It’s a tale of two Russians: After playing a cold-blooded killer on the seventh season of Homeland this spring, actor Costa Ronin is about to wrap up his run as the do-gooder KGB man Oleg Burov on The Americans. Oleg, who was alive and in FBI custody at the end of last week’s penultimate episode, has become a viewer favorite as he’s evolved from a spoiled playboy to a father willing to sacrifice himself to secure a better future for his country. Ahead of Wednesday’s Americans series finale, Ronin talked to Vulture about his hectic prime-time schedule, why he’s so surprised Oleg is still alive, whether or not Yevgeny will return for what is likely to be Homeland’s last season, and the most crucial question of all: Is Oleg hot?
You’ve been a very busy man on TV this season. How much did your work on The Americans and Homeland overlap?
All of it. We started The Americans at the end of October, and Homeland started in September. I live in Los Angeles, The Americans filmed in New York, Homeland for the first half was in Richmond, Virginia, then we shot a couple of episodes in Budapest. It was a lot of traveling, constant traveling, jet lag. But honestly, I am incredibly grateful the Js [Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] made it possible for me to work on Homeland. And to Alex [Gansa, Homeland’s showrunner], who gave me such a wonderful role.
The good news is that both Oleg and Homeland’s Yevgeny are still alive. Are you surprised by that?
Yes. Frankly, I think it’s a surprise to all of us that Oleg survived the last episode of season five. It was so beautifully concluded — that last shot of him on the bridge, looking out at Moscow, then walking off. It was very poetic. So when I got a call last summer about the new season, I was surprised, also because I realized they had so many stories to tie together in the final season. I didn’t know how or why they would want to bring Oleg back. But it’s a testament to their tremendous creativity and commitment to excellence that they found a way to bring him back in.
These last two seasons, we get a much deeper portrait of Oleg. When we first met him, he was a cocky, privileged son of a government official. But now, he’s brave and thoughtful and willing to sacrifice everything not just for his son’s future, but for his country’s future. Was he always really that man, or did he become that man?
I think both. Definitely both. In that world, you can’t be yourself. You can’t show your true self, what your true beliefs are. But Oleg grew up, he got older, certain things happened in his personal life and in the world as well — the arms race, chemical warfare, other things in the ’80s that weren’t covered on the show, but that, of course, the character knew about. Everything you saw and some you didn’t — his relationships with Nina and with Stan, what happened with his brother, the relationship between the United States and his country — he transformed. This show is like nothing that’s come before it, but hopefully, it will inspire people to be braver about their choices, telling stories that are international in scope.
You were born in Russia, but playing Oleg and Yevgeny, did you learn anything you didn’t know about your country?
Oh, absolutely. I do a lot of research and a lot of work before actual filming begins. For The Americans, I had to learn not just spycraft, but also the role of history going back to World War II all the way through to the ’60s and ’70s because that’s when the story picks up. And then with Homeland, because it takes place now, I had to learn the rest of the years. [Laughs.] I kind of had to become an expert in world politics, starting in around 1945 all the way up to 2018.
Oleg has had powerful bonds with several characters, including this season with Philip. His relationship with Stan is one of the show’s best, and the scene between them in the FBI holding cell is an all-timer. What was the most challenging or intense Oleg relationship for you?
The arc with Stan and Oleg is certainly the grandest one because they are the two characters who represent the world at that time: Stan represents the United States, Oleg represents the Soviet Union. Even though they’re not the center of the story, they do represent all the concerns of the countries, and they come to understand each other, respect each other as professionals. One of the revelations I learned about was how CIA, FBI, and KGB agents during those days would spend time together, get a drink together, play a game of tennis on the weekends. They knew who each other was and they didn’t talk about that. They did not discuss work. But they would have these friendly relationships with each other, despite being on opposite sides, because of a mutual respect. They had jobs to do, they worked for different people, but there was also respect for the fact that it was another human being standing in front of you.
Are you satisfied with how The Americans ends?
You know, people have asked me how I wanted the show to end, and I just want it to be truthful. Not some Hollywood ending. Like, I would hate for Oleg to die just for the sake of a tearjerker. I just want it to be truthful and honest, the way the show has been for the last six years. If viewers feel that, we’ve done our jobs. But also, just because there’s no next episode, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of their lives. Things will go on afterward.
What about Homeland? Will Yevgeny return next season?
I don’t know. I know Alex likes to be very current. With The Americans, we were covering the past, so it wasn’t like we had to wait for something to happen. With Homeland, it’s different because a lot of the things haven’t happened yet. Things change every single day. I know that it will be another amazing season, and I think it’s going to be the last one for Alex and maybe the last one for the whole series.
One more question: Our friends at the Cut recently asked if Oleg is hot. What do you think?
Somebody sent me that. I thought it was cute. Thank you to the ladies for their point of view. If they find Oleg attractive, hot, handsome … terrific. I don’t really have an opinion about that.
I think a big part goes beyond his physical looks. He’s an incredibly honorable man, a man willing to sacrifice so much for people he doesn’t know.
But that really has nothing to do with me. It’s the writing. Actors sometimes have this thing of like, when something is done well, it’s because of them, but if something doesn’t go well, it’s because of the writing. Well, no, everything is always about the writing. The only reason Oleg is this and that and the other is because the Js and the writers decided to make him like that. So Oleg is hot because of those guys, not because of me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.