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Nina! The 'spy' with designs on India

Last updated on: January 27, 2015 18:04 IST

Annet Mahendru -- the half-Indian making waves in the hit American show The Americans -- tells Archana Masih/Rediff.com about her love for Bollywood, dal-chawal and playing a Russian spy.

Annet mahendru

Image: Annet Mahendru, the half-Indian-half-Russian actor plays a Russian spy in The Americans.

Season 3 of The Americans will premiere in the US on January 28 and in India on Star World Premiere HD at 10 pm on January 29. Photograph: Michael Bezjian.

You may think the role of Nina Sergeevna as a Russian spy in the television thriller The Americans is Annet Mahendru's breakout role, but the half-Indian-half Russian actress does not quite think so.

For her, the performances she did as a three year old to Bollywood songs in her home in Afghanistan where she then lived, was her breakout role.

The daughter of a Punjabi father, who lived in Afghanistan, Russia, Germany and the United States, she speaks several languages, grew up mostly in an Indian culture and is a big fan of Shah Rukh Khan.

In the intense role of a Soviet spy during the Cold War in The Americans, Mahendru plays her role with a dignified stoicism. Merging herself so beautifully with the character that people are surprised that she is bubbly and can actually laugh in real life!

"When you are put in a life and death situation, people want to live. Nina is doing that all the time -- there is never a time she is having a good time, drinking tea or something -- she is constantly thinking what she needs to do to survive," she tells Rediff.com in a Skype interview from New York.

"The stakes are always high and the world that the writers give her is also very intense," adds the actor, who The New Yorker magazine hailed as 'the show's hidden gem, the hypnotically beautiful Annet Mahendru, as Nina.'

Annet bagged the role after director Adam Arkin saw her show reel and after she was interviewed over Skype. Initially signed on for only four episodes, she established herself as one of the key players in every episode, and will now be seen in Season 3, which opens in the US on January 28 and in India on January 29 on the Star World Premier HD channel.

"I didn't expect to be there till Season 3," she says with a laugh.

"I came to New York in October and thought I'll be back for the Christmas holidays and then it went to episode 5, 6, 7, 8, and it was Valentine's Day! Then it went to 12-13. I didn't imagine that."

In an interview to Archana Masih/Rediff.com, Annet Mahendru speaks about the Indian in her; on being a Russian spy; and her love for yoghurt, achaar and Shah Rukh Khan.

Annet mahendru

Image: Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn) in The Americans. Photograph: Copyright 2013 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.

How much of Annet Mahendru is Indian?

Sometimes half. Sometimes all of it. I am always myself. That's part of my essence.

I grew up mostly in an Indian culture even though we lived in Germany. My mom is an only child and my dad has seven siblings. Though I was the only child, I never felt as one because I had 40 some cousins from my dad's side, which is amazing.

I love rice and daal. I love achaar, especially the mango pickle with a little bit of the kernel and I love yoghurt! I buy goat yoghurt because I've heard it's better. I even have it with pasta!

All my relatives make fun of it and I can eat intense amounts of it with every meal.

I celebrated my first Holi in LA last year. I have been learning Bharata Natyam for the last three years. I do a lot of yoga.

Have you ever come to India?

I don't have any relatives there, maybe distant ones.

I haven't come to India, but I came very close this summer because I was asked to do a project, but it didn't work out timing wise.

I had finished The Americans (Season 2) and an Indie film. If I'd have gone to India, I would have had to start shooting again the following day after I returned here.

I was also scared that I would get dubbed. I think it's a weird idea taking your voice away from you.

Especially for someone who knows so many languages myself.

One of my roommates went back to start a business in India. I'm looking forward to visiting her, and maybe a film or something.

It's definitely on my agenda and when this project came up in September, I was ready to throw myself in, but unfortunately I couldn't do it.

Annet mahendru

Image: Daughter of a Punjabi father, Annet Mahendru was born in Afghanistan and has lived in Germany and the US. Photograph: Lucian Gibson.

Are you being approached for roles by filmmakers in India?

There has been more interest in India than in Russia surprisingly!

I'm ready to dance around trees and sing songs (laughs). I was born to dance. I started, believe it or not, when I was three and we were in Afghanistan.

I used to watch Bollywood films and every time we had guests over they couldn't find me for the first 5, 10 minutes.

As soon as they would sit down and start drinking tea, I would turn on the music and come out dancing. That's when my love for performing actually started.

Indian music, films has always been a big influence. I grew up in an almost Indian home. After my Indian dance performance my dad's friend was so pleased that he took me and bought me a doll that was bigger than me. It was the coolest thing! I would love to go back to Afghanistan some time.

Annet mahendru

Image: Playing the intense, serious role of a Russian spy, people are amazed that she is actually bubbly in real life.

What are your earliest memories of Hind films?

My earliest memory of Hindi films is dancing to Chunri Ke Peeche Kya Hai when I was three. That was the soundtrack for my performances.

In the industry, my role as Nina is seen as my breakout role. For myself, the performances that I did as a three year old was my breakout role.

What difference has The Americans made to you?

The Americans has opened doors for me because so many more people get to see you. The story is so good. It's about human beings. It is set during the Cold War; it's really about relationships and people at the end.

Do you watch Hindi films?

I saw Chennai Express. Devdas is my favourite Bollywood film and I love Shah Rukh Khan.

SRK is able to transform. Some people say he does the same role, but I don't think so. He has an oddness about him and has the courage to be weird and crazy. He has the ability to make someone laugh and cry and do all those different things.

Annet mahendru

Image: 'I love to study, I love languages, culture. I felt I could relate to any culture,' says Annet Mahendru.

You know several languages and have been learning Hindi. How fluent are you in Hindi?

I am learning it backwards. I grew up hearing it all my life. I was spoken in it as a young kid, but never had the guts to respond. I would respond either in Farsi or Russian or German or English.

Now I am speaking it for the first time, the grammar, how to write it etc -- it's so much fun.

I'm speaking sentences because now I have the courage to speak it. I can understand it completely and can respond and you can laugh at me (laughs and says two, three sentences in Hindi).

I am taking privates (classes) every week now and meet my Hindi teacher in LA. I am responding to my family in Hindi.

It's in me, it's about threading everything together, about being bold and having the courage to access that part of you.

It's not difficult. I love to study, I love languages, culture. I felt I could relate to any culture.

My affinity to other cultures comes from having grown up in a multicultural home. People often misunderstand each other as they feel they are different because they are from different cultures, but overall it was such a blessing to grow up in a diverse home.

Annet mahendru

Image: Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) in Season 1 of The Americans. Photograph: Copyright 2013 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.

How did your father's family come to Afghanistan?

My dad is a Hindu from Dilli (Delhi). He spent time studying in Afghanistan because his dad moved there for business.

He left India when he was very young and came back and was back again in Afghanistan for college.

Then he was in Russia. He speaks Russian a lot. He's quite the man. He has PhDs, he taught and is very gifted. He's been part of so many cultures.

He's a Russian man, an Afghan, a German. I watched him fit in and embrace every culture and that inspired me as a storyteller.

I speak English; then with my mom on Skype I speak Russian. To my friends in Germany, I speak German -- that's why I like what I do because we are never only one thing. I think a person is capable of a lot of things.

Those cultures are part of me. I had to move every time my parents moved and had to find my home in different cultures.

I guess wherever I am I make my home and I've never been to India and when I get to India -- for all I know that may be my only home.

That must have also helped you in your role as a Russian spy in The Americans.

Yes, of course, because we are also in a dual home -- the Soviets and the Americans -- in The Americans.

You can see the different ideologies, different upbringings -- like when Stan and Nina meet. There is this love and you can argue that it is romantic love or there's a human bonding because all of a sudden you can empathise even though he is her enemy.

There is more than just attraction and you realise that the other side is just as human. The relationship with Stan is very dynamic in many ways.

Annet mahendru

Image: Nina (Annet Mahendru) in 'Comint', Season 1 of The Americans. Photograph: Copyright 2013 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.

How did your Indian father and your Russian mother meet?

My dad was studying in St Petersburg in the '80s and my mother was visiting. They fell in love and were together for 11 years or so, which actually is my lucky number and now I know why (laughs). (Mahendru's father later remarried. When her half-sister was born, she named her Angelina because she was a great fan of Angelina Jolie at that time.)

My dad and mom were where Nina was and the same age as her in Russia, so they are very familiar with those times. It's weird that I'm getting to play that.

What does your family think of you as an actor?

Everyone in the family watches the show, but I was concerned about my dad's side which is more conservative, but the story is so good that they love it.

It makes me happy that they are able to overcome the fact that you get to see Nina as any other human -- naked.

My family has supported me, aside from being concerned that I am a woman on my own doing something that has no guarantee whatsoever. But they've always been on my side, at least in my fantasy (laughs).

My father was disappointed when I dropped out of NYU (New York University) and joined acting.

I wanted to do PhDs like my dad. He was very concerned about me being on my own in Hollywood. He's old school.

Have you been back to Afghanistan?

I would love to go back to Afghanistan some time. Backpacking in Afghanistan would be interesting.

You're not fulfilled until you've got in touch with all your roots. That's why people travel -- to know other people and other cultures that makes you whole.

Annet mahendru

Image: Annet has been approached by Indian filmmakers and says she's ready to sing and dance around trees. Photograph: Lucian Gibson.

Nina has immense strength. I think Nina will be fine going backpacking on her own. She's like a real survivor.

When you are put in a life and death situation, people want to live. It's like a primal instinct. She's doing that all the time -- there is never a time when she is having a good time, drinking tea or something -- she is constantly thinking what she needs to do to survive.

The stakes are always high and the world that the writers give her is also very intense. I can only continue to be curious and fantasise about that world.

Do fans recognise you?

It's cool to be known by fans. They've seen me as Nina and they say, 'Oh my God, you're bubbly and you laugh.'

I am surprised that people know you so well that they are able to recognise you in big jackets when you are all bundled up like in NY (New York City).

I love learning. I am an eternal student, whatever opportunity it is, I am in.

Season 3 of The Americans will be screened on Star World Premiere HD at 10 pm, January 29 onwards.

Archana Masih/Rediff.com