On the Quantico set in Queens, New York, there are a few of those director chairs — the ones with the characters’ names. In front of one for Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) and next to one for Owen Hall (Blair Underwood) there’s a chair for Dayana Mampasi, the seat Pearl Thusi took up when she landed the role of the driven lawyer in the second season of the hit FBI drama.
In joining the cast of a major United States TV series, the South African actress is pulling up to the mainstream entertainment industry.
Thusi has been in New York City for three months, filming the show. “I miss my daughter, I miss my friends, I miss the little luxuries of life that I’m used to back home,” she says, sitting inside Silver Cup Studios, where Sex and the City and The Sopranos were filmed, and where HBO’s Girls still shoots.
She may rattle off the things she misses about not being in Jo’burg, but Thusi is more than thrilled to be in NYC, a place she came to a year and a half ago to interview Mariah Carey while working as a TV presenter and didn’t want to leave.
“The energy, the vibrancy,” she says. “I constantly have the song Empire State of Mind playing in my head,” she enthuses.
Being here is an opportunity she’s not taking lightly. “I know that not only actors in South Africa, but actors around the world, including America, would kill for this, so I’m very blessed,” she says.
Landing a role on a primetime show on a network station in the US is a coveted gig. That the show airs in more than 200 territories and is dubbed into 56 languages makes it even more so.
Thusi’s character, Dayana, is a Zimbabwean lawyer who graduated top of her class at Harvard and worked at a nongovernmental organisation for two years before joining her parents’ Boston firm. Although she seems to have it all, Dayana struggles to fit in.
“To pretend I’ve been recruited by the CIA — as a South African I never thought I’d be in that type of story,” exclaims Thusi.
The first episode offered only a tiny hint of what’s to come for her character. Dayana is one of a handful of new roles in the second season of Quantico, adding more diversity to what was already quite an inclusive cast, led by India’s Priyanka Chopra. Born in Mumbai, the former Miss World says she and Thusi have bonded over Indian movies, many of which were shot in South Africa.
“Pearl knew so much about my movies and my work, especially since she grew up in Durban. I’ve made many movies there, and in Jo’burg and Cape Town, too,” says Chopra.
Aside from discussing the meanings behind Bollywood songs from Thusi’s childhood in KwaNdengezi in KwaZulu-Natal, the two have “spent evenings talking about what it’s like to be two girls coming from completely different countries living in America”, says Chopra.
Thusi adds: “She’s in the same situation as I am, obviously on different scales, but the principle of it is quite similar.”
It’s an experience not lost on the show’s other actresses: Palestinian-Egyptian Yasmine al Massri, who plays twins Nimah and Raina Amin, and British-Nigerian Tracy Ifeachor, who’s come on board as Lydia Bates.
Thusi says she hasn’t experienced this kind of diversity on a set before. Having been in a number of German and US productions in South Africa, she says there were usually two or three nationalities on set.
“So to be working with a Mexican-American, two British, one British-Nigerian and then there’s Jake [McLaughlin] from one part of America and then you have someone else from another part of America — that concoction is very exciting to me. I’m learning so much.”
And they’re learning from her: “There’s this intense sense of pride, I need to represent not just the country, but the whole continent right now. I spoke to Josh [Safran, the director and creator] and said, ‘This isn’t just another job for me.’ This is me saying, ‘This is what’s available in my country and my continent, and I have to do well enough here to make sure that they’re given confidence in creating opportunities for others too, because the value I provide here is the type of value people will think is in Africa.
“And then to have all these ethnicities here and me to be a part of just one big part of that is a really big responsibility that I don’t take lightly.”
Massri, who plays twin veiled Muslim sisters, echoes this. “I get one shot to show two women from this part of the world, a world [North] Americans usually only see in one way. If we thought we were the United Nations of TV shows in the first season, we’re even more so now. I’m not the only one who has an accent on the show.”
She says it’s part of a greater change. “Maybe we are the beginning of a revolution that will inspire a real change in the American way of writing and narrating a story.”
If it’s a revolution in seeing and accepting that is taking place, Chopra leads by example, through the responsibility she’s taken on as a lead. “Before this, people saw me as an Indian film actor, now they see me as a global film actor.
“But I think the bigger picture is that it’s given representation to Indian people and people from Southeast Asia and minorities on a greater scale. To say that we can play lead parts on a major network, which is mainstream TV or films, and be able to pull it off. Global entertainment needs to be represented like that, because if you look around you don’t see people who look and speak like you or have the same ethnicity.”
Chopra says the background of the cast has influenced the show’s stories. “They incorporate all our cultures. It started with me initially. Alex was not supposed to be Indian, she was meant to be American, and then I was cast and they started using my ethnicity, from my own bracelet to the fact that Alex has a little prayer shrine in her house, and went backpacking in India and Pakistan.
“They’ve taken my ethnicity and added the story, even with Yasmine and her story and the situation in Israel and Palestine. They take everyone’s stories and make them a part of their characters, and this makes them holistic.”
It’s this approach that’s part of the show’s success.
It also makes the show timely and necessary, in light of the much-needed introspection the industry has been undergoing.
“That’s the point,” says Chopra. “Entertainment should be about the best person for the job. Characters should be written not for what people look like, but for who they are.”
As she puts it, her background shouldn’t be a crutch. “It can be an asset,” she says. “Like Pearl being from South Africa. It’s an asset, her accent and what she brings to it. But her story is not defined by it. And that’s where entertainment needs to go, especially in this time where we’re debating casting people of colour.
“So to even the playing field, if you’re great for the part you should be cast for it.”
It goes even further, as Massri sees it. “We’re validating the humanity of the character,” she says. “We’re telling the world, ‘Here is Pearl, she’s from South Africa, here is Priyanka, from India.’ We’re bringing people from all around the world and representing their culture, where they come from.”
The way she and the cast see it, no other TV show has done what Quantico is doing, and it’s paving the way for others to follow suit.