Hossein Amini and James Watkins, the co-creators of McMafia, discuss Semiyon’s betrayal of Alex, Alex and Vadim trading hero and villain roles, and whether Alex is done with Rebecca.
Q: Did you have Alex’s endpoint in mind when you began the series? Was there discussion of his transformation taking longer?
Hossein Amini: We wanted to get him to that place and, therefore, we were very mindful of making the journey credible. I think our story takes seven months to spread over eight episodes and we felt we needed that time to get a fully nuanced kind of journey, starting off from a place of innocence to where he does end up. I will say that he has a bit of a head start in that he comes from that background to a certain extent. We don’t see that during the story, but he’s sort of grown up around it, even though he’s rejecting it at the beginning. He’s sort of got that world in his psyche, as it were.
I think there’s a certain amount of pent-up anger. I mean, he’s been sent to a school where he’s probably been bullied and teased and has had to hide behind a mask and pretend to be something he isn’t. I feel, at the beginning of the story, that there are large parts of his character that he’s not only hiding from other people but also hiding from himself.
James Watkins: And also, in the classical sense that character is destiny. How much is he his father’s son? That sort of tragic sense of what you repress and the nature of what is within you. Who are you? How much can you escape who you are? Hoss and I, in conversation with James Norton [who plays Alex Godman], were very focused on the nature of Alex Godman’s motivation and having a complexity of motivation and this notion of why he is doing what he’s doing. Is it just because it’s revenge? Is it survival or is it some will to power or some resurgence of him being his father’s son? That notion, we thought, is more interesting and it’s perhaps sometimes harder for people to hook onto — who really want one clear, linear thing — but we thought that kind of ambiguity and occasional opaqueness of motivation was important.
HA: And I don’t think that motivation is something that changes. In storytelling, there’s a desire to have one clear motivation from beginning to end. From day to day, from month to month, we all change and our motivations change and sometimes in our motivations we’re lying to ourselves. So, Alex’s case, he sometimes tells himself he’s doing it for his family and for his girlfriend and because he has no choice, but you could argue that none of those things are true and there is a will to power and a will to vengeance that are going on at the same time. I think motivation is incredibly complex, shifting. It’s very, very veiled. What I find interesting about that character is the unknowability and the unreadability. Sometimes he uses that as a weapon, so people think he’s doing it for one reason and he’s doing it for another. The mask is very much something that I think he’s trapped behind but also that he uses deliberately to fool people.
Q: How significant is the moment when he actually pulls the trigger on Vadim to what Alex will become in the future?
HA: I think it’s huge. Again, he had lots of motives in just that one moment. One is vengeance and closure of Boris. Another is almost putting Vadim out of his mercy, taking his mantle and accepting his curse, which is that “you’re going to become me,” basically. There’s something – which I found in James [Norton’s] performance and James [Watkins’] directing – that wasn’t necessarily on the page. I sensed, in the amazing close-up that James shot, a sense of curiosity and what it means to take another man’s life and I think that is probably the darkest element of that moment for me. There’s something almost psychopathically curious, dare I say. That is what’s great about when you write something. Someone directs it and someone performs and, suddenly, whole new dimensions come into a moment.
JW: There’s a hint – just a hint, and I won’t go further than that – of the sociopath within Alex Godman. Not everybody would potentially take this route and I think that’s what Hoss is getting at. One of the things we were very focused on, both in that scene and at the very end in the phone call from Rebecca, was defeat in victory or imprisonment in coronation – however you want to put it. As Hoss says, “the curse of Vadim”…for me, in that moment, there’s no triumph in the end. There’s no “Screw you. I’ve defeated you, Vadim.” The mantle that he’s taking up is very much a troubled one, so we really wanted that sort of tragic sense to bleed through, and I think that’s what’s so strong about the performance. I think there’s a subtlety to it. Acting is about withholding and concealing. The subtle cues that James Norton gives in his performance is something I respond to in filmmaking.
HA: I feel it’s Semiyon’s revenge on Alex for betraying him. I think Semiyon probably looked on Alex as a bit of a son and looked to himself as a bit of a father figure and, like a lot of other people in the series, underestimates Alex. When he turns on him, it’s unexpected that he’s a canny operator and he’s going to get his revenge somehow. I definitely saw it as “You screw with me, I’m going to get you back.”
JW: Absolutely. And what I think is great in David Strathairn’s performance is that at the very end, the very last moment of Semiyon in the series when he kisses Alex goodbye – the Judas kiss – he catches a look with Joseph in the background and you see just a slight hint in Semiyon’s eyes of regret, even though he’s betrayed him. Even though everything that Hoss has said is true, and I think it feeds into that, the fact that he does have [this] warmth toward Alex. There’s a complexity in terms of his response. It’s a sort of regretful betrayal, I suppose. I think you can manipulate people and have affection at the same time.
HA: I think it’s genuine. I think he really does want to take him under his wing. He’s a manipulator, but ultimately, he gets manipulated by Alex. I think, throughout the series, you think Alex is kind of in this shark-infested pool and, in some ways, he’s the scariest of the lot.
Q: Despite all she went through, Rebecca was at least willing to reach out to Alex. Does his refusal to take her call signal that relationship is lost forever?
HA: I think largely not, but also because he’s sort of heeding Vadim. He knows that Vadim has said you can’t get close to people because if you do, you bring them pain. In Alex’s case, even more importantly, you bring yourself pain. The main reason that I think he’s with Rebecca – again, part of his mask – is he’s a Russian exile. He wants to be British and she represents that kind of classic Britishness, so I think it’s partly him hiding. I think he’s convinced himself he’s in love with her, but I think there’s an ambiguity there and I think he’s very much moved on by the end of it. He’s given her up for her sake and for his own.
Q: Alex seems pleased with himself when he gets the best of Antonio in the negotiations, but has he possibly created a new enemy?
HA: I certainly feel that Antonio has actually, in a very manipulative way, been pushing him and prodding him and playing him the whole time. Alex is one of those people [who] probably keeps it inside and that resentment has been building for a while. When he’s finally in a position to do something about it, he certainly lets him know. Antonio is someone who underestimates Alex as well and thinks, “Oh, I can tell this kid what to do and blackmail him and intimidate him and whatever,” but he doesn’t see him coming.
JW: When we started developing it, Hoss said, “You’ve got to read this book, Augustus [Augustus: A Novel]” by John Williams, and it was exactly that point. You don’t see him coming. It was the sense that everybody underestimates the boy, Augustus, but he’s the one that becomes the emperor of them all.
Q: Lyudmilla and Joseph get perhaps the closest thing to a happy ending. What were you hoping to show with their unlikely love story?
JW: We wanted to show that we’ve got a heart and we’re not totally heartless individuals. [Laughs] Lyudmilla’s gone through such a journey and to completely crush Lyudmilla at the end – there are some things an audience can’t forgive. I feel that she’s entitled to at least the potential for some respite from the situation she’s in.
HA: [Joseph’s] one of my favorite characters and I think it’s because he’s one of the very few characters in the whole series who is weirdly an innocent and has a very strong sense of right and wrong and a moral core. I think he finds that in Lyudmilla as well. In a way, you almost want the purity of their story to contrast with the murkiness of most of the other characters.
Q: Family was perhaps the most consistent theme through McMafia. Why was it so important to see so much of all the characters’ personal lives in building this story?
HA: Gangsters, in most genre, don’t have any families. We wanted to show some of what makes them similar to us as well as what makes them different. Vadim’s relationship with his daughter is very important because it’s part of a strategy we always had. Vadim and Alex almost swap places, not just in the sense that one takes over for the other, but even in storytelling terms, the villain becomes the hero and the hero becomes the villain. There isn’t a clear black and white even in those kinds of relationships. It was very intentional for the audience to sympathize with Vadim in the end because we’ve humanized him throughout the journey. I feel like his love for his daughter redeems him. That’s why he doesn’t kill Alex and that’s why he stops killing. That’s ultimately his weakness, which is his downfall. His downfall is almost his humanity.
Q: James, what was it like shooting in so many wonderful locations? Any favorites?
JW: In terms of one individual place, it has to be Mumbai. We doubled other countries and we shot different units in those countries, but you can’t double India. You can’t double Mumbai. It’s just such a sensory overload. We’re not about doing a jet-setting, international tourism show. We weren’t trying to do what James Bond used to be in the ’60s and ’70s, taking people to places they would never go. We were all about embedding these characters within these worlds. One of the joys for me was as much in the casting as in the locations because we got to get these world-class actors and showcase them. To introduce the world to people like Merab Ninidze, who plays Vadim, or Aleksey Serebryakov, who’s one of the finest actors in Russia and who plays Dmitri – it’s an incredible pleasure.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the show about how global organized crime actually works?
HA: In the U.K., what’s been gratifying is the series has moved beyond the TV pages and ended up in the news pages. There were articles connecting the show to the change in money laundering rules, for example. We had organizations who deal with people trafficking or Global Witness, for example, who are all about financial crime – all of these organizations were all given a lot of profile because of this show and news and interest. It became a conversation about globalism and crime beyond just a TV show and, hopefully, we can do that elsewhere as well. Television, because of its reach, can actually make people far more aware of what they’re complicit in, but also the crimes that are going on around them that they wouldn’t necessarily be aware of.
Read a Q&A with Oshri Cohen who plays Joseph.
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