Merab Ninidze, who plays Vadim Kalyagin on AMC’s McMafia, discusses making a gangster human, why Vadim doesn’t sympathize with Alex and the real root of Vadim’s violence.
A: The book is quite different. There’s no real Vadim in the book and there’s no real Alex Godman. It describes the modern Mafia structure around the globe. I was born in the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke down, some people suddenly got rich rich. Most of those people were gangsters and the ways they earned money was not how you earn money. We were surrounded by lots of darkness in the ‘90s. Before I left my home country because of civil war, people like Vadim were very prominent. They were celebrated people in the city. I think that knowledge came from real people that I’ve encountered and met in my life. But I was not a part of the mob or anything! [Laughs]
Q: How would you describe Vadim? How did you approach playing him?
A: We agreed that we would not do any caricature of anyone who is Russian or represents Russia. It was already in the storyline that he’s the head of the Moscow mob. We didn’t have to underline that in the acting or how [co-creator and executive producer James Watkins] directed the characters. It was more about making him as human as we could and to always keep him scary, but show him as a loving father or someone who is attached to his family. Someone who could be the nice guy if you didn’t know what he does. Our approach was to not play a gangster.
Q: Even though Vadim is presented as the “villain,” we do see how much he cares for his family. Why do you think that is so important for these characters?
A: For storytelling – especially [with] villains or people who have transitions – it’s essential to show them in their everyday activities aside from how they earn their money. It’s that human touch just like in The Sopranos. If you didn’t see Tony Soprano surrounded by his family, you wouldn’t feel any sympathy towards him. I think, here, the characters become less caricature and more real and complex. The human aspect to this is very important.
Q: Given Vadim’s strong connection to family, does he sympathize with Alex at all when they first meet at the end of Episode 1?
A: I don’t think Vadim really thinks of Alex as an innocent boy… The story of Vadim and Alex’s dad and his uncle when they were young is not really told precisely through the show, but I think it’s rooted back in the early ’90s. This is how they communicate. They hurt each other. It’s very clear in that scene that if it’s war, it’s going to be war.
Q: In Episode 2, we meet Ilya. How important is that relationship to Vadim, both personally and in terms of his business?
A: It’s like a family. That’s how we approached this friendship. I think we wanted to show something deeply rooted and that this is not just a business connection. It’s deeply rooted in their youth. They not only respect each other, but they’re very bonded like brothers. They do this business together because for Vadim, it’s very safe to have a friend like that who directly connects you to the government. I think it’s very precious to him. I don’t think this is a calculated friendship. It’s a real one.
Q: In Episode 3, we see Vadim take violent action by killing the policeman in Prague. Why do you think he wants to make such a statement in that moment?
A: I think it’s like a ritual for Vadim just to get rid of that anger and everything he’s seen in the Afghan war. You don’t see any of his Afghani war past. I was lucky that my parents saved me from this Afghan war because I was supposed to be taken as a Soviet solider. I was 19. I never went to this war, but some of my friends and people I knew went. They returned and something in them was entirely broken. None of them really wanted to talk about what they experienced. I was telling that to James and then we thought that in [Vadim’s] past, he was probably very talented and learned languages and went to university when he was young. After the breaking of the Soviet Union, this guy had to put his talents in something and probably started to obsessively make money. I think that made him very violent. I liked that scene when I read Episode 3. It was very dark territory we were digging in.
Q: What was your favorite part of shooting the show? Did you have a favorite location?
A: I have a few favorite moments. One was when we shot the last scene in Episode 1, which was actually shot in Lancaster House in London. It was amazing shooting there. There were many people around and it was my first scene together with James Norton. We’d met before, but it was our first meeting in front of the camera. The location of Doha in the very first scene of Episode 1 when his car is exploding in the tunnel was an amazing location. Going to Doha was great. It was very hard because of the wind and heat and being on the boat. I got seasick, but still, it was all beautiful. I will never forget that because it was really special. I was working for almost a year on McMafia and whenever I had to go to set, I was so happy because it was so multilayered and charged and inspirational. It was a dream for an actor. Every day was special and beautiful.
Q: What do you hope people who watch the show come away understanding about the way crime works around the world?
A: I‘ve heard that in Britain, they’re changing the rule about laundering money. I can’t tell you exactly what it’s about, but I think the show influenced society and politics. A piece of art influences me when it’s honest. When something honest come from art, cinema, theater or even song — if it touches me and it’s honest, it pulls me in. It feels real. That’s how you feel when you see the best series and films. If this show has this quality to come close to people’s hearts through showing them really horrible things that happen around us each second, I would say people wouldn’t choose to be gangsters. They would be nice and put their energy and talent in more inspiring things.
Read a Q&A with James Norton, who plays Alex Godman.
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