Emmy Award-winning actor Archie Panjabi is a celebrity ambassador in Rotary’s This Close public awareness campaign to end polio, and this year she visited New Delhi to immunize children with the oral polio vaccine. Panjabi, who co-stars on the U.S. television series “The Good Wife” and has acted in films including “Bend It Like Beckham,” “A Mighty Heart,” and “The Constant Gardener,” shared her story with Rotary members during the 2013 RI Convention in Lisbon, Portugal. That’s where we caught up with her.
The Rotarian: How do you choose the causes you support?
Archie Panjabi: It has to resonate with me, because once I take on a project, it’s all or nothing. I know I’m going to be dedicated. Polio connected with me because of India.
You grew up in London, but you spent time in Mumbai as a child. Earlier this year, in New Delhi, you participated in a polio immunization event. How did that affect you?
Panjabi: It was a lot more emotional than I thought it would be. I was astonished at how well organized the whole infrastructure is — the surveillance, the monitoring of the children. I was amazed at how passionate the women organizing it were, how they kept the daily records, and how determined they were to find the children. It’s difficult to comprehend, when you think about how overpopulated and diverse India is, how every child is accounted for. Seeing the long queues of mothers waiting for their children to receive vaccine was an eye-opener. My industry is so colorful and so unreal at times, even though I love it. Doing something like this puts a lot of things into perspective.
What qualities do you need if you want to be someone who gives back?
Panjabi: Every single human being, once you have satisfied your basic needs, should be doing something philanthropic. I don’t think you need any particular quality. Every human being has that responsibility to do something. But if you do work like this, it’s not just about giving. It’s also about doing something for your soul.
Do young people even think about polio today?
Panjabi: A lot of younger people don’t know what it is, and don’t realize what will happen if you don’t get rid of it. You may look at it and say, well, that was an older generation’s problem. But this is not a disease that people used to get. This is a disease that, thanks to this work, you’re not getting.
This campaign is historic, and not only from the point of view of eradicating polio. We’ve set up the infrastructure to deal with many other problems, many other diseases. It’s important to tell people about that. Once you’ve set up that infrastructure, who knows what you can deal with?
Looking at the trajectory of your relationship with Rotary, it seems like you’re made for each other.
Panjabi: It feels like a marriage made in heaven. My mother encouraged me to go to university, and I studied management and business; I went on to do a doctorate in it. I guess I’m doing what most Rotarians do, which is use their business skills to try to get the message out to do something good.
What are your impressions of Rotary?
Panjabi: I’m impressed. I feel you can be entrepreneurial, you can come up with ideas, and people are pretty smart here. At least in my experience, Rotary is flexible and I feel it’s a good match for me.
What’s the most important message that you have for Rotarians?
Panjabi: To sit back and look at what Rotary has achieved, because I think it’s phenomenal. Sometimes it’s important to remind people to take account of everything they have achieved; without that work, we could be in a very different position. I also want to tell Rotarians that I am committed, and I want to be part of this project.
Do you see other areas within Rotary that interest you?
Panjabi: I did a little bit of work with Amnesty International for its Stop Violence Against Women campaign. I’m definitely interested in helping children and women. One person who influenced me was Angelina Jolie. I worked with her on the film “A Mighty Heart” in 2007. She’s the most down to earth woman I’ve ever met in the business, no airs at all. She made a huge impression on me.
In what way did she influence you?
Panjabi: She gets completely involved. When I spoke to her about charities, her advice was all about being fully hands on, not just lending your name but building a relationship and making a difference.
With your role on “The Good Wife” and your film projects, how do you find the time?
Panjabi: It’s challenging, but now the show is in its fifth year. I worked incredibly hard for the first two or three years, and somehow you get better at managing it. I enjoy doing something other than just the show.