McMafia Q&A — Sofya Lebedeva (Lyudmilla Nikolayeva)
Sofya Lebedeva, who plays Lyudmilla on AMC's McMafia, discusses the psychological strain of playing her character, why Lyudmilla agrees to help Semiyon and her burgeoning romance with Joseph.
Q: The story of your character Lyudmilla is taken directly from Misha Glenny's book. Have you read the book? What research did you do for the role?
A: I started to do research and I tried to find McMafia in Russian, but I didn’t find it in Moscow. I bought the English version and I only read my storyline because it was difficult for me to read it all in English. The scriptwriters developed the story of Lyudmilla a lot and I felt a big responsibility because it’s not just fantasy. It’s a real problem in our world. I did deep research into the characters and watched lots of documentaries. I read lots of books and I have a friend of mine who is a psychologist that works with extreme cases. He’s worked with sexual slaves and he told me what happens to personalities under pressure and because of depression. So, I studied that psychological side of it. I also had a conversation with a girl who went through sexual slavery. It was very scary. She shared with me some details and some awful things. I felt even more responsibility to share these stories of real sexual slaves to the world.
Q: What Lyudmilla endures is scary and sad. How difficult was it to be in that head space?
A: You’re asking the question, through the series, of what to do with this problem. In conversations with the psychologist, he explained the stages of what happens to us after a catastrophic event. It was hard sometimes because you’re doing lots of takes and you’re repeating it, but when you have motivation and understand how important the responsibility is, it’s not hard at all.
Q: What do you think Lyudmilla tells herself to get through her ordeal?
A: I would say she has a motivation to survive. Her mother has a problem with her kidney. It’s a very serious problem, so she’s searching for money to help her mother have an operation. I think this is her motivation to survive, to struggle and to fight.
Q: What does Lyudmilla think of Semiyon? While he is obviously keeping her against her will, is there a part of her that is grateful her situation isn't worse?
A: I’m a fan of David Strathairn and how he played this role. His character is one of the most dangerous criminals and he plays it in such an amazing manner – as a kind and friendly jokester. At first, I think Lyudmilla 100 percent trusts him because he promised to help with her mother. But I think she was raped during her way from Turkey to Israel. There are only hints of what she's [been through.] I think it’s much harder for her than it shows.
Q: In Episode 5, Lyudmilla agrees to help clear Semiyon's name. Does she see it as her way out or is there some other motivation?
A: She doesn’t want to help Semiyon. It’s a way to escape. Episode 5, for Lyudmilla, I would say is about despair. She’s desperate. She’s at the bottom and can’t struggle anymore with this tension. She couldn’t keep it to herself anymore and started to express her position. I think she’s very strong. I think she’s worrying, but she doesn’t have a choice anymore. She wants justice, so she’s rebellious.
Q: When Alex is unable to convince Semiyon to let Lyudmilla go, how does she feel? Does she have any other hope at this point?
A: I would say her world collapses. There are three situations where her world collapses. First, when she was kidnapped. Second, when she understood that Semiyon cheated her and the third time is when she understood that even this good deed didn’t help. She’s still so strong and remains a survivor on the inside... [but] she’s lost hope.
Q: What do you think of the relationship developing between Lyudmilla and Joseph? Do you think she is able to overlook the fact that he works for a man who goes along with trafficking of women?
A: When I first read the script, I thought of the concept in psychology called Stockholm syndrome when victims start to fall in love with their abuser. I thought it applied to this story, but then I understood it doesn’t. Lyudmilla is in a very dirty world where she cannot trust anyone. When she saw a sincere person who is really honest, she fell in love and it becomes her hope of surviving.
Q: McMafia shot in some amazing locations. What was your favorite place to shoot?
A: All my scenes were shot in Croatia. It’s an amazing place and we shot in the summer, so we got to swim in the sea. In the second episode, there’s a scene where Tanya is buying Lyudmilla at the the slave market. We shot that in a huge abandoned unfinished building in the middle of nowhere. Architecturally, it’s like a big square. It’s a weird building and it’s very scary and terrifying. The building itself has an energy. For me, it was like a symbol of a coffin for these victims. That was my favorite location.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from McMafia and specifically Lyudmilla's story?
A: I hope it will be a warning for parents to have conversations with children about sexual slavery and how it’s happening, and a warning for young girls as well. We don’t give much attention to this problem and it’s a huge problem. Lyudmilla fights for her own truth and moral values and she’s strong. I hope it will be a lesson that you can survive when you believe in your truth and fight for it.
Read a Q&A with executive producer Misha Glenny.
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