The Americans' Breakout Star On How Acting Is Just Like Spying

Photographed by Eric T. White.
Before it premiered in January 2013, The Americans seemed like it would be the story of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), two undercover KGB agents pretending to be Americans in order to engage in covert operations for the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the early 1980s. While the Jennings' day-to-day double lives are certainly compelling enough for an entire series, the show is actually a wonderful — and intense — ensemble effort. The characters that flesh out the duplicitous world of The Americans heighten the drama and intrigue in ways current Americans, to whom the Cold War is but a distant memory of bomb drills, could never even imagine.

One of the most fascinating characters is Nina Sergeevna, a junior KGB agent who's forced to betray her country when she's caught trying to smuggle stereo parts to her family in Russia. She's one of the most nimble, complex characters we've seen on TV in a while. And, her double life of working with the FBI soon turns into a triple one when her country finds out that she's been working with Americans, and she's forced to add a layer to the game. But, Nina is a survivor above all else, and she found a way.

Nina is inscrutable, devious, and capable in a cutthroat way not many of us can fathom. Although we're dealing with a person who has sworn her life to the Soviet Union, her allegiance is, above all, to herself. Watching actress Annet Mahendru breathe life into such a mysterious character week after week is one of The Americans' most fascinating storylines. We spoke to the actress, whose own background actually prepped her perfectly for this breakout role — save for the espionage and life-or-death situations.

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