Poorna Jagannathan about The Night Of & breaking the silence regarding sexual abuse

Poorna Jagannathan – making the world a better place.

Poorna Jagannathan

Poorna Jagannathan is one of those people that actually makes our world a better place. Her work against the silence regarding sexual violence with the critically acclaimed play Nirbhaya is one important way of doing so. As an actress on a variety of TV shows and movies she has brought us laughter and tears as she tackles the highs and lows of life. Being a major part of one of my favorite new TV shows this year, The Night Of, is another reason to why I desperately wanted to speak with her.

Thankfully Poorna was kind enough to let me have an hour of her time on her day off from commuting back and forth between New York and L.A. During our time together we mainly focused on her work with The Night Of and how Nirbhaya deals with sexual abuse, but we also shed a light on a few interesting upcoming projects at the end; The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson and the Netflix series Gypsy with Naomi Watts.

Being the daughter of an Indian diplomat Poorna grew up all over the world. Wherever her father was sent the family followed. Few, if any, get an understanding of different cultures and politics at such a young age. Being educated by the way of the world and learning the language of each new country also came with a prize. It was not until she was married and had a child of her own that she first felt a sense of home. As we go through some of the countries her father was stationed in she pauses on Pakistan for a while as she brings back a memory from when she was about eight.

– It was a very tense time between India and Pakistan, politically, as my father was stationed in Pakistan. The beauty of that is how I got to see first hand how completely absurd politics really is. We had these Pakistani spies following us around everywhere that we went. It was the same people for three years and we eventually got to know them, they would even take us to school at times. 

The world of acting was always something Poorna felt drawn to. She found her way to America graduating in journalism and went off to the esteemed Actors Studio in New York. While attending a wedding in India a game changer was waiting around the corner. One of the guests at the wedding introduced her to a movie project that turned out to be Dehli Belly (2011), a movie in need of someone who could play a journalist. The project was a huge success in India and Poorna received critical acclaim for her portrayal.

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The Night Of conquered the world of quality TV this past summer. The HBO mini-series has without a doubt become one of those shows synonymous with high quality. It is the story of a muslim college kid on his way through the American justice system as he is charged with first degree murder. Shooting first began all the way back in 2012. How did you first hear about the project and what did you have to do to become a part of it?

– I actually auditioned a year earlier, back in 2011. I had received the materials a day before and knew I had to become a part of it by how the writing made me feel. The very next day I auditioned for the part of Safar Kahn, the mother of Nasir. I still remember everything about that audition. The project was put on hiatus but a year later I went back for a second audition. At this time I knew Steven Zaillian, Richard Price and James Gandolfini was confirmed and that it would air on HBO.

Peyman Moaadi as Salim Kahn and Poorna Jagannathan as Safar Kahn in The Night Of. Credit: HBO.
Peyman Moaadi as Salim Kahn and Poorna Jagannathan as Safar Kahn in The Night Of. Credit: HBO.

When I spoke to Jeff Russo (who wrote the music for the show) about how he became involved in the project, he told me how hearing Steven Zaillian was involved was enough for him to drop everything to be able to work with Steven. What was your experience on set being directed by Steven?

– For me personally, it took me a really long time to find my groove with Zaillian. Steven does everything, he knows exactly what he wants and he has a vision in his head that is very precise. To be able to match that or to be able to understand what that vision was took some going back and forth. I would probably say episode three or four is where we really started finding our groove together as a team. Zaillian wanted a stripped down performance. The music and cinematography is a very potent character in the series but as an actor you don’t know that yet. The intricacy of detail was ultimately worth every step of the way, of course.

Most people believe that your character actually believes her son did commit the murder. She denies it of course, but is there anything in the script that explicitly states whether or not she believes that he did it?

– I think the show is ambivalent on most occasions. There is a moment where the evidence just mounts against him, and aspects of him that are revealed that she had no idea of. She is uncovering her son. She comes to an understanding of not knowing who she raised and acknowledges the fact that she doesn’t know this boy anymore. There is definitely a moment when she believes that he might have done it. It is a tipping point, crossing over to a side, where you find yourself believe your son being capable of something like that. What ever happens next you can never go back from having felt like that.

The time we got to spend watching the family is what moved me the most. The family has done nothing wrong but still gets their lives turned upside-down. I would have loved to spend more time with them in their new hardened reality. One of my selfish missions that I gave myself prior to the interview was to confirm there being tons of deleted scenes we were going to get our hands on some day soon. Sadly, Poorna assures me all of her recorded scenes had been included in the final version of the show. That’s that. Poorna has made an impression with her part in The Night Of that will live on for years to come as more people find their way to the show.

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If you were to google Poorna Jagannathan you would soon find how she is making the world a little better one step at a time with the award winning play Nirbhaya. She initiated and produced the play about the gang rape on a bus in India a few years ago in order to break the silence of sexual violence. We spent some time on that note, breaking the silence below.

You’ve spoken about an epidemic of silence in regards to sexual abuse. Could you elaborate?

– When sexual assault or rape happens to a woman the narrative is always one of shame. Something has happened either because of what she was wearing, what she was doing, who she is, what profession she has or what time of the night she was out. This is true for every country, be it India, US or Sweden. There is such a huge part of the act that is so shameful that you don’t talk about it. You decide that silence is better than being shamed. The purpose of Nirbhaya was to break the silence around sexual violence and shift the shame from the survivor or the victim to the perpetrator where it rightfully belongs. In Nirbhaya I speak about my own rape at nine and then the continuous kind of sexual assaults that happened throughout my early adulthood.

I was recently in India and I was speaking about Nirbhaya to a bunch of students, and whenever I speak about it I always ask the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever been sexually assaulted, or know someone who has been. There is few who is brave enough to raise their hands at first but then I ask them to include touching, penetration by fingers or hands down your shirt or any other molestation they can think of. By the end everyone has their hand up. 

When there is silence around an epidemic, it stays status quo, and it has been status quo for thousands and thousands of years in India. Until this gang rape happened on a bus. It suddenly feels like India is ready to build new constructs around this problem – it is a very exciting time.

You are doing a tremendous act by coming forward with your own story, taking a stand by walking in front of this massive problem. But it really shouldn’t have to be up to the victims to be better at speaking up for themselves and taking a stand, the perpetrators should be the ones having to make the change, right?

– It is like this; what would you do if there are no consequences? Until now there hasn’t been any consequences to sexual violence. None. Even if you told your parents the best they would do was to stop inviting that uncle or that guy over again. But they were not going to confront and they were not going to tell anyone. Now there is a wonderful seeking of justice that is finally happening in India and all of us who made Nirbhaya together are a very small part of unveiling the silence around sexual violence. 

I remember one of those videos going viral; there was a girl on an airplane and the guy behind her was touching her through the gap between the seats as she was trying to sleep – she turned around and put her phone on while she ripped him a new a-hole and caught it all on tape. It was fantastic. There is more reporting being done and women standing up for themselves. There is also more men being aware of this stuff happening and taking a stand as well.

Emma Watson. Credit: Elle Magazine.
Emma Watson. Credit: Elle Magazine.

After spending close to an hour with Poorna it is safe to say she has won me over with her incredible passion. I will follow whatever she sets out to do next. Thankfully she has a few interesting projects coming up in a near future. She will play the character of Dr. Villalobos in The Circle by James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour). The movie is currently in post-production and is based on the novel by Dave Eggers. Emma Watson and Tom Hanks plays the main characters in this upcoming sci-fi thriller that is about to blow us all away. Poorna also tells me she has a new TV project about to start shooting.

– My newest project is called Gypsy, with Naomi Watts, and that’s on Netflix coming up in 2017. We start shooting on Monday [September 19]. I am playing a very different character, a 180-change from the one on The Night Of. This is an irreverent and sarcastic character that is best friends with Naomis character and also a fellow therapist in her office. It is much closer to a Dehli Belly-ish character but set in a psychological thriller that definitely meanders into very dark areas – I am really looking forward to start filming!

Netflix has proved time and time again how they are capable of creating TV shows of an incredibly high standard. Having a psychological thriller that meanders into very dark areas sounds like music to my ears. I will make myself emotionally ready for a Netflix-binge weekend in 2017. I am sure we’ve not seen the last of Poorna, who is entering a world in which more and more people will know her name as the hits will keep coming. I hope this also gives her the platform she needs to break the silence of sexual abuse of an even larger scale.

The Night Of is currently available at HBO, all eight episodes.

The Circle is due to premier this fall.

Gypsy will be released at Netflix in 2017.

For more information about the play, Nirbhaya, visit their site: here.

For our swedish readers: En svensk version av denna intervju kommer att publiceras på Filmtopp inom en snar framtid.