Archie Panjabi takes the lead in Peacock's 'Departure'
By MARK KENNEDY | Associated Press | Published: September 17, 2020
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 says. “They’re always pleasantly amused when I tell them Archie is me.”
Panjabi is certainly helping her name recognition levels these days: The actor, who earned a supporting 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 is the star opposite Christopher Plummer and Claire Forlani. She plays a brilliant aviation investigator and single mom who is called in 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, which was inspired in part by missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, “highly bingeworthy.”
“It’s everybody’s worst nightmare to have a member of family or somebody that you love on a flight and the flight goes missing,” she says. “And I think there is this universal kind of fear and fascination of flying.”
If anyone tuning in to the series is worried that her character won’t survive the mystery, relax: Panjabi is speaking from the Toronto-based set of season two of “Departure.” “That’s a bit of a giveaway. But I do,” she says, laughing.
The London-bred actor of Indian descent initially was sent all six scripts for season one and devoured them. In addition to the loss on the plane, her character is trying to process the death of her husband. “I remember reading it and I couldn’t put it down,” she says.
“You go on this journey where you’re just so unsure of what could be the cause. I thought, ‘Well, if I’m feeling like this and I read so many scripts in my line of work, I really feel this would be that kind of show that an audience would want to watch all in one go.’”
Christina Jennings, the executive producer of “Departure,” calls Panjabi one of the smartest actors she’s ever worked with and considers Panjabi’s 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 says. “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. The Peacock streaming platform launched the American premiere of “Departure” on Thursday.
The world has changed so much since the first season wrapped that Panjabi is not entirely sure how it will be greeted now. Will a disaster show during a disaster fall flat? Or will viewers actually seek it out?
“There could be even more interest than maybe it would normally get because of what we’re going through. How do you cope when there’s a disaster like that? Maybe that taps into something that people are going through right now,” she says.
“But, at the same time, it could be that people want pure escapism and they want something a lot lighter. Maybe they’ll run away from it. I think it’s so difficult to tell.”
Whatever happens, there’s one thing Panjabi can be proud of: The actor who’s had scene-stealing roles in “Bend It Like Beckham” and opposite Angelina Jolie in “A Mighty Heart,” is the series’ big star, her face on the poster, front and center.
“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. And I was quite happy to take second or third position as long as I was working,” she says. Of the producers handing her the lead, she says: “I’m sort of eternally grateful for that trust.”
Panjabi, who was born with the name Archana but changed it because teachers couldn’t pronounce it, has had quite a purple patch lately, with roles in “Run,” “Blindspot” and “I Know This Much Is True.” She’s grateful: “Our profession is feast or famine so it’s nice to be able to have these opportunities.”
These days, she’s on the set of “Departure” and it’s completely different from the last time. She and the cast are now tested for COVID-19 regularly, they keep face masks on until the moment the cameras start rolling, there are limited props and there’s plenty of sanitizer on hand.
“You have to train your mind differently. You have so many things to think about in terms of the script, but you also have to think of this additional element of taking care — to protect yourself and to protect others,” she says.
“The attitude on set is we assume that everybody in the room has it so we have to take precautions with everybody that we’re in contact with,” she adds. “I just hope we can gradually find a new normal.”