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Parminder Nagra on Bend It Like Beckham’s legacy and celebrating birthdays with George Clooney

Bend It Like Beckham and ER brought Parminder Nagra worldwide fame – but she still feels like it happened to someone else

Parminder Nagra grew up in a large Indian community in Leicester. As a teenager she was approached to star in a play in a theatre where she had worked as an usher, which set her off on the road to an acting career.

Nagra found fame in the 2002 hit movie Bend It Like Beckham and then in a regular role on hugely successful US hospital drama ER.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, she explains how she caught the acting bug, and how she simply can’t believe where her talents have taken her.

I grew up in a very large Indian community. I had lots of cousins and you’d go to each other’s houses and hang out at the weekend; everybody was living quite nearby. When I was 16 I started working as an usher at my local theatre in Leicester, and I just remember being introduced to this world of acting and absorbing so much material. And thinking, was this something that I wanted to do in my life? I got into drama and not much later I did a play, actually at the Leicester Haymarket, where I had worked as an usher. All I remember was enjoying it and thinking this feels good, let’s see where this goes.

I didn’t worry about whether being a British Asian woman would be an issue if I wanted to act at first. I just thought, oh, I’m getting the chance to do this. And then the first question I was asked by a journalist was about my background and I was just like, oh… I hadn’t even thought that I was playing a character who would have traditionally been blonde haired and blue eyed. And as the years went on I realised, this is actually a big deal, about being represented or seeing somebody that represents you, that looks like you, on a screen. But being constantly aware of that can be frustrating, because you don’t automatically
want to be a spokesperson, or politicise every character you play. 

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I was so, so happy to be in ER, it was just such a fantastic thing to be a part of, something as iconic as that. When I found out I’d got the job I was jumping around, like, I’m so, so happy. And then I cried for the two weeks before I came to Los Angeles. I thought, what the hell have I done? Why am I leaving my home and going somewhere where I don’t know anybody? That was scary. But instinctually I was like, this is important. I have to go. Once I started I was just so happy they made me sound so smart. Towards the end of the first year they said, what about putting her in a relationship? And I said, I don’t think she should, because the moment she’s in a relationship she’s defined by that relationship, as opposed to seeing her growing from an intern to a doctor. Mind you, by the end of it, I think she’d got with virtually everybody.

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Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham
2002: In her breakthrough role as Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham. Photo: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

If I told my younger self how my life was going to pan out she’d say, don’t be silly. Someone else is going to do that. It won’t be you. I still feel, when someone describes my career, you’re talking about somebody else. It’s crazy. Crazy. If I had to give the young me advice I’d say, you don’t need to always keep talking. It’s OK to be quiet, and sometimes there’s more power in that and being more thoughtful about how you say things. But I feel I’m still learning that now, to be honest.

I think when you’re younger, looking at other people, you think everybody else has it figured out. Then when you get to a certain point, you realise that, actually no, they’re also just trying to do their best and get through life. And it’s OK to ask for help and not do everything by yourself. Don’t be scared to ask for help. I put a lot of people on pedestals. I thought, because of what they were doing in their career or in their life, they must know better. They must know everything. But I’ve realised that’s not always the case. What’s helped me a lot as an actor is actually the discipline I learned from my mum. She isn’t one with words as such, but she’s very practical about “this is what needs to be done” or “I need to go to work.” I guess that may have rubbed off on me. 

My firstagent was one of the biggest influences on my life. She was a real veteran of the business at the time I went with her. I didn’t go to drama school, but she saw some potential in that young woman, she could see what acting meant to me. She encouraged me to use the theatre to learn my craft, and how to create characters. And she was very clear on my not taking jobs for the sake of just taking jobs. I learned a lot from her attitude. 

Parminder Nagra as Neela Rasgotra in ER
2003: As Neela Rasgotra in ER. Photo: Anwar Hussein / Alamy Stock Photo

I was 27 when I did Bend It Like Beckham. Keira [Knightley, co-star] was the right age but I’d spent the last decade doing a lot of theatre. And Gurinder [Chadha, writer/director] had seen me in some of those plays, that’s how I came into her line of sight. I remember the year before Bend It happened, she said she was thinking about doing a project about an Indian girl who played football. And I looked at her like she was a bit mad. Like, who would want to watch that? But time and again we find out that, if you’ve got a good story with a good cast, that’s all you need. Really, it’s just a great coming-of-age story, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club, and the reason it continues to do well is because there’s always going to be teenagers. I think that’s why Bend It fits so warmly and fondly in people’s hearts. It’s just these young characters figuring out what their bodies and their minds are doing. We’ve all been there. 

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would probably be my grandma. She lived a pretty long life, she was over 100 when she died. I’d like to ask her more questions about her past. We touched on it a little bit when she was alive, but wish I could ask her about what it was like for her growing up. She grew up in India, I’d like to know more about that part of her life. And also, she had lots of tattoos. How rad is that? Apparently the story is that when she was a teenager she went to the local fair and decided to get these tattoos. That’s kind of mad because I can’t imagine her parents at any point thought that was OK. I just think of me getting my little tattoo on my finger and how much of a coward I was, it honestly hurt so much. I cannot believe she had quite a few. So yeah, I’d like to sit down with her. Sometimes we don’t ask enough questions of people that age, I guess. And then they’re gone. And you’re like, oh, shit. 

If I could go back to any moment in my life, it would be just after my son was born and they put him into my arms. I thought, oh my god, look at this little peanut. And then I got really scared because I was like, shit, now you’re going to make me go home with him. I have the funniest picture of me, he’s on the car seat and there’s a look of complete dread on my face, like, what am I supposed to do now? No one gave me a manual for this. And by the end nothing I did read made sense to me anyway. But there was that moment, when he was first put on me, and I was just like, wow, this is crazy. It was this strange feeling, a kind of out of body euphoria… maybe it was all the drugs I was on.

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Another one of the most amazing moments in my life was my 30th birthday party. I was still in ER and George Clooney just happened to be in the same restaurant. And he came over to our table, where my family were all sitting, to tell stories. I remember I stopped talking and just was staring at him and thinking, what is happening? God, if I died right now… I’d die so happy. And he was just such a gentleman. So lovely. My good friend arrived a bit later and came over and George Clooney was sitting there at our table chatting away. I think my friend thought he was in a twilight zone.

Parminder Nagra stars in DI Ray, which is on ITV from May 2-5 at 9pm and on ITV Hub
@janeannie

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