Published On: Sat, Feb 24th, 2018

McMafia gives us a look at international crime with a global cast

OPATIJA, CROATIA—British actor James Norton stood outside a sea-fronted modernist villa here, which last June was standing in for a lavish Tel Aviv party venue in the new series McMafia. In a nearby car sat Israeli actor Oshri Cohen, accompanied by Russian actress Sofya Lebedeva.

It was the final day of the 27-week shoot of this ambitious co-production of the BBC and AMC about global organized crime and its unusual international flavour was on full display. Norton had bought ice cream for the cast and crew, who shouted good-naturedly to each other, in a cacophony of different languages, as they lugged camera and equipment down the stairs for the next shot.

The eight-part McMafia, which debuts in North America on Monday Feb. 26 on AMC, is unusual in mainstream television-making in having a cast of international actors in major roles, often speaking in their own languages. Many are famous in their own countries, but little-known to English-speaking audiences. With the exception of American actor David Strathairn, who plays a shadowy Israeli mogul, Russians (and one Georgian) play Russians, Israelis play Israelis, Indians play Indians and the British play the British.

(One actor, Aleksey Serebryakov, is Russian-born but immigrated to Toronto in 2012.)

“I don’t think we’ve had a prime-time Sunday night drama with subtitles before,” said Liz Kilgarrif, a senior commissioning editor at the BBC.

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McMafia, created by Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black), was inspired by Misha Glenny’s 2008 nonfiction book of the same name. It revolves around Norton’s character, Alex Godman, the British-educated son of Russian mafia exiles, whom we first meet as an upstanding fund manager with an ethical banking activist girlfriend (Juliet Rylance). A false rumour and a brutal killing draw Alex into an interconnected, international network of money laundering, heroin smuggling, sex trafficking and counterfeit goods.

“The thesis of the book is that gangs have become like corporations,” Amini said. “And the gangsters can be transporters, politicians, businessmen, work for intelligence agencies; the lines between the underworld and the overworld have become quite blurred.”

Because the story takes place across multiple countries and nationalities, it was important, Watkins said, to have a cast that was “ethnically right.” The roster of sterling actors includes Merab Ninidze (who plays Kalygin, an ex-KGB officer-turned-mafioso), Maria Shukshina, Serebryakov, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kirill Pirogov and Cohen.

“I had never seen or read a script that was fully international in that way,” said Norton, who is well known in the U.K. for playing a psychopathic killer in Happy Valley and a crime-solving vicar in Grantchester. (His international recognition may soon be increasing, as the British news media have excitedly pegged him as a favourite to be the next James Bond.)

One of the best aspects of working on the series, he said, was the interaction with actors from all over the world. “They all brought their own craft and energies,” he said. “It made me realize that English actors are a little bit bashful, we mark a bit in rehearsal, hold back. The Russians are zero to 60 from the first moment, and the Israelis — we are so polite in the U.K. — they are just like, no, this script isn’t right. It was pretty exciting.”

Shukshina, who plays Alex’s mother, Oksana, said that it was her first experience of working outside Russia. “There is not much difference between the processes,” she said. “James and Juliet were very concentrated, very focused.”

Shukshina added that the Russian characters were true to form in their emotionality. “I slap him all the time, if something happens we cry, we scream, we shout,” she said with a laugh. “Now that I’ve watched all the episodes I think maybe James should be more Russian with parents like that!”

The unorthodox multinational approach has paid off in Britain, where reviews were effusive for the most part, although the BBC’s ratings to date show a decline from 8.5 million viewers for the first episode to 5.4 million for Episode 5. AMC executives are optimistic that the show will go over well in the United States.

David Madden, the president of original programming at AMC, said he thought U.S. audiences have become accustomed to “a modicum” of subtitles. “We wanted a credible international feeling without impeding the effectiveness of the storytelling,” he said.

The creators and networks have also gotten a bit lucky with their timing, with tales of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election making headlines, and state-run corruption around the world an increasing preoccupation. “Usually you are chasing the zeitgeist, but we feel it’s been chasing us,” Norton said. “Everyone knows that there is corruption and exploitation around, but now it is so close to us that the conversation is really happening about transparency and accountability.”

McMafia certainly seems to have provoked political reaction in Britain. Security Minister Ben Wallace referred to the series when he told the Times of London this month that he wanted the government to “bear down on criminals and corrupt politicians from abroad”; reportedly, it prompted a number of London-based oligarchs to ask the Kremlin whether they can return home.

In a telephone interview, Glenny said he was thrilled by the impact of the series. “For a nonfiction writer, to get your book and your issue out there to millions of people, who will then start to think and talk about it, that’s of incalculable value.”

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McMafia gives us a look at international crime with a global cast