Photo Credit: Bobby Quillard
This season, the FX spy drama The Americans has raised the stakes for nearly all of its characters. Deep undercover KGB spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) are being hunted, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) betrayed his country and KGB triple agent Nina (Annet Mahendru) is in danger of standing trial for treason.
Oleg Burov found himself in the midst of the current turmoil, the tech-savvy employee played by Costa Ronin. Oleg got the job at the Rezidentura because of his well-connected family, and at first, it seemed like Oleg was merely there to cause trouble and enjoy all that nepotism has to offer. As the season progressed, Oleg has revealed himself to be much more complicated than he originally seemed, and Ronin’s performance always keeps us guessing.
Paste had a chance to talk to the Russian-born Ronin about joining the cast of The Americans, what Oleg’s true intentions are, and what he remembers about the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
: Tell me about getting cast on The Americans. Did you watch the show last season?
Costa Ronin: When the first season came out I thought, it was a terrific idea for a show, and there was nothing like it on television. It’s not just a show where these are the good guys and these are the bad guys. It’s about people. It’s about relationships and the toll that it takes, so when the show came out last year, I was fascinated by it. The audition was pretty much a straightforward process.
: I love Oleg, because I haven’t known what he’s up to this whole season. I was really surprised that Oleg warned Nina about what would happen if she can’t get Stan to commit treason. He has real feelings for her. How much did you know about Oleg and his motivations going in?
Ronin: I did not know anything. I was going in to do two episodes and get out.
: Oh, it was only for two episodes?
Ronin: Yeah, it was only supposed to be for two episodes, and then I got there, and another episode came in, and then another, and I ended up doing 12 out of the 13 episodes this season. What I knew about Oleg is that he was definitely not the “What you see is what you get” kind of person. I knew he’s very, very multi-layered and a multi-dimensional character. Also, you have to remember he is coming from upper middle class society in [the] Soviet Union, and he was playing the game by their rules. And then, he gets thrown into the Rezidentura in Washington at the peak of the Cold War, so he had to be that guy under the radar that if you look at him you would never pick him as a spy. He’s established as a little boy with not much to offer. He’s just a guy who is there because of nepotism. He doesn’t care about Arkady; he’s there to live a fun life, but that’s a façade. Throughout the season, we see how Oleg becomes more a part of the KGB workings in the United States. And you see this massive character arc. You see how it’s all starting to come together. You see his vulnerable side, and his weaknesses, and his genuine care for Nina.
: Were you surprised that he does take the opportunity to warn Nina?
Ronin: No. From the acting point of view, for Oleg, he always, always genuinely loved her. He didn’t show it because they live and work in an environment where they can’t. Nothing is what it seems. You cannot open up your heart to be with somebody you love. It’s quite sad, actually.
: You obviously aren’t a KGB spy living in the ‘80s. What are the things that you connect to with Oleg when you play him? How do you relate to him?
Ronin: I have to figure out his energy. I had to figure out his heart and what makes him move. It was more important to figure out his heart and sync my own heart with that, if that makes sense. I had to figure out what makes him move psychologically. I did a lot of research leading up to this about the environment that they lived in. That’s what the show is really about—to figure out how that person functioned, how that person operated, how that person walked and talked in secrecy. I did quite a bit of work before I got to the set. It’s a thinking show. It’s a show of thinking characters. It’s a show of thinking actors. The whole show hangs on those moments of what those characters are thinking about. What’s going to happen next? It’s a show about Russian spies in the ‘80s, and you kind of find yourself rooting for the wrong team.
: You were a child living in the Soviet Union during the ‘80s. Do you remember much about the Cold War?
Ronin: It was a really turbulent time. I don’t remember much because I was very young. I do remember when the Berlin Wall came down … It was almost like society changed in 24 hours, and that sense of insecurity really affected the society.
: Do you bring that knowledge to your performance?
Ronin: Absolutely. Everything that I’ve experienced personally, everything that I’ve learned from talking to people, it goes into the part. Like any other character, [Oleg] has to be a living, breathing character.
: You started acting when you were five?
Ronin: Yes, in a summer camp production. I only crossed over to film and TV about 10 years ago. Up until then it was all theater. It was kind of storytelling for me rather than acting. I never looked at myself solely as an actor. I don’t really care if it’s a directing project, a producing project, or if I have to go in and help somebody carry cables or find a location. To me, it’s about the story, and it’s very important to me to be a part of a process, part of telling a good story, part of telling a story that needs to be told.
: When you were a teen, you moved to New Zealand and then to Australia. I think you went to college in Australia, right?
Ronin: I went to university in New Zealand, and then to another university in Australia. I studied international relations and political science.
: So that’s very different than acting. At one point did you think you would have a career in international relations?
Ronin: I don’t know. I was never kind of preparing myself for any career. My mom and my grandma, they definitely saw me in a more secure and stable environment, going to work, wearing a suit and a briefcase. But from my point of view, it’s not far removed from performing. Artists should be very well-rounded. Artists have to have something to say. An artist has to be able to look at the situation, analyze the situation, and understand it. So political science is something that helped me understand the political landscape of the world. It helped me immensely with building the part of Oleg, to make choices on the most organic level.
: When did you learn English? You speak it so well.
Ronin: At school. The way the educational system in Russia works is studying a foreign language is part of the program, so by the time you get to the age of 10, you pick up another language. I speak a bit of Russian, a bit of English, a bit of Spanish a bit of French.
: It must be fun to speak Russian on TV. It doesn’t happen too often that an actor gets to speak Russian on an American TV show.
Ronin: No, it doesn’t. It’s an amazing, amazing opportunity. I brought my grandmother to set as well. She was visiting from Australia. She had a fantastic time. It was great, because if it had been an English-speaking production, being on set wouldn’t mean anything to her. What we were shooting that day was a scene at the Rezidentura. She had a terrific time.
: You were probably glad she didn’t come to set on the day you had a bedroom scene.
Ronin: Yes. I still have to explain to my mom and grandma why this episode doesn’t exist. You never know what you are going to do. You get the script and it’s like a message from God. Next week you’re not going to die, but you will fall in love and kill a couple of people. For film and theater, you know how the story starts, you know how the story ends; with TV you don’t. It’s literally like living real life in character. For six months, you live in that character’s shoes and live their life.
Paste: The show has already been picked up for another season. Will we see Oleg in Season 3?
Ronin: It’s a phenomenal show. It’s such a pleasure being part of it. I’m excited for the audience, there’s a lot of stories that need to be told before the series is over. I can easily see another two, three, maybe four seasons. As far as Oleg, I don’t know. He’s still alive at the end of the season. So I have no idea. I’m excited. I guess it comes down to where the creative team want to take the stories.
: Viewers can see you this summer in Extant, the new CBS drama starring Halle Berry premiering July 9. What can you tell me about it?
Ronin: I’m so excited for the fans of Halle because it’s not often she’s on television. For me, it’s kind of a jump from playing somebody 30 years ago to somebody who is 10 years into the future. I can’t really tell you much about the characters since it’s not aired, but it’s a really, really exciting show. As an audience member, I can’t wait to watch it.
: What made you make the move to Los Angeles?
Ronin: I don’t want to sound corny, but it’s like a calling. I was living and working in Australia for the previous 10 years, and I did a film called Red Dog. After that film came out, it kind of felt like the right time to come to LA and check it out. When I came to LA, I absolutely fell in love with the energy of the place. It’s such a creative hub, so as a storyteller, there’s nothing better than when you’re surrounded by people who think like you and have the same goals as you. It’s inspiring being surrounded by people who do more than you. It makes you want to do better. You’re in the position to learn from the best.
: Anything else coming up for you?
Ronin: I’ve got a film coming out probably in the summer/early fall. It’s called The Midnighters. That’s going to be a great film.
Amy Amatangelo is a Boston-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.