With ‘Citadel,’ Priyanka Chopra Jonas Continues to Carve Out a Lane That’s All Her Own
"I'm not one to rest on my laurels," says the actress who achieved pay parity for the first time in her career for her role in the Amazon Prime Video series.
When Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ manager first met her at a Chinese restaurant in Bombay in 2007, they bonded over their mutual love of hip-hop & R&B. “I remember her dancing and singing every lyric of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ and me being like, ‘Oh my God, this girl’s really cool,'” Anjula Acharia recalls. “I said something like that to her and she told me, ‘I was raised in Queens, baby.'”
In reality, Chopra Jonas was born in Jamshedpur, Bihar, and raised in several cities throughout India, as her parents were physicians in the Indian Army. But her love of music was global, much like her stardom would later be. Known as the “Beyoncé of Bollywood” at the time for her successful career acting in Indian films, Acharia eventually signed the star to Interscope Records’ DesiHits music label where she would achieve moderate success with the 2012 single “In My City” and “Exotic” released one year later.
Realizing Chopra Jonas’ music career wasn’t panning out quite as planned, Acharia thought back to words spoken by Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine as they figured out how best to pivot. “He had always said to me, ‘You have to anticipate pop culture. You have to look around the corner and see what’s happening and listen to what’s happening,” Acharia recalls. “And one of the things that I saw at the time was Kerry Washington in Scandal, Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder, Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, and Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy, and I just thought, It’s a moment for diverse female leads. And I jumped on that. And, you know, the rest is history, as they say.”
Barrier-breaking history, in fact. In July of 2012, Chopra Jonas became the first Bollywood star to be signed by Creative Artists Agency. Her role as Alex Parrish on the ABC crime thriller Quantico from 2015-2018 also made her the first South Asian to lead an American network drama series. Now starring as the co-lead in the new Amazon Prime sci-fi spy drama Citadel from the Russo brothers — a first-of-its-kind series that will have local language spinoffs in India and Italy — at 40, Chopra has achieved a personal first: pay parity with her male co-star, Richard Madden.
Only just hitting that milestone after a 23-year-long career speaks not only to a larger gender disparity issue within Hollywood, but also the Western world’s ignorance of Chopra Jonas’ longevity and success as a Bollywood star where she was one of India’s highest-paid actors having appeared in more than 60 films. But Chopra Jonas knew Hollywood would be an uphill climb. It’s why the actress continues to tap into the same spirit that took her from the pageant stage as the winner of Miss World 2000 to the sound stage two decades ago — that of a hustler.
“You have to be,” Chopra Jonas says as she reflects on her journey. “Listen, no one’s making movies for me over here, okay? I gotta make my moves happen myself.”
It’s been a long road to Citadel, how are you feeling now that the series has finally premiered?
It’s been five years in the making, and it was a lot of work. It was a year-and-a-half of training and blood, sweat, and tears. So to finally put it out there, now it belongs to the viewers. There’s no more control over it and it’s actually freeing. I’m excited about it. I’m so proud of this. it feels like an achievement.
We really pushed the envelope with this show. It’s original IP. It’s truly global. We have other installments in completely different countries and filmmakers with the top talent of those industries around the world, and the stories are interconnected. It’s such a cool, new medium and an example of what the future of entertainment looks like, and I love being at the forefront of it.
Production on Citadel initially wrapped in December of 2021, but you had to do reshoots early-mid 2022 just as your daughter Malti Marie was born. What was it like for you having to manage that work obligation with being a new mother to a child who was born premature?
I won’t lie, it was a very tough time. She had come back home from the NICU, after staying there for about 110 days, just a month before I was supposed to go film. So, we were new parents at that time. The additional photography that we had to do was in Atlanta and L.A. was where my home was, and I would fly to Atlanta every week and fly back every weekend. My husband and my mom and my in-laws were home for the duration of my shoot. But Amazon Studios and AGBO made it conducive and figured out my schedule to where I could fly back every weekend to be with her, and then come back and shoot on Monday. I really appreciated that. They’re family people, they understand the value of that. Joe, Anthony and Jen Salke were like, “We got you and we’ll figure it out.”
In Your TODAY spring cover, you spoke about finally having a clear understanding of work-life balance and establishing non-negotiables, like being there for Malti’s bath time. How did you release yourself of the guilt that often comes with saying no and has the battle to establish those boundaries been hard-won?
I‘m still fighting most of them. If you work a certain way for a really long time and then you suddenly pivot, people around you will find it hard to understand because you had the life change, right? And everybody around you is suddenly like, “Oh, Pri doesn’t do that anymore.” But you have to allow yourself time and you have to give other people patience with their learning curve as well. And you have to articulate. I think being firm is important and saying, “Hey, there is a big life change that has happened to me. And if it’s at a cost to me, I’m willing to bear it.” If I’m not doing as much work as I usually am, I’m willing to bear the repercussions of that, but I’m very clear about what my priorities are.
That’s how I felt really comfortable when we were doing additional photography for Citadel because I articulated to the filmmakers. I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to travel to do this shoot and these are my concerns and this is how I’m feeling and these are my fears.” Everyone is human. Shit will fall through the cracks sometimes, but you have to put yourself and your priorities first. It’s so hard to be able to find a work-life balance, but when you have the privilege to be able to do that, I recommend you do. So many people can’t. They have to leave their kids to go to work like I’ve had to. I’ve seen filmmakers and crew on set for months, actors on set for months without their families. There are times that will happen and it’s hard in so many jobs, but as much as you can, create time for what makes your spirit happy.
With each new episode, your character and her partner Mason Kane (Richard Madden) are steadily coming back to their true selves after their memories have been completely wiped out. Is there any part of you that relates to that idea of being placed in a foreign environment and having your natural instincts kick in, to where you understand who you are at your core?
I guess for me that is whatever is happening in my life when I walk on the set, I know what I’m doing. I know how to mic myself, I know how to take my mark, I know where my lighting is, I know where the camera is. It’s like riding a bike now, having done it for almost 20 years. None of the technical side of that is unfamiliar. And I think the same is true with Nadia and Mason, which is why when he catches a knife out of nowhere, it’s kind of that muscle memory thing where you question, what are the things that you’ll actually remember and what are the memories that you’ll forget? It was cool to sit with the writers and decipher that.
You really captivate audiences the moment you appear on screen, from the red dress and heels to the perfume in your purse that doubles as an explosive, to the physicality of the opening shootout on the train. How much of the stunt work did you do on your own?
I did about 85 percent of it myself. The mandate from Joe and Anthony was that our characters aren’t superheroes. They don’t have magical healing powers. They’re humans. They’re spies. They bleed, they get hurt, they die. They wanted the fights to look visceral so they said whatever we’re comfortable with and whatever we feel safe with, for us to do as much of it as we can.
I come from a background of Bollywood movies, and I did a lot of my stunts back then, so I have the confidence of someone who knows what they’re doing. Then there’s the resources that the Russos and Amazon studios gave us with stunt building. All of our sets were padded. We had stunt teams that have worked on Mission Impossible and Avengers, and that made me feel safe. Now, on the other side, I’m glad because people have had a reaction to me doing it myself. It makes a difference because when the stunt person does it, you have to hide the face all the time or you replace the face, which, all of it works and I’m not someone who’s going to do it if I feel like it’s too dangerous — I’m not like stupid like that — but it’s definitely more convincing when the actor can do as much as they feel safe doing.
You also speak several different languages — Spanish, Italian, German, Mandarin — in this series. Are you fluent in any of these dialects?
Yeah, my girl Nadia, she’s really talented, not me. I’m bilingual, I speak Hindi and English. I don’t speak a word — I mean I speak a word, arrivederci, bonjourno in Italian, but that’s because I’m a fan of Italy. I’m not multilingual. I think maybe because I’m bilingual, it helps me a lot with accents and languages, but it took a lot of work, especially to switch languages in one scene.
As someone who speaks two languages, it’s really a pet peeve of mine when I see someone on TV speaking Hindi and their character is supposed to speak it fluently and they don’t, and they speak it with a weird accent or they don’t use the right words. So, I really worked hard and hopefully I got it right with the dialect coaches, to not just get accents right but also context. That was a personal thing on my end.
As a Bollywood star, you were one of the highest paid actors in India. Conversely, you’ve only just now achieved pay parity with Citadel after eight years of working in Hollywood. What’s been the reality of that experience for you?
I’ve had an amazing privilege to have worked and thrived, now I can say, in two of the largest film industries in the world. I’m working with the most amazing filmmakers and actors and talent, and I’ve enjoyed that very much and not too many people have been able to do that. Yet, having worked in both of these industries and having been in the business for almost 23 years, still this is when I achieved parity. It’s so crazy that I didn’t even have the expectation of myself to ask the question about pay, even though I was a co-lead. It was my manager and my agents who were like, “You’re a co-lead, we should go back and have a conversation.” I actually scoffed and laughed a little bit. I was like, “No, it doesn’t happen.”
I don’t know what everyone else’s experience is, but I do know from any R&D I have seen that women get paid substantially lower in multiple industries, not just in entertainment, especially as the positions get higher. Women have to work so much harder to prove that they deserve it. And it’s going to be the conversation around this that will change the game for women. I’m so grateful and I question whether if the head of Amazon Studios wasn’t Jennifer Salke, a woman, would this decision have been different? When you have women in positions of decision-making and power, they make space for other women and this is an example of that.
I have received parity since I received parity in Citadel with every job where I’ve played a co-lead after, so it changed something for me. And with me having achieved this, it will change things for executives that cast women in co-leads with other men. It will change the conversation. So, yeah, it feels great but it also feels like: Oh my gosh, like so many other women, I was conditioned to think that I didn’t even deserve it.
You’ve achieved a number of firsts as an Indian actress in America. Has it been lonely?
First of all, as a woman in my mid-thirties to leave my country and my friends and my familiarity and the industry that taught me everything, where I know every filmmaker and every actor, to suddenly come into an industry where I knew no one and people didn’t know my work, or what I’d been able to accomplish or the diversity of my filmography, and at the same time, having no friends and no community, it was really lonely. When I first moved here, I went through a couple of years of really being — I won’t use the word depressed, because I never clinically was — but just sad. It took a lot for me to have to go to work and hustle every day and remind myself that I have ambitions and they deserve fruition and I have to work hard for it. There’s no free lunch in the world. I had to motivate myself a lot and it was a trudge, till slowly I started making friends and I started having a community and I started kind of feeling like America was my second home. I think that’s the immigrant journey. You‘re kind of in between for a period of time.
There’s another wave of excitement around Asian cinema now with the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once and Beef on top of Parasite and Squid Games in recent years, where do you see South Asians fitting in to that landscape?
I think it’s a very exciting time for culture in general. I think with streaming coming in, we have the ability as storytellers to be able to tell hyper-specific stories, and there’s an audience wanting to watch good cinema. Citadel is such a great example of that, because on this show we have filmmakers and writers from America, from the U.K., from India, from Italy, which are all the major film industries in the world, coming together and contributing to one large story and one large universe. At AGBO, they had a Citadel writers meeting where 100 writers from different parts of the world came together in L.A. and discussed this story. It’s insane to be able to see that.
There’s a long way to go when it comes to South Asian representation. The nine countries in South Asia are always clubbed together and now we’re being able to see that the countries are very different from each other and have different cultures. India is one of the largest film industries in the world. We produce about a thousand movies with the multiple languages that we have within the country. And there is a tremendous technical talent there, which is used by Hollywood movies. We have filmmakers and technical crew like DPs and ADs and writers, VFX, departments that contribute to Hollywood entertainment, but you just never see the representation of them as much.
I’m so excited to be able to be working with the Indian filmmakers in Citadel and with the Indian installment in the same sandpit as the American installment and as the Italian installment. Like, that’s cool. And I hope to see so much more of it. And I hope to see entertainment where we’re not bifurcating stories by borders and languages anymore because everything is dubbed and subbed in multiple languages. You can enjoy different stories, and I just think that’ll create such a diverse world.
You fell into acting by happenstance, yet you’ve made enormous waves. Can you imagine where you would be if your brother didn’t enroll you in that Miss India pageant 23 years ago?
It’s actually really funny to think that my brother, because he wanted his room back, kick-started my whole career. I definitely see that as his, juvenile, manipulative brain at work, but at the same time, I really believe in destiny. I feel like destiny and hard work go hand-in-hand and you’re meant for certain things and if you get an opportunity and just kind of sit in it, then nothing’s going to happen. But if you get an opportunity and make 100 percent out of it, then your trajectory is sort of always upwards and that’s what I learned very young.
I was 17 years old when my brother sent my photos in for Miss India. I didn’t know anything or anyone. I’d never modeled, never wore stilettos before or camera makeup or had my hair blown out by someone else. I didn’t even know how to blow out my own hair at that point. But here I was, a hustler, competitive, asking, how do I give myself the best opportunity? How do I win in this room? My parents encouraged my competitive nature, they encouraged me in extracurriculars — dancing, singing, arts, whatever I wanted to do was encouraged by my family — and I think that gave me confidence to want to be able to be the best in the room.
As you continue to break barriers in the industry, what do you hope will be your lasting legacy?
I hope that I’m remembered for contributing to the arts. I hope I have been able to creatively, after all of these years, push the envelope for female actors, for Indian actors, for people of color. I hope that I can be remembered for making a lane that was mine and didn’t really exist. I’ve always wanted to grow and evolve; I’m not one to rest on my laurels. I want to do the next big thing. I want to be better than my last character.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Citadel‘s first three episodes are now streaming on Prime Video, with the remaining three episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.