The Russos on creating their own ‘James Bonds,’ one of them Priyanka Chopra Jonas
There are as many unexpected twists and turns as there are adrenaline rush-inducing sequences for action aficionados to savor in Prime Video’s thrilling spy series “Citadel,” starring Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones,” “Bodyguard” and “Eternals”) and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra Jonas (“Love Again”).
And while its exciting turn of events is treated with catchy urgency, the six-episode show also manages to incorporate moments of winking frivolity and levity—like the sleek and breezy James Bond-channeling sequence on a train before punches are thrown, guns are fired, and a train is blown to smithereens at the start of Episode 1. Richard has always been no slouch at action scenes, but Priyanka also proves beyond any misogynistic doubt that she can be just as formidable in them. She’s so convincing in the aforementioned scene alone that a writer from The Daily Telegraph even described her as “flirty, funny and … hard as a bag of nine-inch nails”—with good reason.
Be that as it may, Richard and Priyanka can’t take all the credit for that plot-setting opening scene—and the rest of the series—alone. After all, the show is produced by Anthony and Joe Russo’s AGBO production company, whose releases include “Extraction,” “The Gray Man” and this year’s Oscar best picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
And if you don’t know it by now, the Russo brothers are also known for directing Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame”—with the latter two eventually ending up on the list of the highest-grossing films of all time.
But these action-packed blockbusters wouldn’t have been as successful if not for the siblings’ background in comedy (“Community,” “Arrested Development”), cleverly parlaying their inherent and time-honed humor to box-office gold. David Weil is “Citadel’s” showrunner.
So, we couldn’t pass up the chance to talk to the Russos, Anthony and Joe, as well as their sister and producing partner, Angela Russo-Otstot, in an interview last week to discuss the show—which is Prime Video’s No. 1 hit series as we write this.
The show imagines a world whose increasingly fragile democracy and security concerns are being protected by a secret global spy agency called Citadel. But when the team is destroyed by Manticore, a powerful syndicate manipulating the world from the shadows, all of Citadel’s elite agents, like former lovers Mason Kane (Richard) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka), are either murdered or have their memories erased.
Eight years later, Richard aka Kyle and Nadia aka Charlotte, unaware of their past and now leading very different lives, are tracked down by their former Citadel colleague Bernard Orlick (Stanley Tucci), who wants them to help him prevent Manticore from establishing a new world order.
Thereafter, Mason and Nadia embark on a mission that takes them around the world in an effort to stop Manticore, all while contending with a relationship built on secrets, lies and a dangerous yet undying love. They must recall their past to save their present lives—and loved ones!
When we asked Anthony, Joe and Angela what it is about a story like “Citadel” that makes it more snug fit as a series than a film on the big screen, Anthony said that the decision is anchored on the function of character.
More character work
“Long-form storytelling requires much more character work in terms of depth than a two-hour film does … and you have more time to film in the former,” he reasoned. “The concept behind the show banks on the notion that the memories of these individuals are erased, and they’re then given new identities.
“Unfortunately, their past identities would soon come haunting them and would be in conflict with the ideals of the new identities that had been created for them in the present day.
“That’s very complicated stuff. And something like that can play out over many hours of storytelling as the characters slowly regain their memories. How do they adjust to these new realizations? How does their morality get clouded by that? Because of this, it felt to us like a clear, long-form story to tell.”
For Joe, releasing an independently produced project on a streaming network like Prime Video has instant advantages.
“This is generally why and how we work at our company, AGBO. We set up this independent studio so that we would be able to develop ideas with complete independence,” he said. “This way, we’re financed well enough where we can support paying a range of artists and writers to develop projects over a good period of time. The reason why we do that is we want to develop every idea without any baggage about what it’s supposed to be, so every project has the freedom to become what it wants to be.
“But once we know what the project evolves into, that’s when we start to think about who the best partner would be to bring this project to audiences. So, it’s a long process.
“And that’s something that we’re proud of at AGBO. We set up a system to do that because, especially during the early part of our career, it was frustrating when you realize that your production is stuck in a company that doesn’t really want it—and that can often kill a project! There’s nothing more heartbreaking than that. So, it’s wonderful to have the freedom to make sure that every project is going exactly where it belongs. That’s really what our process is.”
Another factor that makes the series a pretty sight to see is its travelogue element, which allows viewers to follow its protagonists as they hopscotch from one continent to another.
“Look, it’s part of the language of many spy shows … that it’s global … so the travel component of it is critical to the story,” explained Anthony. “You want to feel like the espionage or intrigue is on a global scale … that there are spies from different corners of the world connecting with each other. That’s part of the appeal of shows like this.”
We also asked the trio about the masterstroke of casting Priyanka—described by some critics as someone who could pass off as a female James Bond—and how her participation in the series came about.
“Priyanka is very unique, but she’s also a true global star,” Anthony pointed out. “She’s unique for this particular show because. other than the fact that she’s a great actress, she also turned out to be great at physical stunts!
“Part of the credibility of the fight sequences is due to her commitment to those sequences and to doing most of her own stunts. What you’re seeing onscreen is Priyanka herself.
“When her name came up, Anthony and I absolutely loved the idea. We then spoke to Priyanka, who actually loved the concept of the show. So, the role of Nadia was written specifically for Priyanka. Now, we can’t imagine anyone else in the role.”
While the siblings look up to their respective favorite fictional spies and espionage films, they really see “Citadel” as a thriller that subverts genres.
Anthony shared, “I don’t know if we thought of specific spies and influences as we were crafting this series, but the works of Brian De Palma certainly came to mind. The ideas weren’t as much from espionage films as they were about quote-unquote thrillers. That was probably the biggest influence on the look and feel of the show.
For her part, Angela said that even though they’re big fans of genre films and have many references that they can point to as great influences, they oftentimes think of things that have yet to be seen on-screen.
“When we sit down to think about how to approach a genre, we specifically reflect on what we have not seen before, and that makes it a really exciting ‘selling’ opportunity here, like casting a duo (Richard and Priyanka) who has a complicated but shared past, and features a woman in a way we’ve not seen in the spy space to date.
“And that felt like the most exciting approach to really consider, compared to the other spy tropes that we’ve all seen before. We leaned into this from a storytelling perspective, which felt long overdue.
And while the Russos may have helped elevate the brands of a string of Marvel superheroes in their MCU outings, they have also inadvertently created their own idiosyncratic versions of the British super spy, James Bond—and one of them happens to be female and a former Miss World titlist at that!
Would AGBO consider working on a Bond film in the future, perhaps with Richard or Priyanka in the role of Agent 007?
“I think either Richard or Priyanka would make an incredible Bond,” Anthony reiterated. “But as much as we love James Bond—and we’d certainly be open to making an 007 film in the future—we have our own franchise to focus on.
“Both Richard and Priyanka have all the qualities required for that character, and that’s why we cast them as a duo in the show. They have amazing talents and range as actors that fit very well into the spy thriller genre, physically and emotionally. So, we have them as our very own James Bonds right now.”