Every once in a while an actress lands a small role and, by brute force or brute charm, forces the writers to make it bigger. Jessica Paré on Mad Men, for instance, or Drea DeMateo in The Sopranos. Annet Mahendru, the sparkling and preposterously sexy 25-year-old who studied with the Groundlings, stumbled into the role of Nina, the KGB's Machiavellian mata hari on The Americans, FX's runaway '80s-era espionage hit. She speaks English, Russian, Hindi, German and a couple of other tongues, is a martial arts champion, and nearly earned an advanced degree in diplomacy. What was she into on last sunny Easter Sunday? Bunnies.
Why are you talking to me on Easter?
I love Easter! Even if you don’t know what it’s about, it’s a solid holiday. A good day to chat. Do you know everything there is to know about Easter?
There's a rabbit involved, and I don't know why.
Because he's cute! That's the only acceptable reason to celebrate it. I’m kind of a Hindu and a Russian Orthodox religious mix. And that ends up as sort of a cute bunny of a holiday. So that's how I view it.
I won't argue. So now The Americans has turned you into a big TV star.
Yeah, it just came out of nowhere for me. I'm a humble young woman from New York. I spent a decade in NY and moved to LA, but The Americans brought me back home. We just wrapped two weeks ago.
Have you seen all the episodes? Do you know how this season ends?
I tune in every Wednesday night at 10 and watch live, just like the rest of the world. Nina is a big part of it, but it's a huge story, you know what I mean? It has a lot of moving parts and lot of really smart actors. I watch it like a fan.
Was Nina meant to be such a big player in this story?
Not at all. I didn't know much at all about where she was going. I was supposed to sort of drop in and be a guest star, but then she grew on me - or she grew on everybody around me. I had read the book that Joe Weisberg, the show's creator, wrote, and he used to be in the CIA. It's called An Ordinary Spy, and there's a woman in there who was sort of Nina's story, so I guessed the role would be bigger than it seemed.
So maybe he had Nina's arc in his mind the whole time?
Maybe. I mean, Joe was testing me from the beginning. It was all a test. How good is she as a spy? How good is she an an actor? It's very meta.
Must have felt like a strange move, considering you come from an improv background.
Indeed it was. When Nina came around I was in the Groundlings, I was Level Two [there are four levels] , I was excited abut going all the way with that program. My plan was working, I was going up for a lot of sitcoms and that's where I was, and then this cute little spy comes along.
So you read Weisberg's book right away. How else did you prepare for the audition?
Well I had to translate the scenes was reading for into Russian. It was pretty serious stuff. I was like, "Well, there goes my comedy career!'"
I was expecting Nina to get killed off in the first episode this season.
No! Little Nina? Why? What did she do? [Laughs] She was very naughty, wasn't she? I honestly didn’t know know what was going to happen at the start of the season. I had an idea that she would be going back to the Soviet Union, but that’s about it. They don’t tell anyone anything. It’s very, you know, hush-hush. I know that I could die any episode. I’ve kind of gotten used to that.
Tradecraft on the set?
Don't tell! When I auditioned, they were watching me through Skype on a conference call. It was like an interview: "Where did you grow up? Why do you speak all these languages? Are you actually a spy? Why aren't you a spy already?"
Well, six languages is a suspiciously high number.
That's why I'm a spy! When I have dinner with my parents who are now divorced - and I have step-parents - at the table we speak four languages at the same time. And I translate. It's straining, I'm get exhausted. English, Russian, Hindi, German - because my step-dad is German - and then if my aunt is around I'll throw in Farsi too. It's not a peaceful dinner.
You study martial arts in real life. Is that a physical fitness thing or a kicking ass sort of thing?
I competed for six years in free-sparring tournaments. I was very physical for a big chunk of my life. I think I want to get back to it, but I forget what Annet likes. I've been trapped in Nina's world for so long. I can get into anything, I like to try new things. But I haven't been doing Annet, you know what I mean?
What is the rest of your day like?
I’m going to The Heidi Chronicles this afternoon to see Elizabeth Moss. I really like her acting. I don't know her personally, but I think I’m her stalker. The first thing I did when I woke up was watch Mad Men. I started binge-watching it a month ago or so. I also love Rachel Weiss, Angelina Jolie, Keri Russell. And I'm obsessed with The Comeback. Lisa Kudrow is a genius.
So what is actually going to happen Nina? How's it all end?
She's shedding her layers. In prison, she does open up for the first time and then betrays Evie. Nina has to be so careful and so honest in a weird way to survive. She can't afford to ever make a mistake, she can't be a goof. She’s never just doing one thing, she's operating on a bunch of levels at once. It's exhausting. Sort of like family dinner. But not really.
Follow Mike Guy on Twitter at @mrmikeguy
Photos by Paul Smith Photography