The FX spy series THE AMERICANS is never as simple as spy versus spy. It is about the complex characters who spy not only for their countries, but who find themselves wondering if the personal costs and risks are worth it and whether if in fact those that they spy on are that much different than themselves. One of the more intriguing storylines has been watching Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru) forced to be a double-agent against her country in Season 1 then turn the tables on the FBI in Season 2, letting her KGB employers know that she was working with the FBI so that she could use that to the KGB’s advantage. Alas, at the end of the second season, Nina was forced to return to Russia for her initial betrayal of her country and, in Season 3, she has been in a Russian prison awaiting her final fate.
In a press call, star Annet Mahendru talked about the fun she is having playing a turncoat spy who is determined to hold her head high.
It was a big blow to see Nina get sent back to Russia at the end of last season. What do you think was going on in her head, other than betrayal from Stan (Noah Emmerich)? Do you think that that there was any relief that it was finally over, that she didn’t have to play both sides anymore?
ANNET: Yes. She is definitely going to face her own fate, and she’s decided to do it. She could have been exfiltrated. We had the car ready for her and Stan and already had the money for her and told her to run. I think she’s just going to face whatever it is.
In isolation, Nina is playing a bit of a different role this season. Can you talk a little bit about what’s in store for Nina in the coming episodes?
ANNET: A lot of isolation. It’s finding your way to survive. She’s still tough. She’s still Nina but without all the ways she usually has to survive. It’s a really, really scary time, and you’re really just facing yourself. That’s it.
The scripts are so sharply written. Do they still surprise you? Do the twists and turns still surprise you? And what was your initial reaction to getting the script for the finale of last season?
ANNET: They always surprise me. It’s nice that way. I always know that there’s something crazy happening to Nina. There always is, but I never know what. The world is always moving, and it’s such a thrill for me as an artist. When I got the finale, I, too, was hopeful. There was still hope—Stan was in the car, and she wasn’t alone yet. She wasn’t on the plane yet. There was a lot of possibility. Then you wait for the next one and then you find out that you’re in prison.
Do you see any similarities between Nina and Elizabeth (Keri Russell)?
ANNET: Yes, that’s a great point. I do. I do in the fact that Nina chooses to go back, not chooses, but she doesn’t run away. She doesn’t take Stan up on his plans because she was brought up in the Soviet Union. She’s a child of that belief system. The thing Stan is offering her is an American way; to have a choice, to get what you want, to succeed and then to be important. Her ways are you’re doing something for the greater good, for the people. She’s essentially jeopardized her people, and now she’s facing the consequences and she’s going for it. So that says a lot about, I guess, who she is. Elizabeth is also very true to her upbringing.
Can share anything about what we’ll see happen with Nina and her cellmate in the coming episodes?
ANNET: Evi comes, and she’s a horrible intrusion to Nina’s life in prison now to her little cell of privacy. She greets her with suspicion and hate because in her experience connecting with people has gotten her in trouble. Now she has nothing and who knows why this woman is there now and why she’s been joined with Nina. There’s just no trust at this point and no interest either. You’d think it’d be good to have someone to share with, but, again, what can you share. You can’t in the world that she lives in.
Are we going to see where Nina loyalties lie? She’s basically kind of been betrayed on both sides and played both sides. Will you get to explore that at all this season; the idea of loyalty and the cause that she was originally brought into this whole world for?
ANNET: Yes. She’s been there for four months now in isolation. One day sometimes is a long time. She’s been staring at those cracks on the wall and they kind of branch off and it’s kind of like her life. Had she done this, she would have been somewhere else. Had she never met Stan or actually never confessed where would her life have taken her? She went from an accomplished KGB officer who’s done so much in her first tour, second in charge to a criminal. She’s thinking about Stan, and she’s thinking about Oleg (Costa Ronin) and about having nothing at the end and possibly facing 15 years at a prison camp. Just mulling over all that and going crazy.
Looking at Nina’s motivations, for Season 1, it was purely about survival, and then in Season 2 she felt that she could play both sides. You didn’t know what her ultimate goal would be because she could easily go to either side. What’s her motivation this season? Is it survival? Is it trying to find a way out or maybe trying to find a loophole to escape?
ANNET: I feel like she’s been doing everything that she’s been told to do. She’s been a really good student, and that has gotten her places. And now she’s, I think, really discovering who she really is and, I think, what her beliefs really are and what, maybe, what she wants. I think maybe we’ll really meet her now, this season.
Does playing this part does have any special meaning for you?
ANNET: It has a lot of special meanings for me. I went to school for international relations, and I wanted to use my languages and to shake something in the world. And now, Nina, I think, embodies all that. Yes, Russia, of course, I was a little girl, and I was looking up to my mom and she was— and actually when she ends up in prison, someone very close to me has been there in those times and experienced a little bit later in the 90s. I got to talk to them personally about being alone and being cold. It’s been completely mind blowing. Everything comes from the heart. I left Russia, so I never had that experience Nina has in her 20s, a Russian woman coming to America during that time. Something my mother would have experienced that I got to experience now. It’s brought me closer to all my roots, including my Indian roots and then just illuminated many things in my life.
In an ideal case scenario, what would you like to happen to Nina in the endgame? Would you want her to defect or to run off with Oleg? What would your ideal ending for Nina’s story be?
ANNET: I want her to find her truth and her mission. Everything’s been part of someone else, a man, many men. She’s just maneuvering through and trying her best. I’ve been really ready for Nina to have her own mission; then you really discover who she is, and I think that’s really exhilarating.
Each season we’ve seen Nina confide in a new person. Somebody to share her thoughts or maybe her feelings that maybe she’s not necessarily allowed to show in her job. Does she have somebody that she can show us her personal side, maybe let her guard down and really show us who she is outside of the guard that she shows?
ANNET: Yes. It’s always a tough one because she was trained to be a spy, so she’s always shape-shifting. She can be anything. That’s what she’s cut out to be, so to say. She’s had great training to connect with people. Again, but it’s all part of the job. She may enjoy it, or you may see her being her but, again, she knows the consequences. She knows if she opens too much, or if she doesn’t open enough, then she failed. Her job so far has been seeing through people, working with these men. That was her mission, is people. It’s never just been, even with Oleg. Stan is a detective and Oleg is a spy, so she hasn’t yet met, I guess, a human being that’s just being real, being who they are without anyone to answer to. So, I don’t know. Then Oleg’s father comes to see her, and there’s a lot of hope and it’s bizarre that he’s there. He’s a man of great influence, and again, he can do something for her just like the other men were able to, at least promise her survival. At the same time, it’s so embarrassing. Here she is sitting, a criminal. Oleg really loves this woman, and it’s very touching that someone actually loves you and is still fighting for you when you can have completely failed and have nothing. I think that really moves something in her.
In your mind, how much is reality and how much is fiction in the show?
ANNET: For me when I take a story, all of it comes so true, and that world is so real, and it exists. Any cultural references hit home like, yes. I’ve never had to argue anything, or say, “Hey, that’s not — a Russian person wouldn’t do that.” The creator has worked in the CIA, Joe, and a lot of the things are from his experience and are very accurate. But again, we use our imagination in storytelling and go to places that don’t usually get talked about or seen. But it’s really about the story. We follow a timeline, so everything is based on events that happened. But it’s ultimately THE AMERICANS is about exploring the human condition and time and when Nina sits with Stan, that’s the two sides of the Cold War, and yet, there’s so much intimacy and understanding in all the difference. That’s, I think, the essence of the show, is that when these two people sit together and what happens.
Your co-star Alison Wright and she said that you guys check in with each other about if your characters are still alive that week. Has it surprised you that your character has stayed alive as long as she has? And is there been any point where you’re like, this has got to be the end for Nina?
ANNET: Yes, the finale of Season 2. I remember I hadn’t gotten the script yet, and things were looking really bad. Nina knew from the start that it would be impossible to turn Stan. And yet she did what she could and then comes to know he’s not—he’s unturnable. I was just waiting for the script, and then I get a phone call from Joe and Joel and I was like, “This is deep. Is this the ‘you’re going to die?’ Oh, great.” And they’re like, “No.” I live for the story, and sure there’s an aspect that, “Oh great you’re dead” but you’re so in the story that, “Hey, if she needs to die . . . ” These writers, they create our world. They’re our father. You believe in their plan, and if you’re going to die, you’re going to die. You’re doing it for the story. It’s so intense, even when I sit down and watch it on Wednesdays. I watch it, I’m there for the story, and I’m always laughing and screaming. It’s an incredible world. It’s so much fun.
There are so many wonderful women on this show, whether it’s Martha, Elizabeth, Nina or even Stan’s wife, and this comes at a time when 80s American culture was trying to put down the woman when women were starting to come up in the working field. Can you talk about Nina’s place within this kind of discussion of women empowerment and on this show?
ANNET: That’s a great, great topic. It’s been so interesting because she’s with these men, ultimately, but there’s so much strength to her, and the men value that and see that in her. They work together, and it’s so important when that happens. It feels like 50/50 with Stan and her other interactions and that’s what it should be like. They play their separate roles, as a woman and as a man, but they come together, and they do together and they understand each other. That’s really empowering. Nina comes from a working-class family. She’s a very young pioneer. She went to school, studied her butt off, and got herself to this posting with her own merit and her abilities. She’s capable of anything. She’s worked really hard, and she’s got her first posting in America. She’s there to protect the interests of her country, in a different country. It’s such a position of strength and to see this woman survive is empowering, I guess. Even though Stan is a married man, it’s not definitive circumstances for this exploration but it comes all from a deeper place. It’s not selfish. It’s not conniving. It’s not any of that. She’s truly just finding her own way, working. Yes, I guess, she’s the example of a woman in those times and making really difficult decisions, but making them, and following through. She really inspires me.
To see what Nina’s new journey is and if somehow miraculously leads her back to the United States or if she will continue to await her final fate in the Russian prison system, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of THE AMERICANS on Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on FX.