photographer: Nathan Johnson
“What I really enjoyed was my Philosophy of Law class. In my stubborn pursuit of justice, I only learned how subjective the objective is.“
Q. The decision to become an actor, especially while enrolled in grad school for Global Affairs, can’t be an easy one. Was it for you? How did your parents react? Was there ever a brief moment of regretting this decision?
A. It was like a terrible breakup up.. with school. Because the only thing I always knew for certain is that I wanted to be an eternal student. I was at my dream university set out to be part of a global effect because of my ability to connect to cultures, through my languages and desire for unity. But when I started to learn more about the field, I realized how I couldn’t possibly be enough there. I was learning about trapped countries and trapped women and the effect it has on children and I felt their hopelessness. I was attending conferences, international gatherings; I was immersed and busy, but completely powerless.
The one thing I hadn’t connected to my mission yet was my passion for art. I hadn’t realized at that moment that affecting change through storytelling was not just my crazy lover but also my professional path. I left still confused, applying to MBA programs thinking I’d have more strength there to influence; to stir up the way things didn’t work in the world. In the meantime, I was auditioning and driving refrigerated semi-trucks filled with flowers and leis across California. Rushing to get to university graduations to set up some 15 booths and manage twice that seasonal employees who’d be selling the flowers that I also had to distribute at crazy hours of the morning. It was a very physical and mental job after which I felt I could do anything.
So then finally, storytelling, the thing I loved since the first poem my mom taught me before I could even read, kept creeping back in stronger and I realized THAT must be the thing I was enough for! And only when I literally dropped everything and had nothing but felt everything, is when it fully manifested. Little did I know, I had already been on my way all along. My father was protective of me in the most fatherly way always. Wait a minute, what about the midnight truck driving, dad?! Mom was the one who bizarrely always approved my ‘dropping out.’ She knew. Ay women!
Your Bachelor’s degree being in English, what are some of your favorite works? Were you on the Literature or Creative Writing side? If there is one book that sparked your interest in literature, or transcendentalism, or any form of reading, what was it?
I took creative writing and poetry most seriously. I enjoyed all its forms but Free Verse really tickled me. I loved going into the city for poetry readings. By the way, is this a good time to advertise my poetry blog NotSo on Tumblr??
I remember taking a Medieval Literature class, fantasizing about knighthood; fencing is on my bucket list. In African American literature, I fell in love with Langston Hughes. Through a Sign Language class, I remember going to an apple picking event, strolling off and watching kids who are hearing impaired play football, it was magical, there was no difference. I remember taking a liking to Emily Dickinson’s I heard a Fly Buzz, and next thing I knew I was in a Necrophilia and Movies class writing my thesis. I was in there for the Movies part. I promise! I was a Philosophy minor and was always really flustered about what to say when asked ‘what’s your favorite school of thought?’ I was curious about all their truths. What I really enjoyed was my Philosophy of Law class. In my stubborn pursuit of justice, I only learned how subjective the objective is.
Oh I hate playing trivia in conversations: I like to remember the atmosphere, the instances, the experience of something behind the name. Ok fine! One book that comes to mind was Left to Tell by Imacculee Ilibagiza. It’s about what it meant for her to survive the Rwandan Holocaust as a college student herself in a tiny hidden bathroom with several other women, for months. Imacculee came to speak at my university. She spoke of her journey, and connecting her passion to a mission in the world and I was moved like hell.
I have a film in festivals at the moment that’s based on the true story of Sally Pacholok, a nurse from Detroit, who also wrote a book and started a movement after witnessing an epidemic of misdiagnosis in hospitals. When stories like that come to you, everything in your life up to that point starts to make sense. I have no regrets; I am a storyteller for a reason.
You have an incredibly mixed culture background with you father being East Indian and your mother Russian, on top of moving around Russia, Afghanistan, and the U.S. Do you feel that you identify with a certain culture best? Or do you self-identify as a person of the world-type? Do you have any strong feelings towards the current affairs taking place in Russia and the middle east?
My parents are from drastically different cultures and so I was growing up amongst lots of different ways. Especially because we moved to different countries I figured I had to be all to be me and to survive. No big deal. I just wish I had a sibling to slap that crazy belief out of me. Being an artist and feeling great empathy is another way to get into the world-type-group. That’s really all I ever wanted is to be accepted in the world-type group!!! Muahaha. Ok for reals now. Politics. Bah. I play pretend, I tell stories, I’m better at that. I hope to elevate spirits, to move minds, to connect hearts. I was in Afghanistan during the Cold War and I listened to music and watched movies and occasionally hid in the tub with my mom during gunfire and explosions while my dad was studying and teaching at Kabul University. I felt like a normal kid, I pretended they were fireworks. Yes, I have a lot of strong feelings about what is going on in the world.
What were your first thoughts about America when you moved here? What customs did you find silly? Or strange?
The different tables at lunch: Cool kids, Indian kids, Book Worms, etc. I was so confused I was part of all how could I pick, how could anyone pick! I was in a constant protest. I was also thrown into ESL and was like “oh no you didn’t!” I was insanely competitive in school. In other words, I loved school head over heels! Anyhow, I was in Honors in two months.
I had the hardest time in Cheerleading because I had no idea what they were shouting. I’d ask the girls to write out Ba-Ba-Ba Boom Dynamite for me. It was so embarrassing. But they did. My heroines! Also carrying purses in 8th grade, I didn’t get that. Book bags are for school, people! It was such a pain in the neck matching purses to outfits. I go to war with accessories all the time still.
Your role in “The Americans” is as a high level KGB agent. This being a very stereotypical American fantasy of Russian spy culture, and you being part Russian (and having lived in Russia), do you feel like your fulfilling a sort of fantasy for yourself through this role? How do you relate to your character, Nina Krilova?
I was so anti-Russian parts and I didn’t even think I could do the accent when I first started. I was fluent but I had never spoken English with a Russian accent. My first indie required an Eastern European accent and I was tripping out hard. I remember I wore a red shirt to the audition and my face matched it perfectly by the time I was done. And there was a blonde young woman with blue eyes and I had totally and stereotypically cast her for the part, but they cast me. Since then I’ve only read for a couple other Russian parts and they were so stereotypically inaccurate that I wanted to puke and swore I’d never sell my soul. I was very suspicious of Nina at first but she isn’t anything like that, she is a real Russian woman. I mean I fantasize about her world all the time, that’s how I am able to say what she needs to say. I work with imagination mostly. I let the words guide me into the world of The Americans. It’s more meaningful that way for me. The fantasy that I am fulfilling is only the one of expanding through empathy. And pleasing my Russian folks (JK) Well, actually, my grandma’s name is Nina and she lives at the Blacksea, she raised me so it’s totally meant to be! I always tell her grandma this is from you and for you. I was tiny when I stayed with her but she’d let me play with much older girls at the playground and we would swing on the swings singing: “American boy I’m going with you na na na- na na.” Back then I figured the boy must be hot. Then I ended up in NY myself.. because the boy WAS hot! New York really is a great home for everyone to live together (literally), or someone from everywhere to feel somewhere.
I do feel blessed to be able to experience through Nina what it would be like to be a true Russian bread woman. In The Americans it’s really about ‘ what would it be like?’ what would it be like to be a human being under those conditions.
You are great in your role as Nina on “The Americans,” but some of your acting background is in improv. Do you wish to attain more comedic roles in the future? Do you find comedy as a form of release?
Thank you 😉 Well actually comedy was mostly what I was doing when I was asked to read for Nina. It’s kind of the same thing though I work from the heart. I try to at least as soon as I catch myself trying to repeat a word over and over I start laughing and stop. Even with Nina sometimes when I too serious I’ll try to do something weird, make a face, say something stupid, basically to get back to the play spirit and okay the possibility of falling on my face.
Groundlings was great fun! I also like stand-up. Speaking of fantasies, that’s one. Every art form is a release; I like to play any form of pretend, although physical comedy is really exhilarating in its own special way. I’d die to do that next! No really. Or maybe instead of dying I could do something in a form of rebellion against typecasting and only accept to do a Russian accent again if it’s a complete mockery of the fact that I am doing a Russian role again, like in a very physical comedy!