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Lunch With
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Lunch with Costa Ronin

1 August 2017

The actor who plays a KGB agent in Cold War spy drama The Americans reveals a few of his own secrets over lunch

Watching Costa Ronin in The Americanscan leave you feeling a little on edge. Playing a KGB agent you somehow find yourself rooting for, his character Oleg Burov has endured a rough ride in recent times, including the death of his brother, the execution of his lover, a sticky CIA and K-Directorate situation, a move from Washington to Moscow and a corrupt Soviet Union. Nobody ever said that the life of a Cold War operative would be easy.

While he’s not quite a household name just yet, a compelling role in FX TV network’s critically acclaimed Cold War spy drama has brought Russian-born Ronin legions of fans and, in the season just finished, his character finally took the story to his homeland, all the while speaking his lines in his native tongue. That the audience happily went along for the ride is telling.

When we meet for lunch at Sauvage, a bright and airy French bistro in Brooklyn not far from where The Americansis filmed, I face not grim Burov but an upbeat Ronin, who has a touch of the Hugh Jackmans about him in person. He is camouflaged by a beard, loose-limbed at 6ft 4in, smiles widely and appears a decade younger than his TV persona.

Seated at a table overlooking lush McCarren Park, we order a few dishes before talk turns to life in the former Soviet Union. “I was in Kaliningrad last year for the first time since I left at 17,” he says. “You know when you come back to the place where you were born and even though it doesn’t feel like home anymore, you feel the bond to the land? It was like I’d never left. Everything was as I remembered it.”

Talk of his youth brings us neatly to his first acting role in a summer camp stage production. “I was five and playing one of those acts where two people are one body – I was the face and the legs. I still remember to this day seeing a sea of faces through the eyes of another person. Had I been the arms, I wouldn’t have had that experience. But because I was able to see, I got to experience it – and that never left me. It fed my storytelling streak.” Soon after, he joined school theatre and drama clubs and then scored a job at Kaliningrad’s first commercial radio station – “we were the first ones to play music by request” – where every night he would write shows, work the console and go on air. “I remember this amazing announcer with a great voice. We spent hours talking about the voice – how to pitch it, how to place it, how to tell the story and connect it to the emotions. That fascinated me because no one in my family, or in fact anyone I knew prior, was in the creative world. It was very new to me.”

The radio gig lasted only two years. In 1995, Ronin’s mother (his parents had divorced when he was 12) received an offer to work for the dairy board in New Zealand. He didn’t want to go because of the media opportunities opening up to him but the move proved fruitful, earning Ronin a degree in international relations and political science from Wellington’s Victoria University. “It’s not like I wanted to be an actor my whole life,” he admits. “I felt that need for storytelling but I always did other things.” He frequently took off travelling, one time through South Island, where he woke up by the famous Milford Sound fjord. “I arrived at night so couldn’t see anything around me. Then at the break of dawn, I saw these massive ferns, waterfalls, a rainforest like out of Jurassic Parkand a cruise ship coming out of the fjord. I was absolutely blown away.” And yet he never felt in sync with the country (“perhaps I was out of sync with myself”). Five years later he followed his so-called “gypsy soul” to Australia. “Everyone else goes to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane; I went to Perth.” His mother, grandmother and brother followed soon after.

Ronin’s mother still lives in Perth; his brother moved to London. As for the actor, after learning Stanislavski’s technique at PAC Screen Workshops in Australia and completing an MBA “to understand how the economy works”, he packed his Ford Falcon and drove east to Sydney. That’s when things started looking up, thanks to a job at Screenwise, the film and television school in Surry Hills, New South Wales and his first guest spot on American TV show Fatal Contact. “It was an ABC TV movie,” he says. “On set I learned so much, especially the importance of the script. That’s the thing that’s going to tell you everything about your character. You still work with the director and work on it yourself and with other actors but ultimately the story begins with the script. All the clues are there. If you don’t know the script – and not just by reading it – if you don’t know it, it’s game over.”

More TV shows followed, as did a role in an Australian film called Red Dog. And then a giant leap to the capital of entertainment, Los Angeles, where he now lives part-time. “That first year was about getting into the union,” says Ronin. “Otherwise agents and managers won’t talk to you. But then once you’re in, how do you find an agent and a manager if you don’t have work? And how do you get work if you don’t have an agent or a manager? It’s this vicious cycle that every actor has to go through. And I was no exception.” His line of thought is cut short as our dishes arrive: baked eggs lined with red piperade for him, duck confit on a bed of frisee for me, a radish-topped avocado toast to share between us.

Ronin was in LA making self tapes when the role of Burov on The Americans came up. After sending one to the show’s casting office in New York, he received a call back for an audition at Amblin Entertainment on the Universal lot. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been there,” he says, “but you go through this maze and fortress, which is fascinating. I mean, this is Amblin, this is Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest storytellers of all time and you’re effectively at his home, a place where all these amazing creative minds work. But I didn’t feel intimidated. I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong. I felt at home.” He ended up performing scenes back and forth, flipping between English and Russian, for what seemed like hours. The audition went well but Ronin knew the process was out of his hands so he went back to making his self tapes.

The second callback was for a chemistry read to see how the actors worked together – a first for Ronin – with actress Annet Mahendru, who played Nina Krilova. “There were fireworks from day one,” he says, but it was at a table read for another project when he received the long-awaited call telling him the role was his. “That was probably the most intense process I have ever been through,” he says. “Normally you go in and you’re either right or wrong. Now I know what it really entails.”

Ronin was initially meant to guest star in just two episodes – “I was expecting to be killed off every single time” – but ultimately ended up appearing in 12 of the 13 episodes in season two. He’s now a series regular. “I didn’t have a vision of being on the show five years down the line. I just wanted to be part of the story.” Every year he speculates about what will happen to his character, but he always gets it wrong. “Just when you think there are no options left, the writers will come up with a scenario that nobody sees coming.”

Throughout it all he’s continued to hone Burov. “I do a lot of prep to create a wholesome character – I know what he drinks, what he eats, what he dreams, and how he thinks, so when I’m on camera, it’s no different. It’s a living, breathing human being. It’s not acting – you try to become that character.”

It wasn’t until season five that the story took him to his homeland. “Our producing director Chris Long had the idea of going to Russia since the beginning [of the show] because it just made sense but it had to be an organic process.” Shooting the story where it belonged, without caricatures, seemed essential. “It is not difficult finding a person who looks Russian but what you need to do is find someone who thinks like that person – the real deal. If you’re looking for honesty – and this is what we’ve been able to achieve this season – it takes the show to the next level in terms of its integrity and its storytelling process.”

The sixth and final season of the show begins filming in October in New York, where Ronin lives during filming in winter and spring. Before then, there is an impending visit to his brother in London to celebrate their mother’s birthday, then a directors’ course to take at New York University. “It’s a two-month intensive course, 12 hours every day for two months. With directing, there are so many stories that I want to tell. Not all of them have a place for me as an actor but I still want to be part of them, so I’m about to learn the alphabet of directing and understand how to put it all together,” he says.
His co-star Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman, is doing just that and has directed episodes of The Americans. “Noah is definitely one of the best directors I have worked with,” says Ronin. “He’s an amazing actor and artist and has the depth and intelligence to put it all together. The way he shapes the story, the way he shapes the scenes, the way he shapes the episode – it’s just so honest. He’s an amazing human being.”

But for Ronin, directing and acting in the same production is not something he is actively pursuing. For now he is simply happy to learn from the best directors on set. He has also got a film project in the works, then there is his role in The Midnighters with actor Leon Rossum (best known as General Jonathan Krantz in Prison Break) and most recently Brighton Beach, a film produced by Molly Conners, whose credits include Birdman. You might even recognise Ronin as Anton Vanko from Marvel’s Agent Carter. Otherwise it won’t be until early next year that we can expect the return of Burov. Based on Ronin’s form to date, it will be worth the wait.

Words: Marina Kay / Images: Thomas Nester

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