There’s a scene in the first episode of new ITV crime drama DI Ray where the title character, played by Parminder Nagra suddenly realises the real reason she’s been asked to lead her first homicide investigation. Far from winning the role on merit, she clocks, in a briefing by her superior, that she is a pawn in a much wider political game.
The murder is a “Culturally Specific Homicide” – a term used in the drama to refer to a suspected honour killing – and Ray sees immediately that she’s been hired for her ethnicity rather than her policing nous. It’s one of many powerful scenes in the Birmingham-based four-part series, produced by Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio and written by Maya Sondhi (who fans of that show will remember as PC Maneet Bindra), which explores the subjects of tokenism and racism.
The role wasn’t much of a stretch for Nagra, 46. The Leicester-born Indian actress, who came to fame 20 years ago as Jess in the smash-hit football rom-com Bend It Like Beckham opposite Keira Knightley, says she can “probably list on one hand,” the characters she’s portrayed over the past two decades, where her ethnicity didn’t play a key part.
She cites a recent costume fitting as an example. “It was for a modern-day character, my age, either American or English, and they’re bringing out all of this massive Indian jewellery and I’m like, ‘She’s at home… she’d probably wear that to a wedding.’”
In the end, though, she admits she compromised. “It’s hard because you don’t want to come across as having a chip on your shoulder. Which I don’t.” But the disparity between her career since Bend It Like Beckham and that of Knightley suggests there is at least a kernel of truth in what she says. Nagra was the lead, yet it was Knightley who went on to become a household name with blockbusters, Oscar nominations and Chanel campaigns under her belt.
Nagra joined the cast of US hospital drama ER, for which she moved to Los Angeles, and played the role of Dr Neela Rasgotra for six seasons. But since then, although featuring in big-name TV shows such as The Blacklist (2013) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2016), she has frequently been cast in limiting roles. Her character in the 2018 horror film Bird Box had an Indian accent for no discernible reason other than, one assumes, to tick a box marked “diversity”.
“That’s just how it’s been,” says Nagra. “I remember doing one of my first jobs in London when I was 18 and going, ‘Oh I see, it’s just that little bit harder.’ I don’t think I realised how much it was going to keep coming up.”
Rachita Ray is her first leading role in a TV drama, but rather than lamenting the fact that it has taken two decades for something like DI Ray to come along, Nagra is in jovial spirits when we meet for coffee in West Hollywood on a weekday lunchtime.
“I’m like, ‘Why can’t I play a lead?’ And then the universe went, ‘Here you go! And it’s helmed by Jed Mercurio,’ and I go, ‘Amazing!’ And then I get on set and I’m like, ‘I’m dying!’” she laughs. “I think it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
The drama is subtler than your average mainstream police procedural – exploring as it does what it’s like to feel both British and, at the same time, “other” – but also has all the plot twists and high-speed chases you’d expect from anything involving Mercurio.
Nagra, who temporarily relocated to Birmingham for filming, 45 minutes away from her family in Leicester, says there are photos of her at the weekends conked out on her parents’ sofa.
“It was nice becoming a kid again,” she says. “My mum making me tea and parathas.”
Nagra never intended to move to Los Angeles permanently, but when she had a son, Kai, in 2009 (with photographer James Stenson, whom she divorced in 2013), it became harder to leave. Now she considers the celebrity enclave of Laurel Canyon home and is close friends with fellow Brit actors and Spooks stars Raza Jaffrey and Lara Pulver. There is, though, nothing starry about her life.
“I’m doing the same thing I’d be doing if I was in England. Just the mere mention of Los Angeles and everyone’s like…” Nagra lets out an exaggerated gasp. “And then you live here and you’re like, ‘Oh it’s really not that… shiny.’ The other day we were driving, and my son said, ‘God, Hollywood is such a dump.’”
Although she jokes about retiring to a village on the outskirts of Leicester, Nagra has no plans to move back to the UK, even if she is frequently travelling in order to get to where the parts are. “Nothing seems to be shooting in LA which is frustrating,” she explains. “As a single parent, I’d love to get a regular job on a show here, it would make my life a hell of a lot easier.”
At a time when more and more stars over 40 are combating the lack of interesting roles by creating their own à la Reese Witherspoon, Nagra is almost refreshingly unambitious. “My thing is, I just want to act and that’s it,” she shrugs. “I’ve no real ambition to do what Maya [Sondhi] did so I’m at the mercy of what someone else is creating. I wish I’d that [writing] side to me, but I just want to act.”
Nagra recently watched some scenes from DI Ray and, to her annoyance, found herself focusing not on her performance, but on the bags under her eyes. “If you had a guy who was the same age with eye bags down to his knees everyone would be like, ‘Oh, what an interesting look’. People celebrate that with men,” she notes.
Has she spent too long in Hollywood, I wonder? “I think there is a pressure and I don’t know what you do,” she sighs. Not Botox, if you’re Nagra, that’s for sure. “There were people not getting the [Covid] vaccine here and I’m like, ‘But you’re injecting this s--t into your face and you didn’t question what was in that!’”
The fact that Bend It Like Beckham is two decades old this year probably doesn’t help. Nagra admits that tweets pointing out how much she has aged got on her nerves. “It’s awful when you see a tweet [saying], ‘Wow, she’s aged!’”, she says. “That’s what f--ing happens! It’s 20 years old. What did you expect me to look like?”
But, in typical Nagra style, rather than dwell on the negatives, the film’s 20th anniversary presents her with a welcome opportunity to reflect. Recently, she watched an interview she had never seen before of her 27-year-old self, fresh from playing football-mad Jess, and inspiring legions of young South Asian women to follow their dreams.
“I was saying something like, ‘Go for it and don’t let anything hold you back, if you’re going to do something, go into it with all you’ve got,’” she says. “I look at that young woman and I think to myself, ‘I still need to keep telling myself that’.”
DI Ray is on next Monday to Thursday at 9pm on ITV