Priyanka Chopra Jonas grew up eyeing a career as an aeronautical engineer, but a detour to pageantry led to a Miss World crown in 2000 and a pivot to an acting career. She became a star in her native India and has gone on to conquer Hollywood. That may sound like the stuff of fairy tales, but there were certainly challenges along the way—from facing a patriarchal society at home to avoiding what Chopra Jonas calls “jack-in-the-box” typecasting in the studio system. Now, she’s determined to make things easier for women and South Asian talent following behind her, rewriting the rulebook and busting conventions.
Of how her education informed her business decisions, Chopra Jones says, “I’m someone who likes excellence… I like having a sense of control and I think math and physics give you that because you always have to find the right answer… Curiosity helped me navigate unfamiliar waters and land into something which I made my own.” Chopra Jonas took the ethos of being a student into her career, she said, and it has been worth it, in spite of the struggles. “I’ve reached a place where I find immense challenge and complexity and joy and growth in the business that I ended up in.”
Chopra Jonas’ Bollywood credits include such hits as Andaaz, Aitraaz, Krrish and Bajirao Mastani among dozens of others. She is one of the rare Indian-born stars to fully cross over to Hollywood, having spent several years in the ABC thriller Quantico. More recently, she starred in The Matrix Resurrections and Netflix’s The White Tiger, which she executive produced.
DEADLINE: Was there competition when you were coming up, and entering the business from the pageant world?
PRIYANKA CHOPRA JONAS: Yes, to that very specific point. This was early 2000s and yeah there was competition because in any predominantly patriarchal society, women are pitted against each other and there’s just one that can be the best. Over time, I think especially in my generation, we’ve all made immense strides in digging in our feet and creating a sisterhood, which I’m very proud to be part of now as a community.
DEADLINE: How has that evolved?
CHOPRA JONAS: Whether it’s Bollywood or in America, what I’ve experienced is women standing up for women. I’m doing a movie in India now with two of the top actresses in the country, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt, and the three of us decided we wanted to do a movie together and partner together to produce it. But the idea is, yes, it was very different when I started out. We were all pitted against each other, and our casting was very dependent on the lead actor of the movie, and it depends on who is the flavor at that time and that was a very unsettling feeling.
It’s a really telling question because it really gave my career a very specific direction because of a specific uncomfortable feeling.
I took on many parts which were female driven. I took on movies that were solely on my shoulders because it was very uncomfortable to have to be the flavor of the season and then not get cast. So, it defines me taking on movies that didn’t necessarily always have the big male leads and it made my career very much my own.
DEADLINE: How does that come about that you get to choose?
CHOPRA JONAS: You’ve done enough movies that people are casting you or want to do stories around you, they just don’t have the budget for a big movie, and they never would have at that time because the audience wasn’t privy to female-led films being box-office successes. Now you see many female-led films being box-office successes, hence a lot more female-led movies being made.
And female actresses of my generation that have had the courage to say, “OK, I’m gonna get to work with the big actors but also have agency in my own career and have films that I will produce.” You see so many female producers and that’s something that happened in Hollywood as well. Like Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, so many of these women have talked about wanting to be able to do stories where their characters have agency and then becoming producers or writers to be able to create them because no one else was doing that for them. That’s the kind of pivot you see in India as well and I think this generation of female actors has been very pivotal to be able to make that happen.
I think the women of my generation were also feeling very boxed. So, I think a lot of us felt the need to be able to push the envelope and I’m really glad that I had the ability, the courage, to be able to take on that dive and to kind of go with it.
It’s not easy, it’s scary, but just that feeling… Even when I got to America to be seen as the lead of a movie which was mainstream, which had a big budget, was a big fight for a brown girl like me, especially one that came from India.
DEADLINE: To what do you ascribe being able to make such strides in your career?
CHOPRA JONAS: It’s taken me 10 years and I’m finally able to do the lead parts that I wanted to do. But it takes perseverance. I stuck my ground at the beginning of my career. When I started feeling comfortable, I started working with people I respect, that respect me, respect the fact that I bring something to the table and there are many of those out there. So, you take that one action, I stood my ground and then I found colleagues that helped me build a career that was bold and disruptive and my own, versus what was laid out for me.
I can say that in India and in my work in America, it just takes perseverance and really sticking to it—consistency, determination. There are times you eat lots of ice cream and there are lots of tears, but you get there.
DEADLINE: What were those first meetings like in Hollywood for you?
CHOPRA JONAS: It was a very humbling learning experience. I learned very quickly that if I wanted to succeed in Hollywood, I couldn’t rest on my laurels that I had built in another film industry. I had to come in as a new actor, I had to introduce myself. But the different part about it is that when I walked in a room, people took meetings with me, not because I had worked in different genres of film, but because I was a popular Indian actor. So, I would get in the room and then I would be cast as the jack-in-the-box for that audience, which felt too transactional. I wasn’t being seen as an artist, but when you’re starting out you have to do some of that, too, while you build your credibility and how people see you. I play the long game and I’m not afraid of it.
DEADLINE: Looking from the outside, it seems to me that female actors from India travel, but the male stars stay in the country. Do you have a theory about why that might be?
CHOPRA JONAS: I want to start by saying it is not everybody’s ambition to work in Hollywood. That’s something I’ve definitely seen—and it shouldn’t be either, because it’s a massively large industry, self-distributed around the world. And the ones who do want to work in Hollywood, you know, it’s a lot of work, you’ve got to set up base here.
It took me 10 years to be able to do the work that I was already doing in India in a completely different country.
DEADLINE: How do you see the situation today?
CHOPRA JONAS: I think it’s such a wonderful time to be an Indian actor in Hollywood because we’re creating such an amazing community around the South Asian actors—and I’m going to include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan—where you’re seeing people coming into Hollywood and we’ve gone from Apu in The Simpsons to the Bridgerton sisters, and that’s been a massive struggle for a lot of people. I paid for myself, I paid for my life when I moved to America. I wasn’t getting paid when I started here so it’s a big sacrifice. I had to take off work in India, which was a big sacrifice, too. I didn’t know if I would succeed in America, and at the same time, what if work just stops coming?
Hollywood’s golden gates are not so open to immigrant actors as it is hopefully now starting to be because of this generation that is demanding change and that has changemakers supporting it.
My career is not my own, I had people who had a vision in 2010 and said, “She can be mainstream,” in the same way you have Josh Safran and ABC who cast me in Quantico and said, “We’re going to put a brown girl in a network show.” That was unheard of at the time, and now we’re seeing things like what Shondaland has done with Bridgerton.
As an Indian, the bane of my existence is Apu. When I went to high school [in the U.S.] everybody recognized him as the only reference, and I had no one who looked like me on American television. It was such an emotional moment for me when I saw that happen for myself. And now, when I watch Bridgerton, and I see the nuances of Indian culture and the complexity of the origin of these characters… I love that these are a South Indian family who has moved to London. It’s such a cosmopolitan [thing], which is the Indian of today, and that’s been a big journey. That journey has been because of people who have come before us as South Asians, like Anil Kapoor, Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling… You know, there are so many incredible actors that pushed that envelope—Naveen Andrews, my gosh; I’m missing people, but if you think about that it’s been a steady growth and it’s just been wonderful to have been a part of that growth.
DEADLINE: You’re also using your platform to support women and other charitable endeavors.
CHOPRA JONAS: I try to. When you have a platform, you have the ability to amplify things that mean something to you, and I learned that very early because of a pageant. I was a small-town girl who was plummeted onto a platform with bright lights, and it took me off balance for a second, but when I found my feet, I realized what I could do with it. So yes, along with furthering my own career as an artist I’ve always tried to be philanthropically aligned, and to further the cause as much as I can for women, specifically.
DEADLINE: How does your production company figure in that?
CHOPRA JONAS: Purple Pebble Pictures had a certain ethos when I started it in India. I started making regional movies, and at that time not too much of Bollywood was producing regional work, and we made a few really amazing movies and won some really high national awards. Then I moved the company to LA as my career started working here, and the mission now is I need to tell unique stories about women, unique storytellers. But more than anything, to give opportunity to the up-and-comers, to people who don’t get their doors open.
I am incubating new writers, filmmakers who want to pitch their stories, and Purple Pebble Pictures is the gateway for that. I never had that when I joined the industry.
I’m also really trying to immerse the business of entertainment with stories about India and about the South Asian diaspora. About girls, about women, about our place here. And I’m trying to create diversity, not by just talking about it but by actually letting my work and the work that comes out of my production company stand for it.
DEADLINE: Do you feel like the industry is more open to that?
CHOPRA JONAS: I think the industry has had to become more open to it. With streaming coming in, it literally had to quickly pivot into being able to quickly provide that much content to that many specific local regions that streaming is catering to now.
Hyper-specificity in entertainment is so interesting. For any viewer sitting in any part of the world to see themselves on a streamer and say, “Oh my gosh, this is me—what?” Representation matters, we just never had representation in entertainment for diverse casting, or for people from all around the world because the medium was so limited. But now with streaming coming in, the opportunities are endless, and we just have to make sure that we give these amazing endless opportunities to the people who deserve it. To look outside of our box and create opportunities where you don’t see any.
But we have to keep the decisionmakers in check. That’s going to be such a crucially important thing that this generation of people in film and television need to do, is make sure that the traffic coming in and out of those doors is democratized, that we do create opportunity for the people that these doors have opened up to.
DEADLINE: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
CHOPRA JONAS: I’ve thought about this question myself. I’m sure all of us are thinking right now, you know, you take one turn and see the world going to destruction, you take another turn and you see the world going to destruction all over again. It’s a scary place to raise children and to think about a future.
What I’ve started doing, which has really helped me honestly, is focusing on the now more than I ever have. I take a second to tell the people I love that I love them. I make sure that when I’m working with someone, we have fun. I make sure that the stories that I’m telling give people joy, move people, and that’s all we can do right now. I think the world is a little bit fractured and we need to heal it. We’re so lucky to be in entertainment [where] we can be part of that healing. I mean, we can’t do everything, but we are part of that healing and I’ve chosen to focus on that right now.
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