Movies & TV

Archie Panjabi is the Only Actress of Asian Descent to Win an Emmy

The award-winning actress talks about the acclaimed HBO drama, I Know This Much Is True, the creative process, and diversity in the industry.
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“The very first scene we did, which was about 18 to 20 pages long, we didn’t even rehearse it. We didn’t line-run it, we didn’t even discuss it. We just shot it. I think that was the first time Mark [Ruffalo] even saw that room,” says Emmy-winning actress Archie Panjabi to Esquire Philippines. “So that was a pretty daunting experience (we didn’t know where we were going to move, the camera just followed us) but a very exhilarating and challenging one too.”

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Creating a Realistic and Raw Performance

In HBO’s hit mini-series I Know This Much Is True, Panjabi plays the role of a psychologist, Dr Patel, who is brought in as the therapist of the paranoid schizophrenic Thomas Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo). As she discusses Thomas’ case with his twin Dominick (also Ruffalo), she realizes both brothers are deeply troubled. Over the course of this harrowing tear-jerker of a family drama, she must also help Dominick find peace and guide him out of the dark woods of trauma.

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To create such realistic and emotional performances, the show’s director, Derek Cianfrance, encouraged the actors to improvise. “He really challenges every creative bone you have in the body,” says Panjabi. “When you do a scene, you make mistakes, and you incorporate them into the scene.”

Growing up in London, Panjabi was a huge fan of the British directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. She finds Cianfrance’s process very reminiscent of their raw and authentic style. “Working on this was like a dream come true. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t have people coming in to touch you up for your hair and makeup, you don’t have much crew on set. Everything about it is to create such an authentic feel,” she says.

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“You rely on your instinct and on the energy of the other actor. It’s a very creatively nourishing, fulfilling feeling when you get it right. But it’s very different to most of the stuff I’ve done in America. This is one of the first projects I’ve ever done in America which has adopted this style. But I love it, I feel very at home with it.”

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Staying Calm in an Emotional Scene

As preparation for the role, Panjabi spoke with some friends who had been through counseling and with some counselors, and even had a few sessions herself. “I found it insightful,” she says. “For me it was, a bit like how it is for Dr. Patel and Dominick in their very first meeting, it is incredibly awkward talking to a stranger. And yet immensely cathartic. So, the biggest challenge was how do I create somebody, a counselor, where even the most complicated case, like Dominick, would feel incredibly calm and open up.”

Playing the role of the psychologist and trying to keep up a guarded demeanor can be a challenge sometimes, given the show’s upsetting subject matter. In their sessions, Dominick opens up to Dr. Patel about all the difficulties that have burdened him all his life: the death of his mother, never knowing his real father, having to put up with a strict, abusive stepfather, the failure of his marriage, and having to take care of his mentally-ill brother. Panjabi admits that there were moments when Dr. Patel struggles to maintain her calm and collected mask, because she was so affected by Mark’s delivery.

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Becoming the First Asian Actor to Win an Emmy

In addition to the leading man Ruffalo, Panjabi is joined by an all-star cast, including Melissa Leo, Rosie O’Donnell, Juliette Lewis, and Kathryn Hahn. She admits feeling slightly apprehensive about joining a cast of actors she admires so much. Even before joining the cast of the highly acclaimed legal drama The Good Wife, she felt the same mixture of excitement and nervousness at the prospect of working with other actors at the top of their game.  

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For her role as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, Panjabi won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in 2010 and became the first actor of Asian descent to win an Emmy award. As an Asian actress who began her career in England, Panjabi had found it difficult to find roles in London when she was younger and she believes that actors of diverse backgrounds have not been given enough representation on screen.

'We have definitely come a long way but I don’t feel that there are enough prominent roles for people of color.'

“At the age of 13, when I was in England starting out, there were literally no roles for somebody like me and I was so keen to become an actress that I had to write to people to be seen for roles,” she says. “We have definitely come a long way from that. But I don’t feel that there are enough prominent roles, 20 years on [from when I started my career], for people of color. I think it is changing and hopefully, there are going to be even more changes in times to come.”   

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Know This Much Is True is now showing on HBO GO and HBO.

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