The Americans' Refreshingly Real Take on Russians
Pop culture usually resorts to stereotypes and clumsy accents, but the FX show's creators realize that native-speaking actors make for better TV.
One of the most poignant moments of The Americans’s second season was in the penultimate episode, when Oleg, the privileged KGB officer, hands his lover Nina an envelope of money so that she can run away, all while solemnly rehashing bureaucratic platitudes ("the operation is going well”)—as always, their comrades are listening in. It was especially moving because, unlike with most media depictions of Russians, the two actors actually speak Russian.
Throughout my life I've seen my people portrayed as Americans using Rocky-and-Bullwinkle-Accents (Muppets Most Wanted), Americans using American accents (Fiddler on the Roof), British people using British accents (Enemy at the Gates), British people using their teeth (Keira Knightley), and non-Russians of all stripes speaking gibberish (really any movie with Russia as a sub-sub-plot.)
And beyond the accents, there are so many Russian stereotypes and careless errors in American movies that it looks like no one bothered to fire up Google Translate amid all the CGI magic. In 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, as the Russian news site Ria Novosti points out, the titular character "flashes a forged Russian passport with the unusual but believable name 'Foma Kinaev,' written in the Latin alphabet. The Cyrillic rendering, however, reads 'Ashchf Lshtfum,' a cavalcade of consonants likely to elicit a 'Come with me' from a Russian border guard."
Then there's the notorious backwards "R," the Chinese ankle tattoo of Russia tropes. Directors like to swap it for a regular English "R" in text overlays to indicate "We are in Russia now." Even though the "я" in Russian makes a "ya" sound.
The 1998 space-cowboy drama Armageddon nearly sparked an international crisis because it portrayed the Russian astronaut as a drunken lout. "How can Hollywood be so blind when it portrays a Russian cosmonaut as a drunkard wearing a fur cap? They should have added a bear and a nesting doll!” a Moscow Province Ministry of Culture official railed. One recent Russian parody imagined how a popular local TV show would be shot "in Hollywood." It of course involved bears, balalaikas, and a fat man speaking Russian like he's recovering from dental surgery.
You can't really blame TV and movie producers for their lack of Slavic sensitivity. Russians make excellent villains, but Hollywood isn't exactly overrun with Russian-American starlets. (Although, I'd be happy to hop on a plane.) And there were few opportunities for Russian and American artists to collaborate before the Soviet Union collapsed.
The other reason, I think, is that Russian would be insanely difficult for non-native actors to master. Occasionally American friends will ask me to "teach them some Russian." If we can make it past the mouthful that is "hello" ("zdravstvuyte"), we might move on to "please" ("pozhalusta"), which in Cyrillic includes a letter that looks like a spider and sounds like the noise you make when you slip on some ice. This is usually where we give up and thank God that English doesn't have three types of noun declension.
So I was delighted that The Americans opted to fill their Russian roles with natives—or at least people who know their way around a rolled "r." Lev Gorn, who plays KGB Rezident Arkady Ivanovich, was born in Stavropol. Costa Ronin, who plays Oleg, hails from the Baltic Russian outpost of Kaliningrad. Annet Mahendru, who plays the double-agent Nina, has a Russian mother and speaks six languages.
Using realistic-sounding characters, "was very important for us because the show was so much centered on the world of the Russian Russians and the Russian illegals, and the illegals were American actors," said Joe Weisberg, the show's creator (Matthew Rhys, who plays sleeper agent Philip, is actually Welsh). "We wanted everything else to be as authentic as possible. Not having Americans speaking with Russian accents was key to doing that. We had our one exception to that: [General] Zhukov, who was played by a Polish actor."
Other than Zhukov and the two main characters—who by conceit are to appear as American as possible—the only prominent non-Russian "Russian" on the show is Peter von Berg, who plays the KGB official Vasili Nikolayevich. Von Berg manages to speak Russian near-perfectly, though, perhaps because he has experience with Russian plays and was an accent coach.
Weisberg and his co-producer, Joel Fields, said rounding up enough Slavs who could act was a tough task for casting. "The community of fluent Russian speakers who can also speak enough English to do these parts isn't a huge body of actors," Fields said.
It was made even trickier by the fact that the show is written entirely in English, with the relevant parts translated back into Russian by native-speaking translators. The Russian translations appear at the end of the English script in an appendix, and then the Rezidentura segments are shot in Russian—which Fields and Weisberg don't speak.
"When it came to Costa's first read-through, Costa is reading the script, and he gets to his first line, and he says it in English,” Fields said. “Someone tapped him on the shoulder and showed him the appendix, and he looked at it for a moment, and then he let loose with his first line. And this rapid-fire, machine-gun native Russian came out, and everyone burst into laughter, and everyone realized we had our Oleg.”
The show does make the occasional mistake. It's biologically very unlikely that Philip and Elizabeth—the "illegals"—would have accent-free English if they had really left their homelands as young adults. But overall, The Americans is low on both stereotypes and obvious flubs. Arkady is a convincing harried boss. Oleg and Nina look like a normal TV sorta-couple. There are no mink hats or Kalashnikovs or herring.
The goal, Weisberg said, was to portray the Rezidentura operatives with as much nuance as the other main characters. Sure, they're aiding America's greatest foe. But they're also just workaday paper-pushers trapped in a terrifying bureaucracy. Their predicaments are ones even Americans in big, modern companies can relate to: Arkady’s middle manager trapped between home-office pressure and affection for his underlings, or Oleg’s rich kid who saunters into an organization through family connections and upsets a careful meritocracy.
"I think the basic premise is that the enemy is someone you should think about and understand," said Weisberg, who is a former CIA agent. "The KGB was a huge organization and it had some real sons of bitches in it, but it also had plenty of decent people as well. Here in the Rezidentura in D.C. were some perfectly good people who were easy to relate to even if you didn't believe in the cause they were serving."
The authenticity of the Russian characters was inextricable from that of the entire show, he added.
"Once you bring that level into detail into a show, you can't do cardboard cutouts anymore. You're not in the realm of cliché. You will invariably build a real person. "