What more could one ask for?
Reviews of ABC’s Quantico describe Joshua Safran‘s top-rated thriller as “smart” and “sexy”—the yin and yang of alliterative terms often used to praise female-centric dramas. It’s evident in the series’ casting that Safran craves the best of both of these worlds to voice his prelude to the largest fictional terrorist attack since September 11.
He begins with protagonist Priyanka Chopra who delivers as a figure of ethnic and female representation on television in her portrayal of Alex Parrish, but as the saying goes, the apple never falls far from the tree. Chopra’s televised lineage stems from Anna Khaja, whose unique perspective on color and its role in the television industry as a half-Pakistani actress and writer blossoms up through her grounded roots to jer bountiful mind.
Khaja spoke exclusively to Celebuzz about TV’s high time for diversity, being a cool math geek, and her dreams of a ‘Husband Beam’ becoming a thing in the future.
Celebuzz: Tell me about your character that you play on Quantico.
Anna Khaja: I play Sita Parrish, the mother of Quantico’s protagonist Alex Parrish, played by the incredible Priyanka Chopra. One of the things that I love about playing Sita is that she’s not at all the stereotypical [Middle Eastern] mother that you see on television. She’s strong, intelligent, modern, she’s independent.
CB: And I read that you’re half-Pakistani.
AK: Yes, my father was born in India and raised in Pakistan. I’m the product of an unusual love story. My mom is Irish-Catholic and my dad was raised a Muslim and my parents met at an Israeli singles folk dance in Berkley, California and the rest is history.
I do find that as an ethnic actress I’m asked to play more stereotypical roles so I’m really thrilled that Josh Safran [Quantico creator] embraces something that is called “normalized diversity” where the lead character in a TV show is cast because of her acting and her popularity. She’s the right person for the role, but the role itself is not dependent on what ethnicity she is. That was Priyanka.
“I think it’s high time—I think it’s time that people are realizing what an American is in all its different colors, shapes, sizes and backgrounds.”
CB: “Normalized diversity” seems so relevant after the 2015 Emmys where Viola Davis’s big win propelled the discussion on women of color and their accolade, or lack thereof, in the television industry.
AK: Yes, I think the climate is definitely changing, but I’d like to see more colors and more women in every kind of role and see the United States more accurately represented in television. As we see more empowered women, empowered women of color, and more empowered characters of different religions on television, I hope that it will permeate the culture and, in turn, empower these people as they see themselves reflected and depicted in new ways.
CB: Quantico‘s driving plot point is based off of the biggest fictional terrorist attack since 9/11.
AK: That’s right.
CB: Did your own experience with 9/11 influence your drive to want to tell this specific story?
AK: I had a strong connection to 9/11 through the Off-Broadway show that I wrote and produced that was playing in New York at the time. Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir is essentially about Islam and democracy, relations between Pakistan and the West, and educating Americans about the true meaning of the word ‘Jihad’.
I think a lot of Americans make a lot of assumptions about Muslims based on the media’s portrayal of them, and I always say, “Find an average American, Muslim family, spend a day with them, and see how your average assumptions about them might sizzle away.” [Muslims] really promote peace, love, and generosity and I feel that Quantico is definitely delving into that portrayal. The show is challenging certain ideas through Safran’s exciting depiction of these extremely interesting, diverse Americans being trained for the FBI.
“Their diversity comes from their skin color, gender, religious beliefs, personalities, and backgrounds, but what makes them Americans is that they’re strong, dedicated, determined and are dedicating their lives to their country.”
CB: A lot of TV shows are afraid to go “there” and touch on sensitive subjects like religion and ethnicity in America it seems that Quantico, as you describe it, will try to open up such a discussion in a very interesting way.
AK: The thing is, is that Quantico is so relatable. It’s a fun ride. It’s a kind of show that I would watch regardless of my affiliation with it or given the fact that I’m half Pakistani. It’s smart, sexy, fast-paced with humor and heart, and just when the viewers think that they have something figured out, the writers turn it on its head.
CB: Do you have any plans to continue writing in the future?
AK: I do. I think that I would love to tell the story about how my father’s adventures of coming to this country as a man arriving from Pakistan in the 60’s. His journey is quite unique—it took a lot of pushes and turns itself and I’d like to write a screenplay about that. Realizing the American Dream.
See, my father is not the stereotypical TV idea of what a Pakistani man would be. He raised me with zero sexism, told me that I could do anything. By the time I was three, I had my own telescope. He and I studied science and math together. My mother and father are both intellectuals. They both have Masters degrees and PhD’s, so I come from a long line of teachers.
CB: Well, your Twitter bio claims that you’re a math geek.
AK: Ha! Well one of my hobbies and general interests is education and mentorship, especially for girls. When I graduated from college, I took a different career path. By the time I was 23, I was teaching high school and helped start a summer arts program in Compton. Those were some of the best character-forming years of my life. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
CB: Now that you have the opportunity to become a role model to young women on television, what do you hope that they will take away from you and the female cast of Quantico?
AK: I hope that they realize that if they want to get into show business that there is a place for them, even on the front of the line. I want them to know that there is a strength comes from intelligence, determination, and commitment. That’s something that all of the female characters have in common. They’re so different, yet they’re all determined, smart, strong—there really is not one that isn’t.
CB: A less heady inquiry—you have a recurring role on Silicon Valley, which is all about the start-up culture. If you had to create your own start-up company, what would it be?
AK: I think it would be an app that would beam my husband over to me when I’m out of town.
CB: A ‘Husband Beam’?
AK: Yes, a Husband Beam. It would beam him over in the flesh when I’m out of town or when he’s out of town—especially with Meadowland, the film that he wrote starring Olivia Wildecoming out to theaters in October.
CB: What’s it like living in a house with a screenwriter and an actress?
AK: It’s very… dramatic. [Laughs] No, it’s awesome because we speak the same language and can fill in the gaps for each other. I think that him being married to an actress makes him a better writer. We also have great respect for the sacrifices that each of us choose to make for our careers.
“It’s very different than being married to a dentist because he understands why this pursuit is so important to me.”
Quantico airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.