Last night saw the series premiere of The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the latest YA-style entry into that universe of shambling zombies and apocalyptic wastelands. Among the core group of mostly younger newcomers to serialized television, however, is someone who already spent a good chunk of the past few years marking her mark on dark and complicated TV drama: Annet Mahendru, who captivated viewers with her tense and powerfully internal performance on The Americans as Nina Krilova, the KGB officer turned FBI informant. In her new gig, she plays Huck, a former U.S. soldier who has become part of the security detail for the campus colony following the zombie outbreak.
In many ways, Huck is the polar opposite of Nina: loose where the other is uptight, a fighter where Nina was withdrawn, and casual where the Soviet émigré was anything but. When The A.V. Club visited the set of World Beyond, we asked Mahendru about the severe transformation from such a tightly controlled character to the brash, freewheeling ex-soldier she plays on AMC’s latest zombie adventure.
“I’ve been saying after Nina, for a long time I was really in my head. It was a really heady kind of part, and I just wanted to get out, and kind of be physical, and be free—be an easy-going person, you know?” Mahendru said with a laugh. “And so, with Huck, all my dreams have come true. It’s everything and more. I’ve never played a part like this. She’s that America girl—I say with an accent [Laughs.]—an America girl, like myself, growing up in Queens, she’s kind of that girl. She gets you through the apocalypse with her character. It’s been nice having her around.”
Indeed, on a show where most of the dialogue has the tendency to be portentous and loaded with life-and-death implications, Huck has a tendency to make light of things, a rare cheerful spot amid the drama and teenage histrionics. Some of it, she says, comes straight from autobiography—her family’s own involvement in the military. “My dad was in the army in Afghanistan. Huck was in Afghanistan.” The parallels between the two shows and her parents isn’t lost on her: “With The Americans, I felt like I was telling my mom’s story, and now I’m telling my dad’s story, and it’s kind of awesome that way. It’s always personal, somehow, even if you don’t want it to be.”
Mahendru says she’s ready to spend some time inhabiting a person much more like herself than Nina. “[Huck] has all this training, but she doesn’t take it seriously at all.” Over the course of the interview, this proves to be true, as Mahendru essentially unpacks all the most compelling elements of her character, and what she goes through over the course of this first season—including plenty of things we’re prohibited from revealing via NDAs signed to keep the show’s secrets. Happily holding court seems a welcome change of pace for her from the icy interiority of Nina: “God, I spilled all the beans!” she says, laughing again.