OOn a balmy Tuesday morning in September last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government was responsible for the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the FSB officer-turned-whistle-blower whose green tea in a London hotel was linked to the radioactive element polonium. On the same day, Margarita Levieva was laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery in the costume of his wife Marina Litvinenko, played by David Tennant. It was the final scene for the ITV miniseries Litvinenko. “How convenient,” Levieva says of the timing. Between takes, she texted congratulations to the real Marina. The EU Court of Justice ruling was the result of a 15-year campaign led by Marina to publicly acknowledge her husband’s killers.
Levieva, 42, is calling from Wales, where she is filming the highly anticipated film Star Wars: Acolyte Series. (About this and her recent casting in Marvel’s daredevil — by the way, perhaps one of the few shows that is more anticipated than acolyte – Levieva can only laugh and point out her non-disclosure agreement: “I won’t get in trouble!”) Litvinenko is a very different, more serious animal. The four-part series follows Litvinenko as he investigates his poisoning from a hospital bed, and his wife Marina, who leads a subsequent quest for justice and fights for official recognition of Vladimir Putin’s role in her husband’s murder – a role that Russia’s Government still has denied. The Kremlin called last year’s ruling, which went even further than the UK’s 2015 public inquiry, “unfounded”.
Levieva is nervous. Not just because she’s days away from a major release as an actress, but also because of this particular release and what it could mean; for the audience, for Marina and for herself. Leveiva thought twice about accepting the role. “Putin is not someone who is comfortable with people taking action against him. He’s taking really serious action in return, so I was scared, not necessarily for my life — although that crossed my mind — but I was scared of what it would mean. Levieva grew up in Russia and still has family there. She hoped to one day have a career there. “Doing so and certainly recent events [ the war in Ukraine] sure put an end to that. I don’t know if and when I will ever return to Russia. At this point, I don’t know if that’s a reality.”
Ultimately, she decided it was too important a role not to play. Marina herself had pledged her support to the series. Without her consent, Levieva says, she probably wouldn’t have progressed. “Without her blessing, this would be difficult to accomplish. Going against someone’s wishes and telling their story, especially if they’re alive, wouldn’t suit me.” Levieva hailed Marina as an “incredible force” and the two are now friends. You have tickets to Tennant’s new play WELL together. And as for Russia’s reaction to the show, Levieva’s friends and family have assured her that even Putin’s reach isn’t infinite and that he’s not “so vicious” toward his critics in the West. She hesitates slightly. That’s the only point in our conversation where Levieva looks kind of concerned about what she’s going to say, but she shrugs – “I doubt Putin will read an interview about me” – and moves on. “He can’t track [all of his critics] but I’m sure if I were a Russian actress living in Russia who decided to do this project, it would have very different consequences for me.”
The cause and perpetrator of Letvineko’s murder are well known – and have been officially since last year. But in Russia it remains up for debate. Levieva recalls telling a friend at home how excited she was to play Marina. To her shock, this friend spat a line from Putin’s spin back at her. “He said, ‘Oh, the guy was a nut. Who knows what’s even true at this point?’” The propaganda runs deep, she says solemnly.
Recently, Levieva has been confronted with this reality in view of the country’s war against Ukraine. “I have good friends and family who still don’t believe what’s happening because the story they’re being told is so different.” Her mother, she says, broke off contact with childhood friends because they couldn’t take it anymore able to listen to their lies. “I try to remind my mother of the intensity of the propaganda these people live with. It’s so ingrained in a cellular way from birth.” In a way, Levieva can understand that. “I grew up in Russia. I was once a pioneer [the communist youth organisation similar to Scouts and Girl Guides]I was a believer, and I, too, carried the idea for a while that whatever the government says is true and that we must respect and serve them.” How wild is that, she asks, eyes wide with disbelief her own naivety torn wide open.
Levieva was born in St. Petersburg, back when it was Leningrad and Russia was still part of the USSR. When she was 13, her mother moved her and her twin brother to the United States, where they settled in Sheepshead
, Brooklyn. “She was afraid of what our future would be like if she raised us in Russia. She left everything. No papers. No money. No English. She went from being a math professor to packing groceries. She did what she had to do.” Levieva’s father chose to stay behind. “I think for him it was the fear of not speaking the language and having to find work. He thought he would be more useful to us if we stayed in Russia.” It’s funny, says Levieva. It is always the women in her family who find the courage to leave. Her grandmother also left her 30-year-old husband to join them in the United States. She worked as a nanny.
As a child, Levieva competed as a rhythmic gymnast – skills she used in stunts on shows like last year’s Netflix spy thriller In from the cold. “It sounds extreme, but I was owned by the government. It was communism, so they paid for my education and the education was provided by the government.” It was grueling. She trained twice a day, seven days a week. She kept it when they moved to the US, but it was different. For one, the training was much less rigorous. She remembers seeing a group of girls her age eating sandwiches on their break. “The fact that they took a break or that they ate sandwiches, that would never have been okay in Russia.” She now has mixed feelings. Her training was tough, but she gave it purpose.
Likewise, assimilation in the US was tough but exciting. “I told myself if I lived in America, I wanted to be American.” From a young age, Levieva knew she didn’t want to be an immigrant, staying in the city’s Russian bubble, eating only Russian food and speaking only Russian. “But it is always difficult to be the other. In Russia, too, we weren’t called Russians. We were Jews; Our passport said Jewish and that was our nationality. We hid our passports because we didn’t want our friends to know about it. In Russia I was the Jewish girl and then in America I was the Russian girl.”
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Levieva was accepted to study dance at New York’s prestigious LaGuardia School for Creative Arts, where notable alumni include Jennifer Aniston, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino. She turned it down in order to pursue a more stable profession; Thoughts of her mother and everything she had sacrificed crept in. Leveiva graduated from NYU a year early with a double major in economics and philosophy—”with honors!” She laughs. Eventually she returned to art and decided to try acting as she didn’t want to die with regrets. She attended an acting conservatory and did well; She was one of 20 students invited to a master class. Castings followed, and with them film and TV offers. Since then, she has starred regularly, starring alongside Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart adventure land (2009), then Alexander Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig in A teenager’s diary (2015). She had a starring role in the hit drama Revenge and in James Franco’s HBO series The two.
Levieva considers herself lucky that she hasn’t been pigeonholed in her career – at least not as a Russian. “Actually, because of my name, people thought I was Spanish, so that’s why they didn’t want to see me,” she laughs. “Even when I auditioned for Jewish roles, they said, ‘Oh, you don’t look Jewish.’ And then I would never get cast in Russian roles because the American idea of Russian is a blonde, blue-eyed, tall woman with high cheekbones, and I’m just not,” she says, pointing to her curly brown hair and 5 feet 5 inch size . Only recently, says Levieva, did she start playing Russian roles like Marina in Litvinenko.
“I certainly don’t think that as an actor you have to come from the position of the person you’re playing, but playing Russian roles is important to me,” she says. One of her teachers has talked a lot about blood memory, the idea that one generation’s experiences are passed on to the next through DNA. “I did a play about the Holocaust in 2010 and it just reflected something in me,” she says, clutching her chest. “And when I speak Russian on screen, it speaks to the same part of me. It’s very deep.”
“Litvinenko” is available to stream on ITVX on December 15th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/margarita-levieva-interview-litvinenko-b2245252.html “I was scared, not necessarily for my life – although it crossed my mind”: Margarita Levieva on the lead role in “Litvinenko”.