When I meet Priyanka Chopra Jonas, she is days away from the premiere of the spy drama Citadel, one of the most ambitious and expensive projects in Amazon Studio’s streaming history. The actress anchors the series and does her own stunts as a spy of James Bond-caliber skill and charisma, while simultaneously earning top billing in a new romantic comedy with Sam Heughan. Before all of this, Chopra Jonas was a supernova of Indian cinema, who, in addition to her acting and musical career, founded a production company; scored a multimillion-dollar TV development deal; helped launch the buzzy New York City restaurant Sona and the hair-care company Anomaly; served as a brand ambassador for Bulgari; invested in Bumble; wrote a bestselling memoir; tirelessly advocated for the education of girls around the world; and became mother to a 15-month daughter of her own, who is trying at the moment to go down for a nap. Still, she’s worried that she needs a hobby.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately,” Chopra Jonas says from London, midway through a busy day of press for her new series, which streams on Prime Video starting April 28. “How many women out there who balance work and life forget about doing something that is just for themselves, because they’re so consumed by having that work-life balance? I realized my husband plays golf and sports and has all of these hobbies. Why don’t I want more for myself?”
On the set of Citadel—an intense year-and-a-half long shoot executive produced by Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of Avengers: Endgame—she thought she might use her downtime to knit a sweater for said husband, singer/actor Nick Jonas. But the resulting effort was, “I swear to God, like seven times his size,” she says, laughing. “I have no concept of sizing. He was so sweet. He tried it on and was like, ‘Oh, it’s lovely.’ And it’s falling off of him.” So maybe knitting is not the answer, the actress concedes, but still, she wants more from her me time than a binge-watch and a glass of wine. “My life is complex and I understand that, so I end up doing something banal and simple,” she says. “But I want to be able to rise above just banal and be able to find something that contributes to me as well.”
The fact that a woman as fully optimized as Chopra Jonas would demand more of herself is humbling. But it’s also firmly in line with the intentional person her friends and colleagues say she is. You know the adage, “don’t meet your heroes”? Anthony Russo, who has met most of them, calls his leading lady the rare exception: “Priyanka is exactly who you hope she would be like. She’s super nice, super kind, thoughtful, considerate, quirky, fun. She’s an incredible presence on set. Hours can get long, it can get repetitive, and it can be a grind like any other job, but she has this energy that always keeps it buoyant and focused and fun.”
The actress is at the height of her powers in Citadel, a propulsive, high-concept series in which she plays Nadia Sinh, top agent of the namesake global spy network. Her partner, Mason Kane (Richard Madden), has had his memory wiped (just go with it), which makes Nadia the alpha of the pairing—not a Bond girl, but a Bond. The Russo brothers “were very clear that the inspiration for Nadia was Bond, and that she would do the heavy lifting,” Chopra Jonas says. She welcomes the gender swap, especially given how male-dominated the genre has historically been. “It’s fun to be doing the asskicking and the cool lines and walking away from an explosion,” she says with some delight. “I always wanted to walk away from an explosion!”
The actress threw herself headfirst into her stunts, FaceTiming her manager at the end of shooting days to proudly report a singed eyebrow or bruised elbow. “I started dubbing her ‘the female Tom Cruise,’” jokes Joe Russo. “There’s a bit in one of the episodes where her character gets slammed on tables in a dining room of a restaurant, and she was like, ‘I’m all for it. I want to do it.’ I was gravely concerned that this was going to shut down the production, but she popped up right after and was ready to go right into the next portion of the sequence. It’s rare that you find an actor with (1) that physical capability, and (2) that dedication, because it translates. [The action feels] very visceral and very emotional because it’s her.”
The role was the highest degree of difficulty, but that is how Chopra Jonas likes it. “At this point in my career, ’I’m looking for heavy lifts,” she says. “I’m looking for challenges. I’ve learned enough about the craft and about the job that I want to flex my muscles and I want to find thoughts that I can sink my teeth into. Citadel was definitely that.”
To call Chopra Jonas a testament to the merits of hard work is perhaps underselling her story, given that she is the only woman to cross over from South Asia and achieve her level of success in Hollywood. In some ways, she was raised for the role. As physicians in the Indian Army, her parents moved often and gave her more independence than many other girls her age. Three years studying in the United States as a teen gave her a taste of Western sensibilities. In her memoir Unfinished, she recounts how, after returning from America, her younger brother plotted with her mother to enroll her in the Miss India pageant in hopes she would win and vacate their apartment’s larger bedroom. Suffice it to say, the plan worked.
The former Miss World’s Bollywood career encompasses more than 50 films and music videos over the course of 15 years, in which she played everything from a sexy bombshell in the musical Dostana to an autistic teenager in the drama Barfi. Her manager and friend Anjula Acharia, a California tech entrepreneur and angel investor, first encountered Chopra Jonas on her Indian mother’s TV. “I had nothing to do with the entertainment industry, but I asked my mom who she was, and she said she was basically the Beyoncé of Bollywood,” Acharia says. “I remember making this mental note: If anyone could take on America from India, it would be this woman.”
Five years later, the two were pounding the pavement in L.A. “I’m sure it was daunting and scary, but she knew how to drop her ego and give it her all and show up to work as a professional. She is a warrior, and she will always go in and give her best, even if the circumstances around her aren’t playing to her best,” Acharia says. “As her career has grown, she has unfolded and become an icon for so many different communities—immigrants, women of color, working women. I did not think that America’s sweetheart would be South Asian, but I think she’s really become that.”
Her international crossover appeal made Chopra Jonas uniquely suited to Citadel, which will include local versions, starting with India and Italy; each show will stand alone, but the characters are interconnected. The Indian version, which is currently mid-production, will explore Nadia’s backstory. “It is the most ambitious undertaking in terms of creating a global universe with original IP, which connects writers and filmmakers and casts from different parts of the world,” Chopra Jonas says. “I’ve always envisioned that the entertainment industry was one. Even though we create movies from different parts of the world, and we speak different languages, we’re all doing the same thing. And especially now, it’s such a great time, because people are consuming entertainment from all parts of the world. My mom watches Korean dramas all day and I just watched a Turkish show recently. I’ve always wanted to have Indian cinema be a lot more mainstream, but we were told people didn’t watch subtitled movies in the theaters. But now it’s streaming, and subtitled movies can win the Oscar, too.”
Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, began conversations with Chopra Jonas about the project several years ago. She also signed the actress to a first-look deal to develop her own shows for Amazon and helped her obtain equal pay with her male costar. She says it was “abundantly clear to us that Priyanka’s body of work (in addition to her demanding role as a costar in this series) completely warranted pay parity.”
“In my 23-year career, it’s the first time I got parity, and that happened, I think, because the head executive of Amazon Studios is a female,” says Chopra Jonas, whose own Purple Pebble Studios produces projects from emerging Indian talent. “When we have females in positions of power and positions of decision-making, they make space for other females. You see female actors banding together and producing stuff together and saying, ‘If the studios are not going to do it, we’re going to do it for ourselves.’ I’ve done it for myself, and I’ve worked with females behind the camera and in front of the camera, and it’s wonderful that we’re not being pitted against each other. Or at least we’ve realized that that’s what was happening to us.”
As for her Citadel dance partner, Chopra Jonas says she binged The Bodyguard and Game of Thrones like the rest of us and was a fan. In Madden, she was relieved to find a kindred personality. “I’m a very frenetic, neurotic prep person,” she says. “I need to think about my character. I need to ask the questions. I need to sit with the writers. I need to figure her out, so when I come to set, I just kind of play. And Richard is also incredibly prep-oriented. We had a sense of trust with each other because we knew that we cared.”
Madden, for his part, credits his co-star with keeping him out of the weeds. “I can overthink things and get hung up on the timelines and details, and Priyanka is there to go, ‘Okay, now let’s be present,’” he says. “She has a brilliant skill at bringing out the best of me on the day because she’s so there right with you. And it is beautifully disarming.”
Lately, Chopra Jonas has set up base in London, moving for the summer with “dog, baby, and mom” in tow. Her husband is there, on and off, prepping for the release of a new album and tour dates with the Jonas Brothers. It’s a familiar city, as she lived there through most of the pandemic, filming both Citadel and Love Again, a sweet ’90s throwback romantic comedy co-starring Outlander’s Sam Heughan (and, charmingly, Céline Dion) that hits theaters May 5. That same month, she’ll begin filming the action-comedy Heads of State alongside Idris Elba and John Cena.
May also marks her second Mother’s Day since welcoming her daughter, Malti Marie, though she prefers to keep the focus on her own mother figures—not just her mom, but also the grandmother who looked after her while her mother earned a master’s degree and the aunties who took her in during her formative years in the U.S. “I’ve had incredible influences of moms in my life, and now with my mother-in-law [Denise Miller-Jonas] who’s this epic, amazing woman,” she says. “I’ve not been a mom long enough to be able to take the celebration, but I love to celebrate the moms in my life on Mother’s Day.”
Last Mother’s Day was a quiet one, given that Malti had just come home from 100 days in the NICU. One year later, Chopra Jonas says, “She’s got me wrapped around her finger. I don’t even know how I’ll ever discipline her because I just don’t have it in me. I was so close to losing her so many times that she can get away with anything and I just want to see her happy. I want her to be the happiest. She’s a super smiley, happy baby, and that’s all my goal is—to see her joyous. Every time she smiles, it lights up my world, and that’s all I want to do.”
Has anything surprised her about being a mother? “Just how much you can love something and how viciously you’ll protect it,” she says. “I’ve seen my mom rip people when I’ve been hurt and I just never understood it. I was like, ‘Mom, chill out. What are you doing?’ Now I get it. I would take someone out.” Which isn’t to say she wants to shield her daughter from the world. “I was never left at home with a nanny; I was always with family and friends. I think I had a sense of confidence because I was always around people who loved me, so we’ve really tried to emulate that. Malti is always with her family and she can go anywhere with us. It was very important to us to be able to expose her to just life and its beautiful gifts.”
As Chopra Jonas talks to me, her husband is home with the baby. Splitting the domestic load is something the couple has done naturally, she says. “We just feel a sense of contribution when it comes to the not-fun stuff,” she says. “I don’t remember having a conversation where I’m like, ‘I need you to do more of this.’ We both have careers that are important to us, so we split our time in a way where one of us is able to do the house things or be with the baby.” Whether it is a relationship with a partner, family, or a friend, she says, acts of service are her love language. “When you really care about someone, you try to alleviate whatever pressure is on them by doing some of the chores or by taking on something that they always do. It’s simple things: I love coffee in bed, and my husband realized that, and now I always have coffee in bed. That support is tremendously important, but it’s a two-way street. You have to be able to give that love and support to the people that also give you that kind of support. If you see your partner doing something every day that seems boring for them, just surprise them by doing it. It’s the sweetest thing in a marriage.”
Maybe it’s because she has a dozen things going at once, but Chopra Jonas says she isn’t often asked how she is doing herself. But she would like you to know that she is in a great place right now. “I just turned 40 this year. It was a momentous turn of events for me,” she says. She remembers staying up for the party when her own mother turned 40, the military families dressed in their best, the smell of perfume, the sparkle of jewelry, and the sound of Kenny G playing in the background. “It’s crazy just thinking about how little I was and what my ambitions and dreams were then. And here’s me turning 40,” she reflects. “I’m at the precipice of figuring out what my career in America looks like. I’ve enjoyed being able to play a variety of roles, [and I’ve] worked in different genres with the best filmmakers in India. I’d like to be able to explore that on the other side of the pond as well. I’m curious to see as an actor how I will unfold in this next decade. I’m curious to see what kind of mom I end up becoming. I’m curious to see how as a woman I change.”
Hair by Sam McKnight using Hair by Sam McKnight; makeup by Georgina Graham using Max Factor; manicure by Michelle Class at LMC Worldwide; produced by Diana Eastman; special thanks to the Bulgari Hotel London.