Cover Story: Priyanka Chopra Jonas holds sway
It’s a hot summer afternoon in Mumbai and a long day of press for Priyanka Chopra Jonas. The actress was welcomed back home in India with much fanfare, with her musician husband Nick Jonas and daughter Malti Marie Chopra Jonas in tow. “It is so strange when someone says, ‘Welcome Home’ here,” she muses as I ask her what it’s like being back in the city. The actress is as chirpy as ever, eager to talk about everything she has been up to. And she has been up to a lot. She featured in the Oscar-nominated The White Tiger and Keanu Reeves-led The Matrix: Resurrections in the same year; she wrote a sprawling memoir; opened a restaurant in New York; welcomed her first child via surrogacy. And now, she’s headlining a big-budget spy thriller series, Citadel. The Russo Brothers-backed show sees her perform mind-boggling stunts in high-octane action sequences alongside Richard Madden. The Hollywood production has international instalments, including an Indian version. In a microcosm, it is telling of Priyanka’s global stardom. Yes, she is an Indian. But she’s not just the token Indian cast member. She’s made sure of that. And when the desi girl talks about it, eyes glowing with conviction, it’s impossible to look away.
What went into creating that crackling chemistry with Richard Madden in Citadel?
It’s a good thing Richard and I get along, first of all. That really went a long way. We both care deeply about the show, so we both came into the shoot with a lot of preparation. I’m a prep-oriented girl. I do a lot of homework before I get into a show. So I’ll ask a million questions. I really want to know about my character. I think about what I’m doing, and I’m very intentional about it. When we were doing these table readings and I realised that he’s also an actor who did his preparation and cared, it clicked. He didn’t come out and just did his lines. That’s when I knew that we could take care of each other. We had each other’s backs. That helped a lot.
The show unleashes a barrage of action. What goes into all those stunts?
I’m someone who has been doing action for a very long time. I’ve done various feature films and TV shows. So I trust my body. It’s something that I know to do now. But I wanted to be able to elevate what I do so that it’s different from what people have seen me doing. And working with the Russo Brothers gave me that opportunity because they’re incredible at it. They’ve obviously done Marvel movies like Extraction and The Grey Man, where they do these slick, cool action sequences. So I really leaned on them for stunts.
Speaking of the Russo Brothers, are there any superheroes you want to play?
I don’t know. I feel like the way we have our Bollywood blockbuster movies, the Americans have superheroes. Humari masala movies, unki superhero movies hain. So sure, now that I’m working in Hollywood, I want to be a part of a movie universe. It would be cool if I got the opportunity to do that. But I also got the opportunity to create my own multiverse with Citadel, which is going to be truly international and diverse because we’re going to visit so many different countries with it. We have the Indian instalment and the Italian instalment. And we have the ability to do so much more. All those stories are going to be connected. It’s cool. I’m not someone who covets much. I don’t think that I want that specific character. I’m not a coveter. I look for opportunities and I seek out what I get. I will make the most of it.
Since your move to Hollywood, how diverse has the industry become?
They need to do a lot more. If you think about leading ladies, how many Indian leading roles have you seen? There are so few we have seen coming into Hollywood. In the last five years, there has been a big demand from actors who say, “I don’t want to be a sidekick anymore.” I know I did. I didn’t want to be one of the checks in the box that says we’ve made our cast diverse—that we have an Indian, an Asian, and so on. I didn’t want to have that. And I know a lot of my colleagues don’t want to do that. So I’ve taken many meetings where I’ve clearly told producers, “Don’t put me in stereotypical parts.” I don’t want to do it. I’m going to work hard for you because I know my damn job. I’ll come onto the set and do 10 percent more than what you asked for, or maybe even 20 percent. I will be better than anyone you’ve cast because I’m not afraid of working hard. It requires selling yourself. And I hope that maybe by seeing me and other female South Asian talents at the forefront, for example, Simone Ashley in Bridgerton, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project and everything else she’s doing, or Deepika Padukone, by seeing a lot more of us, Hollywood will get used to the fact that this is normal. It isn’t special or rare. I’m hoping that’s what the next generation of actresses inherits from my generation of actresses.
What are some of the joys and challenges attached to representing India on a global scale?
I first represented India when I was 17 years old, when I went to Miss World. It was a terrifying feeling at that time, because what? I’m representing a nation of a billion people. That’s crazy! At that time, I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. But as my career progressed slowly, I started understanding that what I started with had become so much bigger than me. It’s not just, “Priyanka Chopra is an actress who does movies,” it’s become larger. All of that isn’t lost on me. It’s made me cautious about the choices I make. I have made deliberate choices and strategies. Like the Pre-Oscars South Asian Excellence Party was a deliberate move to show Hollywood that we have power in numbers. We aren’t just two or three people who you see on posters. We’re filmmakers and writers. We come from one of the largest film industries in the world and we have the capability of standing toe to toe with any international filmmaker. So I’m trying to make sure that I take that responsibility seriously. But at the same time, I’m still a girl who is an actor who is trying to build a career for myself.
Between something like Citadel and Love Again, what is your process of embodying these wildly different characters?
I seek different roles and I have always sought different roles. If you look at my filmography – I did an Aitraaz, then I did a Fashion and a Barfi! I always look for these characters because I don’t want to play myself. I want to be an actor who is told that “Oh my gosh! You have a wild filmography”. I had the amazing chance to do that in India. I haven’t yet done that in Hollywood and that’s something I’m looking to do in the next decade of my life. It’s looking for a major variety. I’m glad you brought up Love Again because that film is in a completely different direction than Citadel. Meera, my character, is different from Nadia. That was intentional. It gives me the range and ability to make myself nervous and excited and build on these interesting characters.
If you could give one note to your past self, what would it be?
I would say chill out. It’s not that bad. I used to take the smallest things very seriously. I’m a Cancerian and I’m sensitive so I would go into my shell. I used to get hurt emotionally. It made it hard for me to get up and go to work because I used to feel such a burden after any failure or any lost opportunity. Especially, in my early 20s when I was first starting out in the film industry. I didn’t know anyone. I was a scared girl who came in and worked with some of the biggest stars, who I grew up watching on TV. But I think that the one note I would give that girl is that you’re going to be okay. Smile a little more and enjoy the process.
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