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'The Good Wife': Archie Panjabi talks about the mystery of Kalinda's sexuality

December 14, 2009 | 12:03 pm

98019_D0578B Even on a show full of richly drawn characters, Archie Panjabi manages to stand out. The British actress plays Kalinda, the street-smart in-house investigator at Stern, Lockhart & Gardner. Kalinda, who is fond of stiletto boots and snug leather jackets, isn’t afraid to get a little Machiavellian if it means winning a case; she’s the perfect foil to the buttoned-up Alicia (Julianna Margulies). I caught up with Panjabi to talk about the joys of playing such a fearless character, Kalinda’s ambiguous sexuality and, of course, the shoes.

Kalinda gets to do all the things that Alicia won’t do.  Were you excited to play someone who pushes the limits the way Kalinda does?

When I got the script, the breakdown was a “Bollywood Erin Brockovich private investigator.” With film you get a more complete breakdown, but with television you just get a few adjectives, so she wasn’t that clearly set. The character evolved with time, and she has grown out from the writers and the performances. It’s very organic and exciting that way. There was no magical list of character notes on her, it’s something that has come out of every episode. We just don’t know where she’s going to go and what she’s going to do from week to week. It’s really interesting to play; she’s so complex and she’s always analyzing everything. I don’t think I am as smart or as intelligent as her!  I think she has about four or five sets of eyes.

Kalinda and Alicia seem to be warming to each other.  They’re not exactly BFFs, but they have a bond.
Kalinda’s definitely gone through some hardship, which is why I think she connects with Alicia. There’s an unspoken connection. I think they’re both strong women, and they both respect each other incredibly for their intelligence and their sincerity. Kalinda is definitely more outspoken, but Alicia respects her honesty, and Kalinda feels protective of Alicia.  She’s not the type to put her arm around Alicia and give her a tissue, she’s more likely to say, “Do you need me to speak to Amber?”  That’s what makes her interesting: She takes action. 

Ever since someone named “Donna” answered Kalinda’s phone, there’s been a lot of speculation about her sexuality.  Can you shed some light on this mystery for us? 
I am not 100% certain what’s going to happen with her sexuality. This is one of those areas that Kalinda hasn’t confessed to me yet. But when she does, I will tell you! This is one of those big questions that will be addressed in January. But I will tell you I don’t think you can put Kalinda in any box. She’s hard to pigeonhole in every respect of life.  It’s very ,very challenging to play her, and I feel quite privileged. It’s tough to get a good role on a good show. They are rare gems.

As tough as she is, Kalinda doesn’t share that much about herself -- with Alicia or anyone else. Is it difficult to play someone who is so bold but also so guarded?
It is a challenge.  You can’t even read what’s on her mind so people tend to interpret her in different ways.  There was a scene in the pilot where she unbuttons her blouse, and some people thought it was a cheap shot. Other people thought it was street-smart: “Oh, she knows how the world works.”  The great thing about “The Good Wife” is that you really have to watch the show, you can’t get up and make some tea and come back.  I’ll watch it and see things that I didn’t see on the page, which is a very exciting feeling.  It always ends up being something very different from the page.  I’ve been on the show for months now, and the excitement hasn’t worn off. 

You’ve done lots of film work, but “The Good Wife” is your first recurring television role.  What’s it like to make the switch to being a regular on a series?
I was a little unsure at the outset. When you do a job like this, it’s nine months straight, with different directors.  I’d never done something like that, so that was initially a little daunting.  In film, you build the character with the director over a period of weeks. You have an idea of where that character is going right away.  To some extent that’s easier -- you have the beginning, middle and end all plotted out -- but with this, you don’t know where the writers are going to take you. And it’s a bit of a shock when a new director comes in every eight days.  But you get comfortable with the character, and the other directors respect that; they have an idea of your character and who she is.  There are still so many things I don’t know about Kalinda, and it’s quite exciting.  I am always on my feet and always a little nervous, which I think is a good thing. It’s always better to be a little paranoid, my mom always said.

Kalinda is quite the clotheshorse.  Don’t your feet get sore in all those boots?
They’re actually the best boots. They’re the most comfortable pair of shoes I’ve ever had on set.  They’re mixing it up with some shoe boots now, because everyone is interested in what Kalinda’s wearing. For me, personally, wearing the boots helps me get into character, and I have a certain walk when I wear them.  I like there to be a purpose for her boots rather than just a fashion statement. When women play investigators, they usually wear trousers, but when you look around now, you see so many attractive, intelligent women who are comfortable wearing skirts.  Kalinda is like that.  She’s feminine but quite tough and boisterous.  She hangs out with cops and likes guns and leather.  And that’s fun to wear.  Dan [Lawson] the costumer brings in things every week and I am like, “Oh God, it will never fit,” but he does some magic tricks and it ends up fitting like a glove.

Between “The Good Wife” and your film work, such as “The Constant Gardener” and “A Mighty Heart,” you seem to have a knack for choosing smart, timely material.  Is that something you always look for, or is it just luck?
I’d love to say I made the smart decision of picking projects that became hits, but with “The Good Wife,” I read the script and something inside me said, "I love this, I want to do this.”  “East Is East” was my first film. That wasn’t a smart move; that was just my first offer, and of course I took it. It was a really big surprise when it became a hit.  I can get bored on set if it’s something that doesn’t excite me or if it’s a character that’s not going to keep me engaged.  It’s hard to pick what’s going to be a hit or miss. … Luck plays such a big part. But getting lucky does make you more nervous for the next choice -- for every good egg, there’s a bad egg around the corner!

One of the things the show does so well is portray the challenges faced by women in the workplace, particularly office politics.  As an actress, is it hard to relate?
I don’t think I’ve faced it to the degree that Alicia has.  The great thing about my job is you work with people for two to three months, and even if you dislike somebody, you get to move on quickly.  It’s such a demanding job, I find it’s really difficult to have office politics. Every thing you ever film goes on record for life. That’s why we take so much care with the dress and everything else; that’s why it’s so important to create positive energy on set. We have such a responsibility to be there with our lines. ... And I am lucky to work with the people I do.  We have such brilliant writers.  [Series creators] Robert and Michelle King are so accessible and down to earth.  It’s very collaborative, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the show has done so well. I have a lot of fun on set with the actors, giggling and playing pranks on each other, so that makes work really fun. 

The show is filmed in New York, even though it’s set in Chicago.  Are you enjoying life as a New Yorker?
I was a little nervous at first.  It was a new medium -- American television -- and a new city.  But coming to New York is like a big hug, everyone is so welcoming.  There’s something about here, everyone makes you feel so at home. I miss my family of course, but I don’t miss London that much.  I was worried, but I feel really at home. Everyone says that who comes here from London, but I didn’t believe them.  Even my day at work is fun. I look forward to going, except when I have to shoot 4 or 5 a.m.

Can you can tell us anything else about what’s in store on the show?
Each of the characters has their own story, and I think in time you’ll see each one interrelating more with the others.  And we’ll learn more about each of them, in addition to Alicia.  You’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more about all the characters.  Hopefully, that will give it a long life and make it more interesting than it already is.

-- Meredith Blake

Related:

'The Good Wife': Meow? Alicia comes face to face with Amber

'The Good Wife': Alicia takes the stand

'The Good Wife': How Alicia almost got her groove back

Photo:  Archie Panjabi stars as the leather-loving Kalinda on "The Good Wife." Credit:  Eike Schroter / CBS

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