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From Russia, with love: Annet Mahendru
Nikhil Taneja  8th Nov 2014

Annet Mahendru

t some point in the middle of an hour-and-a-half-long Skype interview with Afghanistan-born Indo-Russian actress Annet Mahendru, our talk steers towards storytelling; in particular, the stories she wants to tell the world. Mahendru, who appears in FX's hit spy series The Americans (which airs in India on Star World Premiere), takes a long, deep pause and says, "I think human beings are capable of anything and I would like to show that through my work, in my storytelling. I want to tell transformative stories. I want to access things inside of me that turn me upside down, twist me inside out, stories in which I'm a princess, and in which I'm also a dragon," she says. "Stories about the darkest dungeons that are also my home. Stories like that of Gia or Lisbeth Salander, or of superheroes — but not like the ones in films — of authentic superheroes, superheroes of the underground, who are real, free and genuine."

Mahendru is a genuinely likeable 20-something, who giggles at the end of just about every sentence and whose eyes twinkle each time she talks about her two homes, India and Russia, or her years growing up all over the world. But you would be anything but prudent in pegging her as merely girlish, because whenever she's faced with a question about acting, her role as Russian double agent Nina Sergeevna or of cinema in general, her replies suggest a smart, measured and deep-thinking woman.

When Mahendru speaks about her craft, she is subliminally speaking about herself as well. So if Annet is interested in transformative stories, it is in essence because she has spent a lifetime embodying one herself. As a child born in war-ravaged Afghanistan to a Russian artist mother and an Indian professor-journalist father, she grew up a self-confessed nerd, with interests ranging from chess and karate to bharatanatyam.

"It would seem like I was having an identity crisis," she laughs, "but the truth is, somewhere deep inside of me I knew that I'd be a storyteller. You never know what you can be asked to transform into to tell your stories effectively, and subconsciously, I wanted to be prepared for everything. Of course, another part of it is because I have had an affinity to all sorts of cultures and passions inherently," she says, citing her "gypsy" childhood , much of which was spent travelling between Germany and Russia after moving from Afghanistan, before she finally moved to the US during her teenage years.

Her memories of growing up are distinct and striking; she remembers having a malleable concept of home as a kid. "Of Afghanistan, I remember hiding in the bathtub thinking there were fireworks going on outside the apartment for New Year, when we were actually in the midst of war," she recalls. "And when we shifted to Russia, Russians would be fascinated with me. They didn't have much interaction with the outside world at that time, and they would literally touch me and call me 'gypsy girl' because I was this weird-looking foreigner."

The first tangible concept of home that Mahendru ever had was in Germany, where most of her father's seven siblings lived with their respective families. "It was there that I picked up my love for performance by watching re-runs of Bollywood movies," she smiles. "When I was five years old, each time guests would come over to our house, I would come out in my Indian dress and put on a dance performance for them on Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai."

After she moved to New York and, eventually, to Los Angeles, her love for the arts took on a life of its own. Mahendru's ethnic ambiguity helped her realise that as an actor, she could both blend in and stand out. "I have auditioned for the role of characters from all kinds of backgrounds — from European to Afghan to Hispanic to American and Indian — because I wanted to move beyond ethnicity. I have also worn lose, baggy clothes to auditions because I didn't want to be seen as a 'hot girl'. I want to tell all kinds of stories and not be limited by the colour of my skin or hair. I'm not just this or just that; like everyone, there are so many sides to me."

The multi-faceted and culturally diverse identity she epitomises helped her land her career-defining role in The Americans. She was auditioned on Skype by the show's creator, ex-CIA operative Joe Weisberg, and won the part because, after learning of her eclectic background, Weisberg jokingly concluded that either her parents must be spies or she is one herself. "I think he was interviewing me as a potential agent and I passed the test on a human level," she laughs.

"I have auditioned for the role of characters from all kinds of backgrounds — from European to Afghan to Hispanic to American and Indian — because I wanted to move beyond ethnicity.

Her role in The Americans was at first a guest arc that was soon converted into a series regular after the audience couldn't get enough of Mahendru's character, the enigmatic Nina. Apart from the professional success that came from playing a Russian double agent on a hit TV show, it also helped her come closer to her mother and her Russian roots. "When I put on makeup for the first time on the show and looked at myself as Nina, from '80s Russia, I saw my mom looking back at me — it was beautiful," she says. "Through Nina, I was able to connect with my Russian ancestry and access the truth of what it meant to be Russian when my mother was my age, as well as explore it physically."

It was also this ability to seek the truth that helped Mahendru comprehend and rationalise the partial nudity that was required of her character, Nina. "My body is sacred to me and I was fearful about approaching these scenes at first," she says. "But I realised that when I'm Nina, I can't continue being Annet. Nina doesn't have guns, so if she needs to survive, she has to use her intuition and her truth. And the only way you could be truthful as a woman spy at that time was to bare yourself physically and mentally. When Nina is unclothed, she is a woman to her utmost and fullest degree and she owns everything in that moment. For me, as an Indian woman, embracing femininity and expressing my sexuality through that character was, in a way, empowering too."

Mahendru is currently filming the third season of The Americans. She's also done guest parts in high-profile shows such as Grey's Anatomy and is part of the voice cast for the upcoming animated film Penguins of Madagascar, besides appearing in a couple of independent movies. She is now "thirsty" to find a role to express the Indian side of her genes. An offer from a big Indian film studio didn't work out because of scheduling conflicts, but Mahendru knows it's only a matter of time.

 
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