Success for Russian actresses on American TV

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Oksana Babiy and Alla Kliouka don’t live in Brighton Beach, don’t eat caviar and wear fur hats only occasionally. Instead, the two New York transplants are living large on the set of "The Sopranos," one of the United States’ most talked-about TV shows. And though the two play kissing cousins on the show, they couldn’t be more different or less Russian.

"We come from very different schools," Kliouka chuckles at the mention of her dramatic foil, Babiy. "She is from Ukraine and I am from Minsk. We only know each other really only on the set." On the set, Babiy plays mob boss Tony Soprano’s mistress, Irina, and Kliouka plays Svetlana, her hard-nosed, one-legged, record-stealing cousin.

Kliouka and Babiy may come from different schools, but they are most definitely in the same boat. To date, they are the most visible post-Soviet actresses making the American screen scene. Gone are the heady days of Natasha Kinsky and "Rocky & Bullwinkle’s" Boris and Natasha. Thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, acting roles for high-ranking, sexy Russian bad girls have all but dried up. But as luck would have it, "The Sopranos" has breathed life into a whole new breed of Russian babes. And Kliouka and Babiy are clinging to these roles for dear life.

Kliouka, despite her relatively minor role on the show, is everything Babiy is not. At 30, Kliouka is not only a married mom, but also a well-known actress in both her native Belarus and internationally. Kliouka began training professionally in the early ’90s at the Schepkin Institute, the academic wing of Moscow’s prestigious Maly Theater. From there her acting career took off almost immediately. In 1995, she was awarded best actress at the Sochi Film Festival. Nowadays, she is recognized on the streets of Moscow for her role as a gender-bending, tractor-loving girl-guy gone mad in the 1994 remake of the ’20s Russian film classic "Hammer and Sickle." Her leading role as a woman reunited with her long-lost father in the Russian feature "Prikoleniy" is sure to create a buzz when it premieres this March. And her role on the popular NTV sitcom "An Ideal Couple" – a sort of modern-day Avengers-meets-Robin Hood – has made Kliouka a household name.

On the flipside, Babiy is better known in the United States than she is in her tiny hometown of Ivano-Frankovsk in Ukraine. Babiy’s rise to fame is a mix of Cinderella and East Village immigrant pluck. She arrived in the United States in 1993 with visions of sugarplums, Broadway and Hollywood dancing in her head, but wound up where many young Russian-speaking girls often do – on the runway. Since her arrival, she’s spent more time on catalog shoots than in Bryant Park. But Babiy, twice divorced, admits her appearances on the covers of magazines like Bride are strictly bread-and-butter affairs.

"Fashion is not my passion," said Babiy. "I’m not driven by that world. Modeling was just something that came up. I didn’t want to work a full-time job. I hate that idea. So modeling was perfect."

Indeed, before she hit New York’s fashion frenzy at "7th on 6th" with the Armand Jon collection in 1997 and again in 2001 with Anne Bone’s sartorial sideshow, Babiy, who is 28, first paid her dues in subscription sales at a Ukrainian newspaper in New Jersey for a year. "It was an awful job," said Babiy. She finally found her calling at New York’s famously experimental downtown theater, La Mama, working with the Yara Arts Group. That was then, this is now, says Babiy. With her role on "The Sopranos," Babiy is a long way from playing a tree nymph and reading obscure Ukrainian poetry.

Kliouka, too, despite her considerable experience, is a long way from home on the show. In fact, she says after spending month after month shuttling to auditions in Manhattan without a single callback, she was a bit surprised she got the part. "They said they need a tough Russian actress," Kliouka said. "I said, (with a menacing squint of the eyes and a thick, rolling Slavic accent) ‘Do you underrrstand who is taaalkink to you?!’ They ask me to walk like I have a limp. I said, ‘It depends – which place I lose my leg?’ They said, ‘All of it.’ I said, ‘Okay, we’ll pretend like it’s a Russian leg.’ If it’s a Russian leg it’s a cheap leg."

In real life, of course, Kliouka is an earthy, redheaded biped with a quirky sense of humor. "As you can see, I have two legs. There was a body double. The rest of the time on the set my leg was tied to my ass," Kliouka said. She says the irony is that a prosthetic leg like the one Janice steals is bound to be anything but cheap. "A leg like that costs $35,000," Kliouka laughed and shrugged. "It’s a shame, but what can you do? You can buy a car or you can buy a leg. That’s it."

Babiy’s stint at La Mama marks her as a deep-thinking, Off-Off Broadway kind of babe. Her experience comes through in "The Sopranos" as a pouty goomahr with a nice set of gams and then some. Babiy takes her character seriously, even if nobody else does. She said she wants to take the cloying Russian gold-digger role to a whole new level. "At the beginning I think they wanted [Irina] to be more like this type of money-sucker Russian girl," Babiy said. "But I played her different. You know, this last episode you start to see that [Irina] would like to have someone more stable. That she really likes this guy [Tony]. She’s a hard-working girl from Russia. That’s all."

The hard work adds up. Like others on the show, Babiy measures her popularity by the number of episodes she’s managed to avoid putting on the old cement shoes. "Did they kill me yet? No," Babiy quipped. "They kind of finished me on a question mark. It’s all going to depend on new ideas about the Russian mafia." According to HBO sources, Babiy will be back on "The Sopranos" at least once more in the new season.

For now, Kliouka and Babiy’s jobs are secure. Though a confidentiality clause in Kliouka’s HBO contract prohibits her from discussing details of the show, she is not entirely reticent. "Maybe they will kill me. Maybe I will kill Janice," Kliouka said of her role in the new season. Sources say the season premiere is definitely not the last we’ll see of her or the Russian mafia. Don’t be surprised if "Sopranos" writer David Chase pens a few episodes featuring clashes between the modern-day gladiators of Rome and Moscow. Then again, the ladies caution, it’s best not to mess when it comes to divining Chase’s finesse. "I never know," said Kliouka. "It’s very secret. I don’t know what is in the mind of David Chase. It’s better not to guess."