FX’s announcement that the slow-burn spy thriller, The Americans has been picked up for a fourth season means that fans can look forward to more powerhouse performances from its stars. The series, which follows a pair of married KGB agents, features harrowing turns from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as well as supporting players Noah Emmerich and Annet Mahendru.
As Nina Sergeevna, Mahendru has become the show’s breakout cast member. The role, which was initially part of a four episode arc, has been crucial to the show’s gripping three-season run. An American-based KGB agent, Nina is blackmailed into working for the FBI and eventually becomes a double agent. But playing both sides comes at a cost and by season three, she finds herself in a Moscow prison.
Born in Afghanistan to a Russian mother and Indian father, the multilingual Mahendru has cited her “nomadic” upbringing as being a major influence on what roles she gravitates towards. For instance, the role of Eva the snow owl in Penguins of Madagascar – a film with a global appeal.
Recently, we had the chance to ask the actress about voicing the animated hit as well as being immersed in Nina’s harrowing journey on The Americans. Check out what she had to say below.
Was the role of Eva in Penguins of Madagascar Russian initially?
Annet Mahendru: Leslee Feldman at DreamWorks auditioned me for the role of Nina and she did the chemistry read between myself and Costa (Ronin). She knows me, so maybe Nina inspired Eva a little bit. But in Eva’s world it’s all about technology and Nina doesn’t have a cell phone. (Laughs)
Being that you’re a person who has lived in various parts of the world, do you find that you’re attracted to stories with a global appeal? Penguins was a hit in several different countries.
Annet Mahendru: It’s all because of me. All credit goes to me (Laughs). As a storyteller that is my goal. That’s why I do what I do. The world is my home. I had a bit of a nomadic upbringing and I think that reflects in the work that I do.
In the past, you’ve said that playing a character calls on you to tap into different parts of yourself. Did you find that was the case with Penguins even though it’s an animated film?
Annet Mahendru: I don’t necessarily use my personal life. I work with imagination. It’s a different world that Eva is from. She is the only girl (in the film) and she’s focused on keeping these boys in check. Just being a woman, I can relate to that. But just because a character speaks Russian… for instance my Russian experience is different from Nina’s
I hope so! Speaking of The Americans, this past season differs from the first two in that Nina and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) haven’t used their sexuality as an extension of their work. There was a piece in Vanity Fair that noted how the series has turned sexist spy tropes on their head.
Annet Mahendru: There’s been a lack of nudity (Laughs). It’s been a wonderful journey for Nina. I was very protective of her during the first two seasons but the writers created such a strong world – it was never frivolous. It was never just her way of getting things done. It was more than that.
This season especially, they’ve embodied women in their highest potential and capabilities. It was so brilliantly done. But it’s always been more than sexuality and nudity.
There was even a moment where Nina is forced to face the fact that she seduced and betrayed her boss Vasili (Peter von Berg) in season one. How did you approach that scene?
Annet Mahendru: In prison she’s been mulling over what she’s done and she’s felt guilty. She’s confronted with all of that and then she gets out and there’s that incredible moment where’s she’s confronted again. It doesn’t matter what amends she’s made within the six months she’s been in prison because then it’s right in front of her. He’s had such a change in his career because of her betrayal and it’s only going to haunt her and it’s only going to make things more difficult.
How did being confined to one set (a prison cell) and one or two costumes affect your performance?
Annet Mahendru: I’ll tell you, it was a lot of fun to be in a sweat suit and barely any makeup. I loved it (Laughs). I wanted to stay in character. But you’re in this confined space. I was locked up for the time that she was locked up. It’s heavy and it’s challenging. It’s been the most riveting season for Nina. I was so looking forward to her having her own mission and she’s doing that this season. It was incredible for me as an actor.
Since you’ve had a largely isolated storyline and haven’t interacted with the rest of the cast on-screen, are you able to appreciate the episodes as a whole when you watch them back?
Annet Mahendru: Absolutely. When I read the scripts, I’m a spectator. Then when I watch the show, I like to watch it live as well, I get involved in the story. I’m a fan of the show. I watch it every week and it takes me to all kinds of places.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Annet very much for talking with us. Be sure to pick up Penguins of Madagascar The Movie as it’s now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.