So Many Questions: 'Americans' actor Costa Ronin says spies play by rules, just not ours
You barely have to scratch the surface of American culture to tap into our long-running love affair with spies. “The Americans,” which has been renewed by FX for a third season, has not fallen short of its goal of whetting that appetite as it tells the story of two Soviet intelligence agents in the early 1980s Cold War era who are posing as a married couple living in Washington, D.C. Their purpose? Spy on the American government.
For Costa Ronin (@CostaRonin on Twitter), who plays the part of Oleg Burov, a young KGB agent without an ounce of interest in following the rules or any sort of hierarchical protocol, the show is a strong dose of reality into the dark side of spy craft. Whatever romanticized notion audiences have about the lifestyle are quickly put into perspective. In their world, emotions are an afterthought, actions dictate life or death, and your call of duty supersedes everything and everyone — no matter what the cost.
Question: We've always had a love affair with the idea of a spy — why?
Answer: Everyone wants to go out and have this adventure and come back home and go to sleep safe. It's that love affair with adventure and the unknown. I think it's the ability to ... travel around the world and being able to be all the characters you want to be in order to do your job. I don't think (people) really know the gravity of the situation — what happens if you miss? In our daily life, it's very important to be socially aware and emotionally aware. But if you make a mistake, not a big deal, you can always apologize and move on with your life. In the world of spy craft, you make a mistake, you can start a war.
Q: Must someone sacrifice sincerity in order to become powerful?
A: I don't know if people have to sacrifice sincerity. ... I think we have to be true to ourselves. And also, it's important to be self-aware and be able to tap into what really drives you and what really moves you. And they're all different things to people. Something that gets you up in the morning and gets your heart beating is going to be different from what gets me up in the morning. But you and I have a choice. People in the world of “The Americans,” they often don't have a choice. I mean, they do have a choice, because there's always a choice, but at the same time, they're often driven by their duty. They're often driven by their mission.
Q: Whether good or bad, do emotions always dictate actions?
A: I think it depends. Some people are very aware of their emotions. ... Others aren't. In the spy game, it's very important to be aware of your emotions and how you come across and how you think, but at the same time, it's imperative to be able to disguise it. ... In fact, you can't show your emotions even when you think you are safe and you think that you're with somebody who will never betray you. ... It's one of those situations where you and I can be having a fantastic time and be on a date and laugh and dance and make love and one of us will have to die tomorrow. Moreover, one of us will have to kill the other one tomorrow. And that's the world they live in.
Q: What are the dangers of not playing by the rules?
A: Well, Oleg is all about not playing by the rules! See, it's very, very important for him to come in and figure out the makeup of the spy world in Washington. He comes from a family that never played by the rules — they almost had rules of their own. Coming into Washington was very important for him to figure out who the players are and how to tap into their psyches, how to tap into their weaknesses. So, you can't not play by the rules, you have to play by some rules, whether they are rules that already exist or rules that you make yourself. And Oleg had to make his own rules.
Q: Given your character's obsession with American culture, do you think Oleg has the capability to flip?
A: I think everybody has a potential to flip, so to speak. Oleg is not just in love with the American culture, he's traveled the world. He's the kind of guy that says, “I'm not going to listen to the Soviet music just because I come from the Soviet Union. … I'm going to listen to the music I like.” ... His musical tastes lie in between everything from Rod Stewart to Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin. He likes to drink what he likes to drink. He likes to listen to the music that moves him. So, he's a very worldly character. He takes what he thinks is the best from different countries, and America is no exception. He tapped into the American lifestyle. He likes the clothes; he likes the freedom of choices. It's new to somebody who is coming from the Soviet Union where there was not an option even though he grew up in the upper middle class. ... To him, it's not just about “OK, I represent the Soviet Union, and I'm a spy.” That's the primary difference, at least in the beginning, of he and Arkady. Arkady is an old wolf; he's there representing Soviet Union. Oleg is what Russia will be. He's the new way of thinking. He's the new wolf.
Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-380-8515 or via Twitter @KateBenzTRIB.
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