Alex may play a brooding Russian Jewish immigrant teen in the indie film Natasha and the abandoned son of a KGB agent in the FX period drama The Americans, but he was upbeat and openhearted during our chat. We talked about his wide-ranging spiritual practices, the lingering questions he has about his heritage (he’s a Russian-born, Toronto-based, US-employed, areligious kinda guy with divorced parents), and the thing about Christmas that really bugs him.
What is your earliest memory?
When I was five years old, I was on a fishing trip with my dad and his friends and I caught a fish. I was proud and running with the fish in my hand trying to show it to them. I fell down and scraped my knees, crying. That was in a little village near St. Petersburg called Gârbova. We lived there because my dad was a paratrooper in the army and it was a military town.
I don’t know much about that life, which is something that I’m in search of now. I’ve been out of touch with my dad for a little while. When I was born, he was at war. He was in the battlefield, then he got the call, “It’s a boy!”
Tell me about your family.
My parents separated when I was six years old. They remained friends. I was moving a lot between my mom in England and my dad in Ukraine, where we moved after I was five. It was a confusing time. I think that closed me off artistically, intellectually, emotionally. My mom met a man who lived in Canada, so that was her gateway to North America. She always wanted to come to America. It took three years to see my mom, because of immigration, and it was a tough time, but, when it happened, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it.
North America, Canada, was this unreal place. Completely unattainable, a whole different world.
I was thirteen years old. We moved to a town called Kitchener. We lived there for a year, then we moved to Toronto. I’ve been in Toronto for ten years now.
How are you alike or different from your parents?
I’m more like my mom. When she was growing up, people said, “Oh, she’s going to be an artist, she’s going to be an actor.” My mom is silly and dramatic. I’m like that, too. Anything that comes to her, she wants to do it. Staying up until 3am, I think that that came from my mom, as well. Night owling around. The desire to travel. She’s been traveling forever, since I was two years old, going to Europe. It’s in my DNA to move around from place to place.
Describe your first acting experience.
In Ukraine, I lived with my dad, my stepmom, and my two stepsisters – a family of artists and musicians and painters. We didn’t have a TV. My family really focused on schoolwork and after school classes like drawing, singing, martial arts. Because of the lack of entertainment, we would put on little skits and circus-style performances for my parents.
I was quite passive, never sure what I wanted. My dad said, “Pack your underwear. You’re going to summer camp for three months tomorrow.” I was totally okay with it. That was where the early seed of acting was planted. The first show I can remember playing was Pippi Longstocking. I had the makeup, I had the dress. I was wildly excited. There were no preconceived notions of femininity, or “I’m a boy playing a girl,” none of that. Once I got on stage, I completely froze, and it ended, and we lost the performance competition. I was devastated. A few weeks later, we put on a show with me as the leading actor and we won first place.
Did Judaism play into your life growing up at all?
I was never exposed to it. My grandma was Christian, my dad later converted to Hinduism. I was always fascinated by the mythology and the philosophy and one particular god, Shiva. It’s the God of Destruction, technically, but it’s the God of Creation, because, in order to create, you must destroy. That hovers in my mind quite often. Whenever something happens, a hurdle you’re going through, it’s like, “OK, there’s something destructive here, but what’s being birthed?”
When I was sixteen, I really got into trying to figure out who’s governing this entire world, what’s the higher power, and I got into subtle energies and lucid dreaming and astral projection and the whole world of chakras. Before we would leave the house, my stepmom and my dad would have us do this ritual where we’d close our eyes and imagine a powerful force around us that protects us. I never understood why, but now it’s pretty vital in my life. Anytime I feel distress or like something’s not going right, maybe it’s because I’m not protected enough.
How would you describe your connection to religion and spirituality today?
I don’t have a particular preference for a religion. I admire all of them as they are. There’s text that can be found in the Holy Bible as well as Hinduism that preach the same thing, so if you just take little bits and pieces from these teachings, you can summarize your own philosophy on the world without putting a face to who God is or isn’t.
There is a higher power and something much more powerful than you.
Religions do come with vices. Like, if you do this, you’ll go to Hell, if you do that, you’ll go to Heaven. I think it’s a little bit bogus. I believe in karma, a reciprocal spiritual force that’s constantly going around. We’re all talking about the same thing, and there are only a few principles that really matter.
How did you prepare for your role as a Russian Jewish immigrant in Natasha?
My character came to Canada at a young age and wasn’t really exposed to Jewish culture. The only things that he had seen were family dinners where you’d say “L’chaim.” I didn’t want to put a label on him, because it’s not really what he’s about. His family is Russian Jewish and they are immigrants, but, for Mark, my character, he wasn’t relating to it. He was into philosophy: Nietzsche. Mark is still discovering himself. A listener, a late bloomer, a thinker, keeps to himself.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Take more risks. Expose yourself to as many as ideas as possible. Learn a bunch. Act on your thoughts. Go out there, participate in the world. I was quite sheltered and closed off as a kid, so I was like my character Mark. He listens a lot. He contributes to the conversation without verbally communicating. That’s who I was, as well.
What’s something that you have figured out?
You go through phases where you think you’ve got it figured out, and then, all of a sudden, there’s a twist, another layer. Acting is the one thing that I’m quite certain about and that I’m going to completely devote my life to. It was the catalyst for who I am today. It unraveled me. The journey of acting and of being an artist is being OK with uncertainty.
What something you have not figured out yet?
I have to go back to my roots. I’m doing that this summer. I’m going to Russia to visit my dad, my grandparents, digging deep, searching for truth, finding out who I am.
I’d like relate to my dad on a real, empathetic level.
A couple of years back, I went to visit him and I didn’t have a set of questions or this type of curiosity, all I wanted to do was just be with him, because I hadn’t seen him for six years. He’s the sweetest man, but he’s more reserved. That was the very beginning of discovering. Now, I’m coming prepared with an arsenal of questions. Let’s really meet now. I’m mature, you’re mature, we can have a real conversation. I’m psyched about that.
What is something that you’re curious about right now?
My culture. To really understand it better. I left so early and I wanted to leave everything behind. I have to go back and find out what this country’s really about. Anytime I listen to Russian music or speak Russian, it triggers something in me. Two years ago, when I went back to Ukraine to see my dad, there was a lot of turmoil. I saw people being taken off the plane and escorted away because they couldn’t enter the country and it was really hitting me, like, “Oh My God, this in the realm of possibility for me,” but, as soon as I got off the plane, I smelled that smell that I’ve known for so long, and it was uncontrollable, I broke down. These are my roots. Smell is so powerful. It brings back so many memories and the true essence of who I am.
Is there any Russian music you would recommend?
What do you value in your friends?
Some people you don’t vibe with, some people you vibe with. I don’t have a type. I value honesty, I value trust. A friend that I can tell anything to, a friend who can listen, who does not always have to give you their two cents. Sometimes you just want to call up a friend and say what’s going on and you don’t really need advice, you just need to vent to someone who can absorb all of it so you can feel better.
What do you love about Toronto?
It’s got the nature, it’s got the busy downtown. The opportunities feel endless. You can take a course and you’re supported by the government, by the system. You’re exposed to so much art. It’s a fairly new city, and it’s expanding and growing. I love Toronto. I want to make a life here. I love Leslieville. It’s a very artsy area and away from downtown. They have a bunch of local stores and boutiques, it’s free flowing. Bathurst and Bloor has great coffee shops, great food. Sometimes I get off the subway and skate through those streets on my board. I love the nightlife out there.
What’s a cause or an issue that you care about?
Christmas. I’m a giver, but, this particular Christmas, I had trouble doing that. My family has everything they need, and if they need something, they buy it throughout the year. I just read that, for Christmas alone, America spends $600 billion dollars. That could solve world hunger for a whole year. That just makes me go crazy. In North America, we’re so materialistic. It’s about the family and the fact that we get to get together. This year, my family’s not getting any gifts. Sorry, family.
If I want to make something, like a collage or a photo album, that’s cool. That’s sentimental and meaningful. I have so much to give, I’m so fortunate, I’m lucky to live in Canada and to travel to the States and work, coming from Russia, given what it was like back then. It’s so selfish to just stay in that bubble. I want to find a charitable foundation or start up my own with proper values, where the proceeds don’t go to you, they actually go to people in need. Christmas started all of that.
What content are you enjoying these days?
I’ve been getting into poetry as a medium of self expression. It’s a therapeutic vehicle. If I’m feeling something, I’ll just make it into a little poem, whether it’s rhyming or not. I’m reading Women by Charles Bukowski and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In terms of spiritual books, I love The Alchemist. It’s one of my all-time favorites. On YouTube, I really love the work of Casey Neistat. He revolutionized vlogs and is an incredible storyteller. I’m constantly journaling and reflecting on what’s happening in life. I like the idea of leaving something behind for my children. It’s better than a couch, better than a car, better than a house. The things you put in a journal, the things that helped you get through this tough situation.
Do you have a personal mantra?
I can hear my acting coach, Walter Alza, saying, “Go for the jugular.” It means don’t hold back, just be bold, make a choice, go for the risk.
Photos by Hannah Yoon