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She is also very well known as Dr Neela Rasgotra in the medical drama series ER and as Dr Lucy Banerjee in the Fox television series Alcatraz. She currently has a recurring role as Rachel in the television series Psych.
Parminder Kaur Nagra was born in Leicester, UK as the oldest child of Sukha and Nashuter Nagra, Sikh factory workers who emigrated from the Punjab region of India in the 1960s.
Nagra attended the Northfield House Primary School in Leicester. At her comprehensive school, Soar Valley College, she played viola in the youth orchestra and also appeared in her first theatrical productions.
A few months after sitting her A-levels and leaving school, Nagra was approached by her former drama instructor, Jez Simons, about becoming part of the Leicester-based theatre company Haithizi Productions, for which he served as the artistic director.
She accepted and was cast as a chorus member in the 1994 musical Nimai presented at the Leicester Haymarket.
Only a week into rehearsals, she was switched from the chorus to replace the lead actress, who had dropped out.
Simons recalls that Nagra, while also a good singer and actress, had a quality that raised her above other actresses which led him to select her as the new lead
Nagra left Leicester for London, forgoing university to pursue a theatrical career and her childhood ambition of becoming an actress.
Nagra's first London theatrical job came in 1994 when she was cast as the Princess in the pantomime Sleeping Beauty, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. After Sleeping Beauty, Nagra worked with small Indian theatre companies such as Tara Arts and Tamasha.
These roles eventually led to the radio and television appearances that also defined her career throughout most of the 1990s. She also appeared in "The 6th wonder of the World: the Kali Tutti Story", in 1994.
In 1996, Nagra took a small part in Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon and performed at Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre.
Although lacking formal theatrical training, Nagra signed with veteran London-based agent Joan Brown, after which she was cast in her first television roles — a bit part on the British medical drama Casualty, and a small role in the television film King Girl, in which Nagra played an abusive member of a girls' gang.
In 1997, Nagra appeared in the three-part drama Turning World, starring Roshan Seth. The following year she appeared on Casualty for the second time. In 1999 she played the part of a convenience store clerk in the television movie Donovan Quick, starring Colin Firth.
Also of note are appearances on the British comedy show Goodness Gracious Me. Nagra also starred in radio plays written including, amongst other, plays written by noted author and playwright Tanika Gupta.
In 1998, Nagra was part of Dancing Girls of Lahore, a radio play co-written by her future Bend It Like Beckham co-star, Shaheen Khan. Nagra's other notable stage roles during this period are many and include appearances in Skeleton (1997), with critical acclaim for her "bright-eyed vivacity" as the village girl; A Tainted Dawn (1997), playing a Hindu boy accidentally left in Pakistan and brought up by a Muslim couple; Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings & A Funeral (1998), showing her skills as a romantic comedienne, also to critical acclaim;
Krishna's Lila — A Play of the Asian World (1999), as part of a five-person cast in a controversially titled piece;The Square Circle (1999), tackling the demanding role of an illiterate peasant girl who becomes a rape victim;and in River on Fire (2000), as Kiran, in a retelling of Sophocles' Antigone.
In 2001, Nagra provided the voice of a Muslim girl in Arena: The Veil, a docu-drama about women who choose to wear the Muslim head scarf. Her stage performances of this period are perhaps the most noteworthy.
Not long after Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, Nagra was cast in 1997's Oh Sweet Sita, an adaptation of Indian mythology about Rama and his wife Sita. Starring in the title role of Sita, Nagra caught the attention of director Gurinder Chadha.
Bend It Like Beckham was Nagra's breakthrough film. It was directed by British director Gurinder Chadha and also starred Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan and Keira Knightley, for whom this film was also a career breakthrough. In the film, Nagra plays Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra, a teenage Sikh football player who idolizes football superstar David Beckham and defies her traditional parents to pursue her dreams of playing football.
The small-budget picture was a critical and financial success in the United Kingdom, eventually making the leap around the world and to Canada and the U.S. where it earned over $30 million at the box office.
The script, conceived by Chadha with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra, was written with Nagra in mind. While initially indifferent to the game of football, Nagra found the football-centred story to be both funny and touching. She agreed to audition and eventually accepted the role.
An intensive ten-week training course of the game Futebol De Salao, led by noted coach Simon Clifford, put Nagra through rigorous nine-hour-a-day workouts. Nagra learned to "bend" or curve the ball in flight, as she did in a scene in the film.
In a nod to Nagra's actual life, director Chadha wrote and incorporated a scene about Nagra's scar into the film.
Nagra received critical and professional acclaim for her performance. She was nominated, and won, several awards, including the FIFA Presidential Award (2002), the first woman to have done so.
Nagra appeared in another film not long after filming ended on Bend It Like Beckham, Nagra portrayed Areida, the best friend of Anne Hathaway's title character, in Ella Enchanted. In addition, Nagra took on two notable television roles for Channel 4—as Viola/Cesario in a multicultural version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and as Heere Sharma in the two-part Anglo-Indian drama Second Generation, loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear, directed by Jon Sen and starring Om Puri. Although Second Generation was a ratings flop, it was a huge critical success, earning a place in The Observer newspaper's top 10 British TV programmes of 2003. It garnered Nagra an Ethnic Multicultural Media Academy (EMMA) Award. For the role, Nagra had to muster up the courage to do some of the love scenes that she had vowed not to do as an actress. Filming the final scenes in Calcutta was Nagra's first visit to India.
Nagra on a panel for the Fox television series Alcatraz, along with fellow actors Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones. While on a promotional junket in Los Angeles for Bend It Like Beckham, Nagra was informed by her agent that ER producer John Wells was interested in meeting with her. Director Gurinder Chadha claimed during a 2007 episode of BBC's Movie Connections that she arranged the meeting, because she had recommended Nagra for the role of the new Indian character in ER during a conversation with her friend Wells. At their initial meeting, Wells made Nagra an offer to join the ensemble cast; she accepted immediately. In recalling the moment, she said, "I had to sit still and act professional, while all the time I just wanted to jump up and run around the room screaming".
Not long after the meeting, Nagra signed a one-year contract that included an option for three additional years. Despite her new status, Nagra said, "I don't think Hollywood has changed me at all. The first thing I did when I arrived was buy chapati flour and lentils".
Nagra made her first ER appearance as County General Hospital medical student Neela Rasgotra on 25 September 2003, in the tenth season premiere entitled, "Now What?".
Wells adapted the character to suit Nagra, so she could act with her own English accent in portraying the Yale-educated Anglo-Indian Neela Rasgotra. Nagra would go on to appear in twenty-one of the season's twenty-two episodes, including season 10: episode 12 called "NICU" and season 10: episode 17 called "The Student", episodes in which her character played a central role. Noah Wyle, on announcing his departure from the series, described Nagra as "the future" of ER, and the media has concurred, anointing her as one of the show's "golden girls".
From season 15: episode 4 called "Parental Guidance", following the departures of Goran Visnjic, Maura Tierney and Mekhi Phifer, Nagra was the longest serving cast member and star of ER until the series concluded with season 15: episode 22 which was the two-hour series finale called "And in the End..." which aired on 2 April 2009. Nagra finished filming season 11 of ER later in 2005 and returned to her native Leicester to work on director Amit Gupta's Love in Little India in which she was cast as the female lead.
She was nominated in 2006 for an Asian Excellence Award, in the category of Outstanding Female Television Performance, for her work in ER; she won the award the following year.
Nagra was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctors of Letters by the University of Leicester on 11 July 2007.
In 2008, Nagra was cast as Cassandra in the DC animated film Batman: Gotham Knight. In 2012, Nagra starred as Dr Lucy Banerjee in the cancelled J. J. Abrams television series Alcatraz.
While on the set of the Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, she met Irish actor Kieran Creggan with whom she later moved into a flat in Kennington, South London. They dated for five years.
On 17 January 2009 Nagra married her boyfriend of seven years, photographer James Stenson. ER co-stars Scott Grimes and John Stamos performed at the ceremony, and former ER co-star and friend Maura Tierney officiated over the ceremony. Their son, Kai David Singh Stenson, was born on 19 May 2009. On 8 February 2012, it was reported that Nagra had filed for divorce.
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