'The Night Of' was the hardest set to be on, says Poorna Jagannathan

Sep 04, 2016, 08:17 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

Poorna Jagannathan’s latest work HBO’s The Night Of is bringing her both acclaim and more work, but she knows she can rest on the past

A still from The Night Of
A still from The Night Of 

You will remember her best as Imran Khan’s girlfriend in 2011’s Delhi Belly. She had also produced the play Nirbhaya (based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape case) by Yael Farber, which won the 2013 Amnesty International Award. Poorna Jagannathan has just gone to higher places since then. After making appearances in American TV shows such as House of Cards and Law & Order, she has just wrapped up the first season of HBO’s The Night Of, touted to be the show to watch after Game of Thrones. It tells us the story of Nasir Khan, a Pakistani-American college student accused of murdering a girl on the Upper West Side of New York City. Jagannathan plays his mother, Safar Khan. The show also stars acting greats like John Turturro, who plays the lawyer who defends Nasir. For all of you who want to see what the fuss is about, the show will air in India next month on Star World Premiere HD. Excerpts from an interview.

Poorna Jagannathan

How did you bag this role?
I had auditioned for this role years ago, but had been too young for it. Years later, I was shooting for Ayan Mukherjee’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani when I was asked to audition again. There was this intense connect to the material and to this character. I still remember one of the audition scenes: it was when I first go visit my son in prison. I remember the words wouldn’t even come out of my mouth — it was such an emotionally difficult scene to do. I heard a few weeks later that I had gotten the role, after they saw about two hundred actresses from all over the world. I felt I was a part of something extraordinary that would change the landscape of American television. There has never has been a story of a South Asian, Muslim family told through this lens with this degree of nuance. The journey with the show has been a challenging one. The director, Steven Zaillian, wanted a very stripped down performance and it took a while for us to share the same visual language. But the show was always thrilling. Almost all the locations are authentic — we shot in real, working prisons, in real, working courtrooms. And of course, now that it’s out, and so many people, like SRK and Amy Schumer have loved it and are obsessed with it, just makes every moment worth it.

What was the best part about being on set?
Getting to know Riz Ahmed (who plays Nasir) and Peyman Moaadi (who plays Nasir’s father), two of the brightest stars I know in the world of acting. On set, I felt like I had to really match everyone’s acting in a way I never had to before. I was surrounded by talent — even the person who had one word or one line was an astounding actor. It was the hardest set to be on.

How do you approach a role?
For me it’s more about the script than the role. I’ll spend a lot of time doing script analysis — what is this story ultimately about? The bulk of my work is pouring over the script and when I’m done, I have something resembling a map for my character. And then I start researching: dress, speech and physicality. For The Night Of, I spent a lot of time in Jackson Heights, talking to women in stores, being with them in their homes.

What are the other projects you are excited about?
My next project is a new Netflix series, which is a thriller, and we start shooting that in a few weeks. Netflix, for me, is the most relevant content creator right now. I can’t imagine a better fit.

You have talked about how The Night Of is also about diversity...
I read this wonderful article which said that the show had actually humanised Muslims in America. And it was the best compliment the show could ever have gotten. We live in a very charged political climate in America — where all Muslims are being painted with the same brush. There is such immense fear and lack of empathy.

How has life changed for you post The Night Of…
In the past, I would do work and although it would get critical acclaim and audiences would respond really well, the needle wouldn't move that much work-wise. I always felt like I was in a vacuum. But I definitely sense a shift this time: suddenly, there are a lot more opportunities, a lot more offers. But as experience has shown me, square one is waiting for me just around the corner.

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