In FX’s THE AMERICANS, now in its third season Wednesdays at 10 PM and renewed for a fourth year, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play, respectively, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. They seem like nice regular Americans in the early 1980s – but they’re really deep-cover Soviet spies.
The diplomats at the Washington D.C. Soviet embassy, the Rezidentura, don’t have to pretend – the Americans know they’re all really KGB agents. Costa Ronin plays Oleg Burov. As Oleg’s father is a powerful government minister at the USSR, when he first arrived at the embassy, his comrades first assumed he got his position through nepotism. However, Oleg has proved to be shrewd, level-headed and deadly when necessary. Right now, he’s involved in a dangerous secret alliance with FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) to save Russian agent Nina (Annet Mahendru) from the consequences of a situation that is the fault of both men, who have both been Nina’s lovers.
Like Oleg – and unlike most of THE AMERICANS actors playing Russians – Ronin was actually born in the then-Soviet Union, although he has lived all over the world since then. In a phone conversation, Ronin discusses Oleg, world travel and why he loves Los Angeles.
ASSIGNMENT X: Were you already an actor when you came to America, or did you come to America and then become an actor?
COSTA RONIN: No, no, I started acting when I was like five years old. I came from theatre. But after Russia, I lived in New Zealand and Australia, so the jump wasn’t as quick as just going from Russia to the U.S. And I’ve only been here for the last three, four years, so yeah, it’s been a long journey.
After Russia, I went to New Zealand and I spent four years in New Zealand, living in Wellington and went to uni[versity] there. During that time, I did theatre, and then the last year in New Zealand, I got a chance to be on a TV show, and that gave me a glimpse into that medium, which I didn’t know much about, but it was really fascinating. Then later, when I came to live in Australia, first in Perth then in Sydney, it was for TV, theatre and film. I spent I think four-and-a-half years in Perth, and then I went down to Sydney. And it was funny, because I went to live in Perth, and then as soon as I went to live in Sydney, my first job out of Sydney was back in Western Australia. And then the second job was back in New Zealand. So it’s a small world [laughs].
AX: What brought you to the U.S.?
RONIN: Acting in general. I finished a film called RED DOG in Australia – it’s got Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor, a whole bunch of terrific actors, not to mention the dog.
The dog who played the lead, Koko, had such an amazing personality, at the end of the show, I think Nelson Woss, the producer of the film, she became his. He took her. So after that film, I came to L.A. just to explore it for a couple of weeks. I actually fell in love with the energy of the place, the vibe of the place. It’s such a creative hub. Everywhere you go, everybody you speak to breathes storytelling. Everybody’s here to create. It’s not about what you’re here to take from the industry, it’s what you’re here to give. And that is something that in my mind differentiates L.A. from so many other places, because everybody came here with a mission to give something to this world and to the process of storytelling. So I fell in love with it and then while I was here, I did the paperwork [to immigrate] I think three years ago.
AX: When you first came onto THE AMERICANS in Season 2, were you always going to be a series regular, or did you start as a recurring character and then realized that they needed you?
RONIN: I came in to do two episodes, so I expected to come in and leave and I’m still there [laughs]. So I don’t know what happened in the process, but it’s been really great.
AX: When you originally came on, was your story purpose to scare Nina or was it always going to be a romance?
RONIN: It’s a good question, but I have no idea. The thing with television is, it’s like real life – you never know what’s going to happen. Part of this casting process, when I went to it, was a chemistry read with Annet. So that was a possibility, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it. But I didn’t know what was going to happen as far as the story goes
AX: Are you and Lev Gorn, who plays Oleg’s boss at the Rezidentura, the only Russian-born actors on the show?
RONIN: No. Boris Krutonog [who plays Oleg’s father Igor], he’s been around forever.
AX: When the Russian characters are talking to one another, they speak Russian, which is subtitled for the viewers in English. Do the writers ever ask you about the Russian dialogue, for example, “Is this slang right?” or do you ever say to them, “You know, this isn’t how we’d say that?”
RONIN: There is a translator on staff with the show. Obviously, when the Js [series creator Joe Weisberg and his co-show runner Joel Fields] write an episode, they’re still written in English. From there, the script goes to Marsha, to the translator, and she’s the one who translates the scenes from English into Russian. Then we get the pages in Russian and English as well. So we get it in English and Russian, Cyrillic language, and [that’s also written out phonetically and explained] so that English speakers who don’t know Russian know the pronunciation of words and where the turning points of the scene are. From the character perspective, yes, there are certain things you sometimes feel that the character would say and sometimes you feel that the character wouldn’t say, but Marsha’s got a pretty good grip on the language and the dynamics of that world as well.
Traditionally, if you watch a foreign film, the film is shot and the scenes take place in that language, and they’re written in that language. And then later, they’re translated for the non-speaking audience. With this show, it almost goes the other way around. What you see on TV is a result of that scene being translated from the originally written language, but the perception is supposed to be that, this is what the scene is, and it’s just translated for the non-speaker. So it’s tricky. I think the Js and the writers have got a perfect balance of English-speaking scenes and Russian-speaking scenes. One of the risks that you can take with a show like this is that the audience is simply going to tune out with the scenes that they don’t understand. Not everybody enjoys reading subtitles. But then if you take that time and you read those subtitles, the show takes it to another level.
AX: Before you got involved with THE AMERICANS, how aware were you of this part of American/Soviet history in the 1980s?
RONIN: Oh, very aware. I was young in those days [born in 1979]. I don’t remember everything, but I was definitely around when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. So all those milestones of history are definitely a very big part of my life. So everything that takes place – I don’t have a firsthand account [laughs], but I was very aware of what was going on.
AX: Working on the show, are you learning anything new about that period?
RONIN: Joe Weisberg, he’s an ex-CIA operative, so I’m definitely learning weird things as I work on the show, because I guess [that is] how it can tap into the material that no other show can. When you read a book or you research something, one thing is you see it written, or somebody else think about it, and it’s a completely different experience when you’re living through it, because that’s exactly what the show is about and what we do on the show. Once you step into the costume and on that set, you’re living through that experience and you’re living through that scene, and it’s completely different from actually just reading it and knowing about the facts. From a fact comes reality.
AX: How do you see Oleg? Who is he at heart?
RONIN: Who do you think he is?
AX: He seems to be a romantic, he seems to be very dedicated to what he does, and he seems to enjoy what’s around him. He’s not so driven by politics that he can’t enjoy what’s happening in America. As opposed to, say, Elizabeth, who really doesn’t enjoy very much in the U.S., because she thinks it’s all corrupt.
RONIN: Well, it’s a job. Yes, Oleg does have those attributes, but at the same time, he’s very dedicated to the cause, he’s very dedicated to the greater future of humankind. I guess the only difference between him and maybe somebody else is that he is not looking at it from the point of view of, “Okay, I am a Soviet agent, and therefore everything I do is right.” This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, is that it taps into not just black and white, it’s all gray. The dilemma, the conscience of every single character on the show is the moral versus the job, what you think is right and what you have to do.
I think Elizabeth had this beautiful line when was talking to [her teenaged daughter] Paige, she said, “Adults have to do things they don’t want.” It’s not the show in a nutshell, but it’s a very characteristic line that can describe the show, because all those people come into this world and it’s a job. They still love, they fear, they have their dreams, they have their aspirations – it’s how they deal with that, how they go about their everyday lives and what nightmares they have when they go to sleep, that’s what differentiates them. Oleg is a romantic, he does believe in humankind, but at the same time, he doesn’t necessarily believe that the world is right. He believes that there is a better way, he believes that there is a better future for humankind. He’s kind of a little bit ahead of his time. He’s a bit postmodern and he’s thinking more in terms of greater good than immediate good.
AX: We’re seeing Oleg’s father as a character, but there haven’t been scenes between him and Oleg so far. Are you going to have scenes with him?
RONIN: I don’t know [laughs]. I guess you’ll just have to wait and see. His father is a massive part of Oleg’s back story, that’s all I’m going to say at this point.
AX: Most of your key scenes so far have been with Noah Emmerich and Annet Mahendru. How is acting opposite the two of them? Do you have a preference for one type of scene over the other?
RONIN: Also Lev Gorn, who’s a terrific actor. All scenes are different, but the dynamic in the relationships between all those characters is very, very different as well. So no, I don’t have a preference. Noah and Annet and Lev, they are genius, giving and gracious actors. It’s such a pleasure working with them. You don’t feel like you’re working – it’s just so real. The energy and the dynamic of the relationships are very different, during the last season and this season, and we also get to be there a lot more.
AX: Who do you think Nina’s really in love with, Oleg or Stan?
RONIN: Nina is a very fascinating character, who is so fitting for that era, because no one knows what she thinks, no one knows who she loves. I don’t think even she knows, because I don’t think she’s in a position to even admit to herself who she loves, because these characters operate in a world where they cannot be honest with anyone, including themselves. They go day by day by day tricking other people and they have to do that, they have to trick themselves into [accepting what they do], because it can lead to their ultimate demise.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: THE AMERICANS: Actor Costa Ronin on THE AMERICANS Season 3 – Part 1