How the Priyanka Chopra Jonas spy series Citadel was designed to have international appeal

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, left, and Richard Madden in the spy thriller Citadel. The characters form a partnership to fight a global crime syndicate that arose from the destruction of their secret spy agency. (Prime Video - image credit)
Priyanka Chopra Jonas, left, and Richard Madden in the spy thriller Citadel. The characters form a partnership to fight a global crime syndicate that arose from the destruction of their secret spy agency. (Prime Video - image credit)

Priyanka Chopra Jonas knows what it's like to have international appeal. The Indian actor began her career in Bollywood, becoming one of Hindi cinema's most famous faces before she channelled that success over to Hollywood.

She now stars as Nadia in Citadel, an espionage thriller about a secret global spy agency with no allegiance to any one country. When the agency's cover is blown by one of its own, its spies' memories are completely wiped clean. Years later, they're forced to remember whatever they can about the past.

But part of what drew Chopra in was that Citadel yielded two satellite series in India and Italy, all of which occur in the same universe and borrow characters, ideas (and audiences!) from each other.

"It was one of the biggest things that incentivized me about the show and excited me about it, as someone who comes from a background of Hindi-language films," Chopra told CBC News.

"As talent or as actors, we were always looking to bifurcate our audiences, to go beyond subtitled movies to get theatrical releases in territories where we've not had exposure."

Prime Video
Prime Video

TV with a hefty price tag

Chopra's co-lead is Scottish Games of Thrones actor Richard Madden, while Stanley Tucci and Leslie Manville play supporting roles. The lead characters strike up a partnership to fight Manticore, a global crime syndicate that grew out of Citadel's destruction and is wreaking havoc around the world.

"It feels only natural to have that ambition of our show be transferred to other countries, where the Indian show, the Italian show [are] using all of [the] talent from their country with their own interpretation," Madden said in an interview.

The Hindi-language version produced in India stars Varun Dhawan and Samantha Ruth Prabhu, while the Italian-language version in Italy will star Matilda De Angelis.

WATCH | Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden kick butt in series trailer:

"There's so many other people out there that can help make this world," Madden said. "We are just one element of it. But that's what was one of the big draws to me."

Tucci, also speaking with CBC News, said he was fascinated by the high-concept storytelling approach. "I don't know that's ever been done before, and who knows if there are more Citadels [where they'll] take us," he said.

The show's costly production reportedly had a shaky start. Original showrunner Josh Appelbaum and half of the creative team left the U.S. series last year, citing creative differences.

The ensuing round of hiring and reshoots led to ballooning costs, pushing the Prime Video project's overall budget over the $200-million US mark and making it one of the most expensive television shows in history — not long after the streaming giant's Lord of the Rings TV spinoff The Rings of Power won that distinction.

'Global writers' room'

Citadel's executive producer team includes Joe and Anthony Russo, the sibling duo known for directing several titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix's The Gray Man. But Joe Russo said in an interview that mounting Citadel was more difficult than their MCU excursions.

"This is not based on any pre-existing material. Everything you see is built from the ground up, inch by inch. It's a big world," Russo said — even the sister series concept, which he called a "storytelling experiment."

"Without question, this is the hardest thing my brother and I have ever done."

Joe Maher/Prime Video
Joe Maher/Prime Video

David Weil, who took over as showrunner to replace Appelbaum, acknowledged the unique challenges of coming aboard a project of mammoth scale. Still, he saw an opportunity in creating what he called a "global writers' room" with filmmakers from Italy and India.

"I'm learning so much as an American storyteller from this Western point of view of the biases [and] tropes inherent, I think at times, in American productions and storytelling," he said, describing a conversation with a member of the Italian creative team who suggested changing the depiction of an Italian character in the U.S. series.

"Can we mash it up? Can we do something different? Can we subvert that expectation? So it's a lot of listening, a lot of learning, I think, for all of us," Weil said.

The final episode of Citadel's first season was released Friday, and the series got the green light for a second season earlier this week.