Just as TV vets Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have earned acclaim for playing the titular marrieds on FX’s The Americans, Annet Mahendru — the daughter of a Russian mother and East Indian father — has drawn attention (including a Critics’ Choice Award nod) for her compelling portrayal of Nina Sergeevna, a double agent for the KGB’s Rezidentura.
Fresh off a season that left Nina poised to pay the ultimate price for getting too close to her asset, FBI agent Stan Beeman, will Mahendru leave Emmy voters no choice but to say da as they compile the ballot for Supporting Actress in a Drama?
TVLINE | The role of Nina turned out to be a significant one, especially for an actress who didn’t come into this with that one “big” TV credit. And yet you proved to be a revelation. What gave you the confidence to go after this role?
You know what — every time I get a story I’m so thrilled and accepting of it, I always think of it as an opportunity. I try not to think about too many things, about whether I’m good for it or not. If it’s coming your way, then it’s meant to be. What’s funny is that it was an audition via Skype, basically, and they were sort of interviewing me as a spy – to see, can I play this role? They asked me about my background and I told them about where I grew up, which is kind of a complicated story — I’ve lived everywhere [including Afghanistan, Russia, and Europe] — and they were curious why I spoke all these languages. I think by the end they maybe thought I really was a spy. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Has there been for your mother or anyone of that generation from the Russian side of your family any sense of déjà vu as they watch The Americans?
They got it late, like a year after [the States], in Europe and in Russia, but my mom was really thrilled. The first time I got into my ’80s makeup and wardrobe, I kind of looked like her, so it was a special moment — for me AND for my family. I was young when we lived in the Soviet Union, and my mom was the age Nina was at that time, so it’s kind of incredible.
TVLINE | Was there one moment that crystalized for you, “This is who Nina is”?
I feel like Nina is always becoming who she is based on how she deals with what she is presented. She’s a first-tour officer and she’s become a double agent pretty much overnight, so she’s really absorbing a lot. Ultimately for her it’s about surviving, and to do that you have to believe that you can.
TVLINE | Nina is very intelligent and obviously very beautiful, she could probably have any guy she wanted – including any lunk from the motherland. What do you think she saw in Stan that drew her in closer than perhaps she should have gotten?
You have to remember, things between them started out with a lot of hostility and anger. The first thing he says to her is, “You’ve stolen things, you’re in so much trouble,” so it starts off in such a dangerous place for both of them and she has to work herself out of that hole. And then as he starts to help her, there was this one episode where, after Oleg confronts them, Stan and Nina sit down and he says, “Are you in on this?” I remember the director saying to us, “You are the Cold War, right here. You are it.” And it was so true. In general, it’s such a fascinating relationship between Russia and America, and Stan and Nina really get to explore it. They have a lot of empathy towards each other and they learn a lot from each other and they surprise each other a lot. It’s quite fascinating.
TVLINE | What’s been the most challenging scene for you to date?
After Nina takes the polygraph [in the Season 2 episode "Arpanet"], and then she and Stan kind of “make up.” It was really challenging for both of us because we wanted to talk about so many things, but they can’t. But that’s probably a good thing. If they sat down to talk about everything they’d crumble over what the truth really is!
TVLINE | As you read the Season 2 finale script, did you theorize even for a second, as I did watching it, that maybe Arkady fabricated the “goodbye” note from Stan? That Stan actually did go through with the drop, to save Nina?
It’s funny — as actors we knew that we’d get a lot of answers in the finale, and I remember the writers calling me a few hours before we got the script. I said, “Is this the ‘You’re going to die’ phone call?” But they obviously prepared me for what was coming…. Right from the start, Arkady says, “You have to turn him” and Nina says there’s no way, but then that becomes her mission and she has to believe there’s the possibility that Stan will [steal secrets], because otherwise that’s the end of her. The way she had to come to Arkady and say, “Hey, no, this man is my lover” was like saying to your parents, “This man is going to marry me” and they’re completely against it — and then the wedding day comes and the groom doesn’t show up. Now you have to explain to everyone what happened, and that’s pretty much what she has to do now, going back to Moscow to be put on trial.
TVLINE | If the roles had been reversed — if it was on Nina to deliver intel to the States in trade for Stan‘s life — how do you think that would have played out?
Wouldn’t you like to know? [Laughs] She’s done pretty well on both sides, but she doesn’t want anyone to die, that’s for sure. Like, when [the KGB's] Vlad goes, it sinks in for her – she’s responsible, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone else to die.
TVLINE | If – if – you are around for Season 3, would you like to finally get some scenes with Keri Russell or Matthew Rhys?
We haven’t had any scenes yet, so yeah — it would be interesting to see what would happen if Nina and Elizabeth sat down to talk. They could speak in English or Russian….
TVLINE | Speaking of…. Which non-native castmate is pulling off the best Russian?
Matthew is pulling it off – and with all kinds of dialects. It’s really important to everyone, so they’re all trying, but it’s a difficult language for all of us — even those of us who are fluent in it!