is able to do that pretty quickly. And once she establishes those relationships inevitably they will help to lead to the truth behind the crash.”
On the show, she also wears the hat of an executive producer. She said her involvement from that perspective because sometimes a title doesn’t mean that creative control is guaranteed.
She said: “Yes, it’s absolutely true, sometimes it can mean nothing and sometimes it can mean everything.
“I feel on this job, I’ve always felt it the moment we started, you really feel there is a wonderful team effort.
“You know the show is written by Vincent Shiao, the creator, and it’s run by Christina Jennings from Shaftesbury and I have always felt I am a member of that team.
“If I want to know something, I can always approach any of them, even when I’m on set and I want to ask a question or change something.
“I ask any question I want and whenever I want to understand about whether the series is going ahead, I’m always welcomed with open arms.
“So this is only my second production, and I would say it was similar to the first as well; I’m party to most of those discussions, and if I’m not, I ask questions and I’m always told, so I feel like its just one big team.
“I am also given access to the dailies so I can watch it daily, so I can put forward suggestions and ideas – they always take on-board my input.
“From my point of view – I don’t have too much experience to say what others go through – but I don’t feel it’s there for vanity reasons; I do feel involved in the whole creative process which I absolutely love, and I am very grateful for having that, and them including me in that team.”
When asked if the role of women in TV is changing, she said: “I think more and more we are seeing much better roles for females. I think what I would like to see, and what I do believe, is South Asian women and men are still very under-represented in TV and film.
“I know that there’s a lot of talk about diversity and more diverse actors are being cast but I feel South Asians are still under-represented in TV and film – both men and women.
“Which is why ‘Departure’ is a very, very special job for me because it has become a commercial success and was recommissioned for a second season very early on, and I’m leading the show and I am South Asian.
“So, I’m really grateful to have been part of the show and I hope in time many more South Asians are cast in leading roles.”
“Departure” season 2 airs on Universal Channel (DStv channel 117) on Mondays at 8pm.