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September 20, 2020

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Finally becoming leading lady

THOUGH she’s making a name for herself, actor Archie Panjabi still gets a kick out of it when strangers ask for her and clearly don’t anticipate what they’re getting.

“They expect a blond Scottish boy with blue eyes to come out,” she said. “They’re always pleasantly amused when I tell them I am Archie.”

Panjabi is elevating her name recognition these days. The actress, who earned an “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series” Emmy for her work on “The Good Wife,” is back on American screens this month — but this time as the star.

On Peacock’s six-part series “Departure,” Panjabi stars opposite Christopher Plummer and Claire Forlani, portraying a brilliant aviation investigator and single mom trying to solve the strange disappearance of a jetliner en route to London.

Was it a hijacking? Pilot error? Could it be a government cover-up? The mystery deepens when a survivor is miraculously located in the middle of the ocean. Panjabi calls the series, inspired in part by missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, “highly bingeworthy.”

“It’s everybody’s worst nightmare to have a family member or someone you love on a flight and the flight goes missing,” she said. “And I think there’s a universal kind of fear and fascination of flying.”

If anyone watching the series worries her character won’t survive the mystery, relax. Panjabi spoke from the Toronto-based set of the series’ second season.

“That’s a bit of a giveaway, but I do (survive),” she said.

The English actress of Indian descent initially received all six scripts for season one and devoured them. In addition to the loss of the plane, her character tries to process the death of her husband.

“I remember reading it, and I couldn’t put it down,” she said. “You go on this journey where you’re just so unsure of the cause. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m feeling like this, I think this would be the kind of show an audience would want to watch all in one go.’”

Christina Jennings, the series’ executive producer, called Panjabi one of the smartest actors she’s ever worked with, and characterized her role as a woman stuck in a vice.

“She’s in the vice of being a mother, her own grief, dealing with a son and this investigation all at the same time,” Jennings said. “She was the best women for the job.”

Season one of “Departure” was filmed last summer over seven weeks and has aired elsewhere in the world. On Thursday, the series premiered in the United States on Peacock’s streaming platform, and it debuts in Canada on October 8 on Corus’ Global Television.

The world has changed so much since the first season wrapped that Panjabi isn’t entirely sure how the show will be received. Will a show about a disaster in the midst of a real-life viral disaster fall flat?

“There could be even more interest than maybe it would normally get because of what we’re going through,” she said. “How do you cope when there’s a disaster like that? Maybe that taps into something that people are going through right now. But at the same time, it could be that people want pure escapism and something a lot lighter. Maybe they’ll run away from it. I think it’s difficult to tell.”

Whatever happens, there’s one thing Panjabi can be proud of — the actress who’s had scene-stealing roles in “Bend It Like Beckham” and opposite Angelina Jolie in “A Mighty Heart,” is the series’ big star.

“As a child growing up, I never felt I would have that opportunity because there weren’t that many roles for somebody like me leading a show,” she said. “And I was quite happy to take second or third position as long as I was working.”

Of the producers handing her the lead, “I’m eternally grateful for that trust,” she said.

Panjabi, who was born with the name Archana but changed it because teachers couldn’t pronounce it correctly, has had a string of success with roles in “Run,” “Blindspot” and “I Know This Much Is True.”

“Our profession is feast or famine, so it’s nice to have these opportunities,” the actress said.


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