From Afghanistan to Russia and then to Europe and the United States. It may sound like the travel itinerary of a spy, but it's actually the life of actress Annet Mahendru, one of the stars on FX's spy drama "The Americans."
Annet is the daughter of a Russian business woman and a Hindu Indian professor and journalist. She has described her upbringing as a "gypsy" childhood, born in Kabul and spending time in St. Petersburg, Frankfurt and New York. Growing up around the world while learning six languages and practicing Karate as a child, one would think she could have become a real life double agent had she been so inclined. But instead, she got bit by the acting bug while studying for her Master's degree in Global Affairs at NYU, and the TV-viewing public is all the better for it.
"It's kind of unbelievable," Annet told me of her sudden life change to become a full-time actress in 2006. "I dropped everything and came to Hollywood at one point. I was by myself. But I understood that [acting] was what I wanted."
Annet's resolve in the face of looming challenges is the first connection between her and her character Nina Sergeevna on "The Americans" that becomes apparent during our discussion. The second is a will to solve one's own problems.
"People would tell me 'Good luck' before auditions and I didn't believe in that then. I thought that it wasn't about luck. I would say, 'I prepared for this, I'm going to be great, just tell me to have fun.' I would literally be upset if someone said good luck because I believed so hard that is was not about luck, it was about hard work."
Fans of "The Americans" know that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys' Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are the stars. But it is Annet's Nina that is the heart and soul of the show.
At the center of a global conflict is where Annet's unique background bleeds into her character. Her lifetime of experience adapting to new cultures and groups of people suddenly become Nina's greatest asset as her character traverses the dangerous world of Cold War espionage.
The similarities between the character and the actress enable Annet's performance to take on an added element of realism. Yet despite the heightened drama that surrounds her, Nina feels like the most grounded character on the show.
"I think the creators made her really human," she said of Nina. "She came from a strong perspective; she's a Soviet and a KGB agent so we think she'd be a certain way because she's from there during the Cold War. But, the circumstances that the writers gave me, she's forced to be 100 percent human and sort of start from a blank slate as far as experiences go because she's a survivor. She has to live in this American way. She really learns the other perspective and starts to empathize with that side."
Nina's role in the show is a complicated one. She's a Soviet employed one-time FBI informant turned double (maybe even triple at this point) agent. If that all sounds a bit confusing, it's because it is; the life of an on-screen spy is rarely straight forward (when has James Bond had a "normal" day?). But Annet is able to use Nina's scattered existence to her advantage because she shares a relatable perspective. Both spies and professional performers must be able to slip into the skin of someone else at a moment's notice.
"She has to be more than just a good actress," Annet said of Nina. "She has to believe these things with her heart and soul. When she gets nervous, the sweat that drips from her has to be true. She has to believe what she is doing...When I saw the story, I realized that this was life and death. It's more than just lying. You have to really live in this in order to convince someone."
Annet has a worldly view; Nina develops one over the course of the first four seasons of "The Americans." Those that come in contact with her quickly realize she is much, much more than a beautiful face. Her character arc is the one that most resonates with fans due in equal parts to Annet's subtle yet emotional portrayal and the quality writing provided by creater Joe Weisberg and showrunner Joel Fields.
"She's able to be true and objective," Annet said. "Even though she comes from the Soviet side, she's able to live from the other side and be both and be a well-rounded human being. She's able to see a full 360 and actually understand everything."
Annet also has a full 360 view. Like Nina, she may not know what exactly is coming next. But she wants to make it matter. A longtime admirer of Angelina Jolie (who Annet named her little sister after), the actress, director and humanitarian has blazed a path that Annet hopes to follow.
"It's exciting to me. I feel like there are a lot of opportunities for actresses and women at this time. I'm excited about every aspect of filmmaking, writing, even producing something I deeply care about. There's so much to do as an artist.
"I just want to be a part of great stories."
"The Americans" certainly qualifies as a great story so far and "The X-Files" revival that Annet will appear in next year undoubtedly will as well (welcome back Scully and Mulder!).
The role of Nina Sergeevna has opened up a lot of doors for the gorgeous, brainy and talented actress. But Annet has been unknowingly preparing for this role her entire life thanks to her unique background and optimistic determination. Whatever is to come in her career is sure going to be interesting as a result.
"Now I believe in the word luck," she told me. "A decade of hard work later and I believe."