Doc around the clock

As ER comes to an end, Parminder Nagra tells John Patterson why America loves British swearwords - and why she’s now getting into bed with Ray Winstone

By (”The Guardian)

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Published: Sat 14 Mar 2009, 10:51 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:42 PM

PARMINDER NAGRA IS eating her full-monty American diner-style breakfast with the enthusiasm of the several-months pregnant. It’s a chilly morning in Los Angeles - it’ll be 80F by lunchtime, though - and she is wrapped up warm, exhibiting little of the blazing-eyed defiance and vulnerability that is her staple as an actor. She is excellent company, with a healthy loud laugh, warming to such topics as exile, America versus the UK, and the changing fortunes of artists of Indian, Anglo-Indian and south Asian descent in the 21st century.

This spring, Nagra completes her six-year stint as trainee doctor Neela Rasgotra on ER, as the US drama, for 15 years the mainstay of NBC’s Thursday night schedule, bows out. Now 33, Nagra joined the cast when she was just 26, the unknown star of the surprise smash Bend It Like Beckham. Much to her bemusement, her role in the girls-and-goals movie led to Fifa declaring her footballing personality of the year. The Leicester-born actor was a near total newcomer to LA and the US then; now she’s a fully fledged local girl, with two dogs, a new house in the hills above Los Feliz, a list of good local Indian restaurants on the fridge, and a baby on the way, courtesy of her photographer husband.

“I’ve had such a blast,” she says of her ER character, who’s lost one husband to a roadside bomb in Iraq and a lover to a double amputation for which she was made to feel responsible. “I’ve been on it for about the same time as you might spend at college, six years - a large amount of time. About a month ago, I started to get quite emotional about it all coming to an end.”

One thing she didn’t really notice about her role when she started was how quietly groundbreaking it was for Indian actors in the US. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, until I read articles people were writing: ‘First mainstream Indian character on American network TV!’ That’s thrilling in itself, because the only other one at that time was Apu on The Simpsons, and I always had problems with his accent.”

Try being part-Scottish in America, I say, and living through Groundskeeper Willie’s horrible accent. “That’s the thing with The Simpsons,” she says. “You end up imitating the accent, even though you know it’s wrong. That’s how good that show is! Luckily for me, I was allowed to keep my own accent on ER, which was great, considering I was already going to have to learn these reams of medical terminology - it’s almost like learning Shakespearean language.”

Being Asian in the US is not quite the same as in the UK. There’s no post-imperial umbilical connection, no established Asian political infrastructure, and relatively few Asian elected officials. Even the word has a different meaning: “Here it means, like, Chinese or Japanese. When I say I’m Asian, they go, ‘Oh, you mean south Asian.’ So I now know to say I’m south Asian. It’s more specific, but in a way I like that more. And then the word Indian has a whole other set of complex historical meanings. I hate those forms you get at the doctors: ‘What’s your ethnicity? Indian subcontinent?’ I have no idea how to answer this question.”

This complexity was folded into her ER character right from the off. “They asked me, ‘What, traditionally, would happen in this situation?’ I said I’d just like to let this character play out without all that - try to see what any young twenty-something girl moving somewhere new is going to feel like. Of course, I have my heritage. It’s not like I don’t want to talk about it; it’s such a part of me - but it’s not two different identities, it’s one and the same. Ever since then, the storylines I’ve had have usually been about the cases, not about - oh my God! - her traditional family background. I feel, even more so than the shows I did in England, that we’ve really nailed it: me being allowed to play a character for six seasons and not being stuck in this kind of political arena. Plus they love all those English swearwords.”

One of the pleasures of working on ER, she says, was its ensemble feel, the fact that cast and crew could move up through the ranks. “It’s one of those rare places where they’re very nurturing. Somebody who started as an assistant finally got his first episode made, which he wrote. That’s amazing. I don’t know how quickly that would happen in England: there’s always some stumbling block. In England, there are fewer people deciding your fate, or whether something’s any good. Here, the industry is a lot bigger and richer. There are more companies to go to, more decision-makers, more networks to approach.”

Last year, Nagra returned home and took on a somewhat different role in an ITV drama called Compulsion. A modern-day rendering of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling set among the British-Indian bourgeoisie, Compulsion was due to screen at Christmas but is now scheduled for May. Nagra has the prime role as the princessy, stone-hearted daughter of a successful businessman, who uses the family chauffeur/henchman, played by Ray Winstone, to get rid of the bore she’s arranged to be married to. She then finds she quite likes being evil, and is more than slightly turned on by this brute she’s always despised.

We finish by talking about Obama’s presidency (“best soap opera ever”) and Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, about Bengali immigrants in New York, which was made into a movie by Mira Nair in 2006. “That film is so right about what it’s like being an immigrant, constantly adapting all the time, parent or child. You end up respecting the parents for what they went through and what they sacrificed. They came from India to make a new life. I can relate to that in that I made a move over here. But I had a great job and I speak the language. And I wouldn’t have had that if my mum hadn’t moved to England.

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