With all due respect to Keri Russell and her portrayal of the ruthless undercover KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings on FX's hit Cold War-era drama The Americans, she's got some stiff competition in the spying department these days. Annet Mahendru, who plays Nina, the stunning Soviet-embassy-employee-turned-FBI-informant, elicits plenty of government secrets on her own without the use of shaggy wigs – and while actually speaking Russian. "She's Elizabeth in training," says co-star Noah Emmerich, a.k.a. FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman, who moonlights as Nina's lover.
Given Mahendru's globe-trotting background (born in Afghanistan to a Russian mother and an Indian father), it's a wonder she didn't go into the espionage business. "'You guys sound like a family of spies!'" Americans creator Joe Weisberg told Mahendru during her pre-casting interview. He wasn't far off: Following what Mahendru calls a "gypsy" childhood shuttling between St. Petersburg and outside Frankfurt, she settled in East Meadow, New York, at age 13. Feeling it was her "duty" to put her cultural experiences and linguistic skills to good use – Mahendru speaks six languages: "[I think of myself] as an American playing a Russian," she says – she went on to pursue a Master's degree in Global Affairs at NYU. But she had already been bitten by the acting bug, having starred in a 2009 indie film called Ezra: Fear of a Faceless God, and something had to give: "You don't have time to do art anymore [while working on a Master's]," she laments, "and I was completely heartbroken." Abandoning her graduate work, Mahendru relocated to Los Angeles and began studying improv at the famed Groundlings School.
Since her first appearance in The Americans' second episode last year, she has undoubtedly proved her mettle as the series' breakout actress. She's probably the only woman who can make those awful early Eighties workplace fashions sexy and empowering ("I enjoy it," says Mahendru. "I feel like a lady. There's strength in a proper, beautiful dress"), and it's impossible to know whose side Nina is really on. This season sees her faithfully writing up her reports on Stan, passing along all of his intel to her boss at the Rezidentura – but she can't help fantasizing about their post-coital whispers while doing so. "She loves his simplicity," says Mahendru of Nina's affection for the troubled FBI agent, despite the knowledge that he murdered her friend and colleague, Vlad, last season. "He also comes from a similar background to Nina. For her whole life, she’s been told, 'This is your enemy,' this is the worst human being with the wrong values, then she meets him and she’s surprised, like, this is a good man."
So does this mean she's falling for Stan, or is she just enjoying the perks of spying? "You can't read her mind," says Weisberg, "which is brilliant for a spy. Nobody really knows for sure what she's doing or what she's thinking." (Weisberg should know, considering he started out in the CIA.) But he and Mahendru are remaining mum for the time being regarding Nina's allegiances, which only makes The Americans more intriguing with every passing week. Without giving anything away, co-showrunner Joel Fields best sums up Mahendru's performance: "She is able to genuinely capture the sense of a woman walking on a high wire, who somehow against all odds, manages to keep going without falling off. And she speaks fluent Russian."