She speaks six languages, has lived all over the world, has a multicultural background (Russian mother, Indian father), and was pursuing a Master's degree in global affairs at New York University when she decided to pursue storytelling, via acting, instead. So the fact that Annet Mahendru's breakout role is playing Soviet embassy employee-turned-spy Nina Sergeevna on FX's hit drama The Americans seems more than a little fitting.
"I'm blown away by it every day," Mahendru, who has lived in the United States since she was a teen, told Yahoo TV. "It's interesting how things end up taking you in the direction you were already going. Because I was studying at NYU, and I always was fascinated with cultures and affecting people, and now I'm doing that. Even though she's a Soviet spy, I think many people relate to Nina because she's telling many stories."
Mahendru plays Nina as a woman in her first job trying to get ahead, an incredibly sharp employee who's forced to use her wits to keep up with a group of much more experienced men who manipulate her for their own purposes, and also as a cool, skilled manipulator herself who's become so adept at the spy game that she now finds herself in a position where the stakes are life or death. The 24-year-old actress talked to Yahoo TV about Nina and the precarious place she finds herself in — relying on FBI agent/boyfriend Stan to turn over top secret American military info to the KGB to spare Nina's life — in The Americans Season 2 finale.
The cast and crew talk Nina's motives:
How did the role of Nina Sergeevna first come about for you?
Well, first the writer sat down and wrote a brilliant part, and then Adam Arkin, who was a producer first season and directed the first episode after the pilot, he was the one also looking for [an actress] for that part. He was looking for a Russian-speaking actress, and he found my reel, and luckily I had a little clip from a Ray Ban commercial I did that was the only Russian-speaking bit on the reel. … I went to DreamWorks, and they set up a session for me and I met everyone on Skype. I played for them a couple of scenes when he first met Nina… then I was in New York like a week later for two episodes. It's like, you do one episode and all of a sudden, "Wait, we want you for two more, two more, two more," then you're there for the whole season.
One of Nina's biggest strengths is that we rarely know what she is thinking. And she can maintain that cool, that mystery, with everyone, including these men — Stan, her boss Arkady, and Oleg — she has very complicated relationships with. How do you approach playing that key aspect of the character?
It all grows on you. The funny thing for Nina is that she started as a junior officer, and she didn't know what was going to be happening. She has to start making decisions as things start to happen with Stan, and she is on her own. Then more people, Arkady, were in on it, then Oleg. But she learned so much from her relationship with Stan, and that has made her a better spy. With every person that enters the playing field with her, she plays with them, and then she learns more from them, and she becomes stronger through her experiences. She lives in the moment, and she has to, because in every moment, if she doesn't pay attention, she may die. She's really present for everything that's happening. She's like this constant student, and I think that's what makes her so strong, too, because she's really interested, she's really curious.
Nina carries herself so gracefully, she's always impeccably dressed, nothing's ever out of place. She's very feminine. She's also very tough, unshakable much of the time. Is Nina's wardrobe a factor in the calm, cool exterior she displays?
Well, the clothes, I like to believe they're an expression of who's in them. Some people say, "What do you think of that wardrobe? The shoulder pads …" and I always think it's beautiful. I've never felt more like a woman. I feel so proper at the same time. She's a single woman, she has great discipline, and she studied hard. She's smart. And the clothing represents that she can be a woman and be very strong, and doesn't need a gun to get what she needs, or to survive. She's really just surviving based on who she is, her mind and her body and her flesh, and that's it. She doesn't have anything else.
She's managed to keep up with all these games, with some very smart people, who absolutely have weapons or access to them, and she's kind of the female James Bond, but using only what she was born with.
Yeah, I'm taken by her all the time. There are a lot of times when I personally fear for her, too. Every time I get a script, there is at a point I'm like, "Well, is she going to get a gun? [laughs] every time I watch it. But the writers told me at one point, "Nina doesn't need a gun."
Nina's relationship with Stan has gotten deeper this season, just as Oleg came in. She was not an immediate fan of Oleg's, but is now in a relationship with him. Has that been as challenging to play, Nina juggling those two romances, as Nina's spy games?
Oleg came in and the dynamics shifted a little bit. What was interesting is that things were kind of arranged between Nina and Stan. She was forced to work for him, and then they grew on each other. With Nina and Oleg, they kind of fell in love. They were fighting [at the beginning], but it happened naturally. After that, it was difficult for her to go back to Stan. Because they never get to sit and talk about anything. Nina and Stan don't get to sit and talk about their beliefs, because that would just make their relationship even more scary and unworkable. She couldn't tell him about her Lenin pin, for instance.
The big turning point in Nina's relationship with Oleg was in "Arpanet," the episode with the great lie detector test challenge for Nina. Tell me about filming that intense storyline.
When we were doing the table read for that episode, I think it was Alison [Wright, who plays Martha] who was asking me, "Did you research lie detector tests? Did you talk to the [producers] about it?" I was like, "Oh, I should have!" There was so much going on with Nina right then, and there was no time. But it worked with the story. Oleg shows up with the book to help her figure out how to pass it. But Nina was so busy thinking about Stan, mad at him for making her do this. The emotions of all that were so high that Nina just showed up there and let Oleg try to train her, but she didn't believe it was possible to pass it. She just knew, this is it, he's going to kill me. And that's when she really started connecting with Oleg, and we started to see he really has a heart. She was just so angry, but then it worked. They were both surprised that it could actually work. She had to let go and trust Oleg, and it worked, and something shifted with them then.
Watch a clip from "Arpanet":
Nina is less experienced than most of these people around her, but it's clear she's at least as smart and capable as any of them. Do you think that in a different situation, she has the skills to run the Rezidentura?
Yes. Before Oleg came in, it was just her and Arkady. She was working closely with him, then Oleg comes in and kind of gets in between them, and then, you remember, the door is slammed on both of them? Oleg gets through those doors, and Nina is left behind to figure her way back in. She's always doing that, always figuring out how to get someone on her side as a woman, as a Soviet spy with Stan. I think she's gotten where she is now because of who she is, and her capabilities, and the men around her respect that. I'm interested with what the writers will let her do, because, yes, I agree she can run things just as well as men do, or even better.
Going into the Season 2 finale, Nina is in a tough spot. Because of Arkady's demand that Stan betray his country and get the KGB info on Echo, Nina's life depends on what Stan is willing to do. Again, how does she maintain her trademark Nina exterior in the face of this?
She's dealing with it moment to moment. Oleg's job, his mission, is science and technology. Nina's is people and relationships — that's her craft. Her job is to just deal with a person and deal with what's happening, using her intuition, instinct, and just make the decisions she has to make in the moment.
Watch a clip from the Season 2 finale:
The Americans Season 2 finale airs Wednesday, May 21 at 10 p.m. on FX.