THE FX drama series THE AMERICANS is such an incredible television show, filled with such finely-nuanced character portrayals, that viewers are often conflicted about rooting for a family of Russian spies working against the United States. But that is the paradox of great television: sometimes you find yourself identifying with those who hold vastly different political ideals and beliefs. It has been a pleasure, if not moral conundrum, to be a fan for the past five seasons of THE AMERICANS. While at this past Winter Television Critics Association Tour, in an exclusive interview, Costa Ronin talked about the extraordinary journey he has taken with his character Oleg on THE AMERICANS and reflects on his own six season adventure as an actor on the show.
Season 6, everything is wrapping everything up. Things are getting crazy, and poor Oleg gets back involved with things back on the US side, which I’m sure he was never anticipating having to do again.
COSTA: He was hoping not to have to deal with it, yes.
He does make the return to the US. Is he elated to be back in that familiar environment, or is that just too terrifying at this point?
COSTA: It’s neither. It’s not terrifying, and it doesn’t bring him any joy either because it’s the path that he wanted to forget. It’s the path that he did his utmost best to forget. And, especially now that he has a wife and a child, it’s imperative that none of that ever happens again. However, as we know, the future that he created for himself gets destroyed and ruined by his past. It’s crazy, but it’s somebody else that he was being a part of for so many years.
He kind of gets caught up in the events around him again. But this time, it seems like he’s a little bit more of a willing participant, and he seems to be doing it for the sake of honor. At least that was my impression.
COSTA: Yes. He always did. Everything he did, he always did it for the sake of honor because he always tried seeing the bigger picture. It was never for him about, “Okay, we’ll just …” And just blindly following the orders of anybody. It was like, “Yeah, sure. This is my job, but does it make sense?” And a lot of the decisions that he made over the years, which some of them we got a chance to see, those decisions were made for the sake of the bigger picture. It was all about the bigger picture. And of course right now, everything that’s happening right now in the world because of the events that happened over the last 30 years — some of which we are covering in the course of the show, some of them — the show gives us a glimpse of what those people had to deal with and go through in their lives and how they navigated the political change, how they navigated those decisions, those moral decisions and those work decisions and those family decisions in those years. I mean, we probably don’t know it that well, but the generation of our parents, they were the ones who were hands-on making those decisions.
And those events had ripple-effects that we currently live amongst.
COSTA: Yeah. Yeah.
Those were powerful times, even though they might not have sensed it completely at that pointy. But Oleg seems to have a sense, before he went back to the United States, that this could be a tipping point. Like if he didn’t go, it was going to set a course for his country that he didn’t want to see happen.
COSTA: You never know, because it made the most sense for him. You’ve got to remember also that he and Arkady were always on the same side, even if they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. So, for Arkady [Lev Gorn] to come in and say, “Listen, I need help,” it was a no brainer for Oleg to say, “I believe on this. I may not necessarily understand everything there is to understand because I don’t have access to the same material that you have.” But you’ve got to remember, Arkady is one of the big wigs of the KGB, the whole structure of the KGB, whereas Oleg’s out. He’s been out for three years. A lot have changed in three years. He doesn’t have access to the same intel. He doesn’t have the same intel. Moreover, he’s moved on. He’s got a family. He’s got a beautiful wife and a baby boy. The last thing he wants to do is go back to that whole nonsense of the spy game. However, he does feel the responsibility of being part of it because if he doesn’t, like he says to his wife, “If we sit still, then what’s going to happen?” because the future of their kid lies in his hands. So, if he sits still, and everybody else who makes sense sits still, then where is the world going to come to? And what we are witnessing right now is exactly what was happening then. It’s people like Oleg and people like Arkady and people like Stan who were making those decisions 30 years ago created this ripple-effect, and the result is what we’re dealing with today.
When you took this role, did you foresee it would be kind of a hero’s journey for him, that he would have this redemption?
COSTA: No, I was going into those two episodes and go home. I had absolutely no idea I was going to be here for this long, and I absolutely had no idea that we’d be having this conversation five, six years down the track. It just so happened that the writers saw something in that character, and they were interested enough to find out more about that character. And that’s how it began, and I’m very grateful that it wasn’t just an add-on character. They were able to give him his own world and his own life and write out different facets of his life, to give an audience an understanding of what he is like, not just a public figure, but as a man, as a human being. Because at the end of the day, the show is not about the Cold War. It’s not a show about spies. It’s a show about human beings. There is just no greater place in life where the stakes are so high, where you go out on a limb, and you make decisions like that every day, and then you come home, and you check your kids’ homework, and you have a barbecue with an FBI agent. There is just simply nothing else in the world you can do that beats that.
So this has been kind of remarkable for you, then, as well. Not just his journey. But for you as an actor.
COSTA: Yeah. The research that goes into creating a character like that is just tremendous. It doesn’t stop. We go on hiatus but it doesn’t mean that my work stops because I need to know everything he would know. I still read the same books. I still meet with the people he would interact with and have that insight so when I’m in his shoes, I’m able as an actor to think his thoughts and be him rather than act him, so to speak. Do you know what I mean? So, until we call the wrap and until all of it’s done, and I’m over, and the character goes on the rack, he’s alive.
So Oleg is a living and breathing character for you.
COSTA: He is very much so, very much so.
What are you going to take away from this experience?
COSTA: You know, it’s a very difficult question because, I mean, the obvious answer would be, “Everything.” But I don’t want to go that route and say, “Yeah, you know, this and this and this.” Of course there’s memories. Of course there’s, creatively, an amazingly creative, fulfilling experience, and of course there’s this sense of achievement that we were a part of this story first on television. What THE AMERICANS did, and what the facts did with this show, was change the perception of the way the foreign characters are perceived and portrayed. It changed, whether we’ll see it or not, whether we understand or believe it or not, but THE AMERICANS and the facts with the show changed the course of television. You have a look at the characters, any ethnic characters, before THE AMERICANS, and now, the way they are written, the way their stories are told, it’s changed, and it will never be the same.
Right, and we have a much more empathetic view of all of them.
COSTA: Absolutely. Now we’re getting shows led by foreign characters. We don’t just have a token Russian or a token French, played by an American or a British, somebody who’s just faking the accent. There’s more understanding about those people. There’s better understanding about those actors. There’s more access to the material. And we as creatives, we are looking at those stories differently. We’re not interested if you just say, “Okay, well there’s going to be a mean German scientist in there.” No, we are telling stories. We take shows to those locales. We tell stories from those points of view.
More well-rounded and whole characters.
COSTA: Very much so, and it’s because of this show and because of this network that that’s happening. And I hope sooner or later the audience and the members of the wider community will see that for what it is today.
It has been pretty exciting. The show did cast people from other areas in order to give some authenticity to roles.
COSTA: They were the first one to do it. They were the first ones to believe in this.
When you’re out and about as a real person in the real world, do you get that kind of response from the fans?
COSTA: Most of it is coming from the Russian community because the Russian community is the only one who can compare and see the validity of the creative choices and the realness of the character, so to speak. A lot of the people, a lot of the non-Russian speakers or non-Russians, they just see the realness of the character. They don’t know why. They just see a character. They see the acting. They see the directing. They see the writing and everything else, but the Russians know.
So they appreciate all of that.
COSTA: Very much so. It’s the authenticity of the characters. It makes so much sense when an actor comes in and doesn’t try to fake an accent and then make a joke out of it, but be that character, and think in the language in which the character thinks. And you can not … There is no substitute for that. You can fake the accent. You can pay tons of money to accent coaches and try to be that person, but you will never be that person. You will never think in that language. You will never have the dilemma of the character. You will never get the Chekhov the Tolstoy. You have to be able to tap into that common DNA and think in the language of that character to be that character. Otherwise, it’s fake.
Did you ever have this kind of conversation with Matthew (Rhys), because he obviously hides his accent to do his role?
COSTA: Well, he doesn’t hide the accent, he just embraces the accent of the character as the American. But Matthew, the way he works is that he works on energies, and so he embraces the energy of his character. So Matthew is brilliant in what he does, and he becomes that character. He doesn’t, “Okay, well I’m going to speak with an American accent now.” His whole body changes. He becomes a different person. He becomes Philip, and through Philip all of those other personas that Philip impersonates. And this is why Matthew is so brilliant, because of what he does because he thinks from the level of energies. He doesn’t try to like, “Okay, I’m going to act like a Spanish now. I’m going to act like a French now.” No, he becomes that person. He does a tremendous amount of work to be able to achieve that.
So Matthew’s kind of like a chameleon.
COSTA: Very much so. Yeah.
Getting back to Oleg a little bit. Are we going to see him interact, perhaps, with Stan (Noah Emmerich) again, or is that going to be too risky for him?
COSTA: I can tell you about that, and especially this season because this season all the stories are sort of coming to a resolution. Maybe yes, maybe no. At the end of the day, it’s Stan’s journey, and it’s the journey of Philip and Elizabeth and all those open stories that are still open at this point.
How do you feel about where Oleg’s journey ends?
COSTA: You know I was asked many times in the past: what do I think is going to happen? What do I think is going to be the end of the game for him? And what was most important for me is not to have a specific end, but to have a truthful end for this character and not stretch it in any way and make it real, make it truthful. And I think we’ve been able to accomplish that.
To see where Oleg’s journey ends and if he makes it out alive, be sure to tune in for the final season of THE AMERICANS on Wednesday nights at 10:00 p.m. on FX. To find out more about the show, you can follow it on Twitter @TheAmericansFX and to follow Costa as his career continues, you can find him on Twitter @CostaRonin.
THE AMERICANS SEASON 6 TRAILER:
THE AMERICANS, SEASON 6 RED CARPET WITH THE CAST: