When Archie Panjabi won the Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actress last year, many said, “WHO?” But to the millions who watch The Good Wife, and are obsessed with Panjabi’s mysterious, ass-kicking investigator character on the CBS legal drama, she was the Academy’s logical choice.
The Good Wife revolves around the courtroom and bedroom intrigues of Alicia Florrick ( Julianna Margulies) and the partners at the show’s central law firm, but it’s the exploits of Panjabi’s Kalinda Sharma, the on-staff investigator with a knack for manipulation and an ease with sources, who often provides the show’s jolt of electricity.
It’s a chilly January afternoon as Panjabi takes a seat inside a private cabana at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, ordering a hot water and lemon. In a demure blue top, her hair cascading loosely around her shoulders, the British-born Panjabi couldn’t be more different than her hard-edged character, Kalinda, who would be more comfortable in what Panjabi lovingly refers to as her “boots of justice.”
Attempting to puncture the aura of mystery that surrounds Kalinda has become something of a parlor game for fans of The Good Wife during its second season, as the creators, husband and wife writing team Robert and Michelle King, have wisely chosen to peel away just a few layers of the intrigue surrounding this fan-favorite character. Tonight’s pivotal episode promises to delve deeper into her backstory, as Kalinda’s war with rival investigator Blake (Scott Porter of Friday Night Lights) reaches a boiling point.
Despite the fame that may have come from portraying Kalinda, and the Emmy Award now in her possession, Panjabi wasn’t looking to do television when the pilot script fell into her lap. The 38-year-old Panjabi—who spent time growing up in Mumbai—now splits her time between New York, where The Good Wife is filmed, and London, where her family, including her husband, tailor Rajesh Nihalani, lives. (“My family comes and sees me a lot,” she said. “I really am very happy in New York.”) However, reading the pilot script, she fell hard for Kalinda, who was described as “an East Indian stunner, Bollywood Erin Brockovich, no-nonsense, independent, a cool temperament, nonchalantly bisexual.”
Panjabi had played a bisexual character before—in the 2009 BBC Three drama Personal Affairs—so she wasn’t wary of tackling it again (“The bisexual thing?” she said. “I was, like, oh, that’s interesting; if it’s handled well, it’s fine… We didn’t sensationalize it.”) But for Panjabi—best known for her work in such films as East Is East, Bend It Like Beckham and A Mighty Heart—it was the rawness of the role that attracted her.
“There was something animalistic about that character,” said Panjabi. “One thing that concerned me a little bit was that she was so guarded and so mysterious; as an actress you need to know why she’s like that… Audiences often talk about her being mysterious. Yeah, she’s as mysterious to us as she is to them. We’re constantly learning about her.”
“The scene you’re going to see in [tonight’s episode] shocked me when I read it,” Panjabi said.
But Panjabi’s Kalinda has fascinated audiences in a way that few characters do. Perhaps it’s due to her seemingly preternatural abilities to step in and save a case in the 11th hour. Or the fact that audiences haven’t ever seen someone quite like Kalinda on television before.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a no-nonsense, bisexual investigator of Indian origin,” Panjabi said. “I think people are always excited by something new. Some people just like her because she wears thigh-high boots and goes around smashing cars with baseball bats, but there are so many different reasons why people connect with her… I was worried that some people may find her too strong and too sharp.”
“I can understand men liking her because of the whole sexy thing,” she continued. “But how many women resonate with that character surprised me... There are a lot of women like that in society who are intelligent but are not buttoned up, who are happy to celebrate their sexuality, who are confident about themselves, and who are respected by their superiors. It’s a new kind of woman on TV, but it’s just reflecting what’s going on in society.”
Panjabi admitted that she was initially reluctant to slip into the short skirts that Kalinda often wears because she was concerned about losing the equilibrium of the character. Too sexy and she becomes intimidating and a bit cheap. But both the Kings and Panjabi worked hard to get that balance right, resulting in a character who is wholly original, but who shouldn’t ever be a poster child for her ethnicity or sexuality.
“Kalinda is never looked at as somebody who’s bisexual or ethnic,” she said. “She’s just looked at as a confident woman… I’ve always tried to do roles where my ethnicity is just something that happens to be, as opposed to a big issue being made of it.”
This season, Kalinda has become enmeshed in a volatile battle with Porter’s Blake, who seems hell-bent on getting to the bottom of just who Kalinda Sharma really is. Their animosity—and sexual tension—reached a peak in the October 19 episode when Kalinda, in a revenge fantasy-style moment, smashed up Blake’s car with a baseball bat before nearly coming to blows—or embarking on a sexual encounter—with her rival in the parking lot.
“The nature of the scene is whether we hate each other,” she said. “Suddenly, you have these two people so drawn to each other that it brings in the new dimension of the sexual tension between them. Are these two going to kill each other or are these two going to have sex with each other?”
Panjabi paused and leaned in, conspiratorially.
“Over the next few episodes… one does happen,” she said. “The temperature rises so much that things do have to go one way or the other. Blake will end up winning no matter what happens between them because something does come out [about Kalinda] that will probably surprise the audience… In the process, she builds a strong relationship with [ Matt Czuchry's] Cary. With Kalinda, you never know which way it’s going to go, but it’s definitely a friendship that develops… and you realize there is a similarity between the two of them.”
Panjabi admitted that the show’s creators have already taken Kalinda to some unexpected places (i.e., that insane baseball bat scene), but said that what’s coming up for her character is definitely new territory.
“The scene you’re going to see in [tonight’s episode] shocked me when I read it,” she said. “It definitely gets darker before it gets lighter. It definitely goes into a place which is frightening.”
Regardless of what tonight’s episode holds in store for Kalinda, the chameleonic Panjabi has a clutch of awards for emerging performances over the years, including the Chopard Trophy for a Breakout Performance she won at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her role as former Wall Street Journal reporter (and current Daily Beast contributor) Asra Nomani in A Mighty Heart.
But for Panjabi, who has played such vastly different parts—just compare spoiled Pinkie Bhamra in Beckham to tomboy Meenah Khan in East Is East or to Sam Tyler’s doomed girlfriend Maya Roy in Life on Mars—for more than a decade, it’s clear that this actress hasn’t just had one standout role, but several.
“I’ve always had this title of being ‘breakout,’” said Panjabi. “At one stage, I remember saying, oh my God, why am I always the new girl on the block? I remember going to an awards ceremony and they were giving a lifetime achievement award to somebody. I was like, well, when that happens, what’s the next stage? I should be grateful of always being breakout.”
“It’s flattering in a way and now I appreciate it a lot more,” she continued. “When I won the Chopard Trophy, I thought, this is great, but when are people going to take me as a serious actress? Now, I realize to be given an award of any sort is so difficult nowadays. I’m quite happy to stay new for the next 20 years.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.