Named after FBI headquarters in Virginia, Quantico follows a class of incredibly good looking agents-in-training who get entangled in suicide, backseat sex, nervous breakdowns, and a horrific terrorist attack within the series’s first 48 minutes. Galvanizing the action is troubled recruit Alex Parrish, played by Priyanka Chopra–the first Indian actress to star in an American network drama.
Quantico creator Josh Safran had no intention of making broadcast history when he picked Chopra for the role. “Ethnicity background was not a part of it,” he says. “Alex was modeled a little bit after my own life because I have a family member who’s either been telling the truth, or not telling the truth, for a very long period of time in terms of government service.”
Instead, Chopra got hired for the most fundamental reason: She killed it in her audition. “I wrote Alex as this very focused woman hardened by a tragedy in her past who kept everyone around her at arm’s length. She experiences every possible emotion in the span of a very short time and that’s all I cared about in creating the character.”
Chopra put her own twist on the material when she showed up to read, Safran recalls. “Priyanka instantly showed the character’s warmth and vulnerability, pushing all those other qualities so far inside that you didn’t notice them, yet they still came out in subtle ways. I realized she was perfect to play Alex.”
Chopra, a former Miss World and major Bollywood star in her native India, brings exotic edge to a character who’s surrounded by a diverse assortment of fellow trainees. They include ex-soldier Ryan Booth (played by Iraqi War veteran Jake McLaughlin); orphaned Southern belle Shelby Wyatt (Georgia native Johanna Braddy); Mormon Eric Packer (Brian J. Smith); openly gay Jewish trainee Simon Asher (Tate Ellington); observant Muslim Nimah Amin (Lebanese-born actress Yasmine Al Massri); and second-generation FBI man Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers).
To make sure all the trainees–and potential terrorism suspects–come to the table with three-dimensional backstories, Safran assembled a writers’ room encompassing Palestinian, Jewish, Quaker, and Muslim talents. “We have writers of color and writers of different religions because research is important, but it’s even more important to know what it’s like to walk in somebody’s shoes,” says Safran. “We also draw from our actors. Yasmine for example, is an incredible resource for what it’s like to be a Muslim, how she looks at the world, how the world looks at her.”
Flashing back and forth between a current day terrorist suspect-on-the-run scenario and nine-months-earlier training sessions, Quantico draws in unlikely ways on Safran’s previous experience as executive producer of CW’s teen drama Gossip Girl and NBC’s making-of-a-Broadway musical series Smash.. “In my mind,” he says, “All these shows are really about a group of people thrown together in a high pressure workplace. Quantico is very much about all these disparate people with different beliefs and thoughts and emotions working together under one umbrella.”
To school himself in FBI culture, Safran visited the Bureau’s Virginia campus for an intensive one-day immersion in the world of counter-terrorism. Among his discoveries: Quantico characters might seem unrealistically telegenic, but Safran insists real-life FBI operatives are actually pretty good looking. “The recruits I saw were fit and focused. When I looked around when I was at Quantico, I was like ‘Okay, people can say that this show is sort of like a sexy soap where everyone’s so beautiful, but if they were at the real Quantico they’d be surprised.’ These are not they G-Men of yore. It’s a whole new post-X-Files grade of beautiful people.”
While Safran and his team consult with a cadre of ex-FBI agents to make sure their show accurately reflects Bureau protocol, the series does not pretend to be a documentary. “We run everything past the FBI people while understanding that this is a heightened television show,” Safran explains. “We try to make sure that everything is rooted in the truth and then kind of go 10 percent above that, or sometimes maybe 25 depending on the episode,” he laughs. “But what we show in Quantico is still always rooted in fact.”
Quantico will intertwine single-episode cases with a full-season mystery exploring a question raised in breaking news stories on a nearly weekly basis: What kind of person becomes a terrorist? Safran says, “It is very important for us to take characters that you might assume would have reason to be a terrorist, but then show that it’s not black and white. It’s complicated. We want to take assumptions and break them down and show a real 360-degree view of these human characters as opposed to seeing them just as ideologies.”