By Taylor Van Arsdale
You might think with her flair for accents and languages, coupled with her stunning looks, that actress Annet Mahendru would be looking for more exotic roles. But what attracts the lovely actress to a part is the story behind it.
“I always knew I’d have to do something with languages [she is fluent in three and speaks six]. That was my gift and I wanted to somehow affect the world on a national level,” she said. “Originally, I wanted to be a diplomat and studied International Relations at NYU, and then I found my way to storytelling.”
The spicy actress of Russian and Indian heritage is best known for her role on FX’s The Americans — a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C. during the Reagan years. On it she plays Nina, a KGB employee who has been forced to turn mole for the FBI. It’s a grim reality for Mahendru’s character; a young spy carrying multiple secrets and duplicitous hidden agendas. In many ways the series feels more like an extended Shakespearian drama with all its subplots within subplots. But for Mahendru, she’s able to find understated nuances and portray them in such a graceful way that her character is completely engaging.
Executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields said of her performance on The Americans, “Annet Mahendru has been a revelation as Nina, bringing the character to life with a rich and subtle depth that keeps you guessing as to what’s really percolating under the surface.”
She arrives to our interview impeccably dressed in a floral maxi dress, complimented with a tailored, dusty-rose blazer and powder blue suede oxfords. She is down-to-earth, sweet natured and also extremely bright. She studied chess and karate—two diametrically opposed extremes.
“I think I got into karate because I wanted some action after years of playing chess,” she joked.
Mahendru had plenty of action in her life, having lived in Afghanistan. Though she was quite young at the time she still recalls how her parents tried to shield her.
“I remember my mom and I getting into the bathtub as the bombs were going off because it was the safest place in the apartment. I was told it was ‘fireworks’ and I believed it and it was sort of fun sitting in the tub with my Mom.”
In New York, her family lived in East Meadow, Long Island and she later attended NYU. The half-Indian, half-Russian actress was always a New Yorker at heart with a passion for Los Angeles. Still, acting hadn’t coalesced for her as a full time career path.
“I was learning a lot of interesting things in the Masters Program, but everything in my body was going against what I was doing,” she said. “I slowly found myself drawn more and more to storytelling, and it was what was making me most happy. When you do what you love, an alignment in the universe happens.”
By the time she moved to California, her passion for acting had blossomed and she started landing some prominent roles. When it comes to her body of work, Mahendru says she’s shooting for a “transformative experience and expression of the empathetic imagination.” The quote, from the school of Diana Castle’s “The Imagined Life,” Mahendru says guides her.
“When I was just discovering [acting], it was about more than just being an actor,” she said. “It had to do with being moved and sharing something that you wanted to say. For me, it’s a moment to set aside my beliefs, my concerns and my daily life that is so meaningful and so important to me, and take on the belief system and go into the world of what a writer creates for you. It’s such a great opportunity to explore different relationships and empathize with a lifestyle that could otherwise be completely foreign to you.”
It’s that alternative perspective that brings a sort of catharsis to an actor and provides what playwright Henrik Ibsen called “a revolution of the human spirit.” Her character on The Americans is brutal, but explained Mahendru, “every moment could be true and believable because it’s about spies, and spies are the greatest actors because they have to believe their own story to be able to convince someone else.”
She credits the producers and director Adam Arkin for providing her first big break, but confessed, “I didn’t realize it would turn into such a long running part. “[The producers] didn’t give me the whole script right away. I was brought in for four episodes, and then it turned into four months and a whole season.”
This year Mahendru was made a series regular alongside Keri Russell. For Mahendru, it’s important to keep up a routine, so during her time away from the set, she attends a writing workshop with Carol Gordon, where she jumps into any of the roles the writers have for her.
Ultimately, she wants to affect change through her acting and career. With broad-ranging roles continuing to come her way, she may very well do that. Look for her in the film Escape from Tomorrow, which came out of Sundance this year with rave reviews and will soon be released in theaters. The versatile young actress also plays an all-around American gal in Bridge and Tunnel — no accents on this role — and as a pro figure skater on White Collar.
Find this story and much more in the current issue of Westside People.