In The Mix

The Under-Over

To tell a story of global crime — and the blurring of the underworld and overworld — the makers of McMafia hired a multinational cast and shot in 12 countries.

Paula Chin
  • James Norton stars in McMafia as Alex Godman, the British-raised son of a mafia boss living in London.

    Nikola Predovik/Cuba Pictures
  • With  Norton (as Alex, left): Swedish-born actor David Dencik (center), who appears as Alex’s uncle Boris, and David Strathairn (right) as an Israeli businessman.

    CPL Godman/AMC
  • McMafia’s international cast includes Russian-born Aleksey Serebryakov and Maria Shukshina as Alex’s parents (center, with Norton).

    Nick Wall/Cuba Pictures/CPL Godman/AMC

No, it's not about the Scottish version of La Cosa Nostra.

And if you're wondering what McMafia is about, the opening credits of the crime drama spell it out for you.

A red line runs across a series of computer spreadsheets and graphs, and then through aerial shots of big cities like London, Prague, Mumbai and Dubai, showing an insidious money trail. On the ground, smugglers move drugs, officials take bribes and sex-traffickers corral women like cattle. In a sleek glass office tower, a hand clicks a mouse, transferring illicit funds to far-flung corners of the globe until their origin becomes impossible to trace.

A hail of bullets fall and form a map of the world, and the title of the series appears, translating itself into various languages — Russian, Arabic, Hebrew and finally, English: McMafia.

Welcome to organized crime in the 21st century. The AMC–BBC1 miniseries explores the "black economy," a clandestine market where criminal networks are reaping billions of dollars — bigger than the GDP of many countries — by adopting the business tactics and global ambitions of multinational corporations.

"This is a whole new breed of gangsters," says Hossein Amini, co-creator–writer–executive producer of McMafia with James Watkins, who also directed. "They're not just triggermen and thugs dealing cocaine and heroin. They're lawyers, bankers and politicians who profit from people-smuggling, computer-hacking and scams. The lines separating the underworld from the overworld have become blurred."

Crossing that line is Alex Godman, the English-raised, Harvard-educated son of Russian mafia exiles who has spent his life trying to distance himself from his family's criminal past. He's followed the straight and narrow, building a career as a City of London financier, as well as a promising future with his ethical banker girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance).

But when the mob takes out a member of his family, Alex, played by British actor James Norton, breaks bad and goes over to the dark side to get revenge. Seduced by a shadowy Israeli politician, Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), the upstanding businessman discovers he has a flair for criminal franchises and a taste for blood-and-guts mob wars, which ultimately pits Semiyon against Rebecca in a battle for his soul.

The sweeping, eight-part thriller has arrived at the right moment. With headlines about Russian meddling, government corruption and immoral magnates making daily headlines, McMafia couldn't be more timely.

"We were practically on the set when the news about the supposed collusion between the White House and the Kremlin was breaking," Norton says. "It's like this show hasn't just captured the zeitgeist — it's almost prophetic."

The series was inspired by Misha Glenny's 2008 book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, which examines how the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a rise of transnational crime.

"Hossein and I had both come across the book," Watkins says. "We were struck by the way organized crime has evolved into a many-headed hydra. More and more gangs and cartels are springing up, they're all at war, and the world is their battleground. We thought it would make an incredible story."

They were too late. The book had already been optioned. But after two film adaptations fell apart, "We practically begged Misha to sell the rights again, but this time to a medium that could really tell the story," Watkins says. "It's complicated. There's a big patchwork quilt of countries — not just Russia, but China, India, Israel, the Persian Gulf and South America — and a lot of players.

"Television has become incredibly ambitious in terms of detail and how much ground it can cover. A two-hour movie couldn't do it justice."

It took them months to beat out the storyline. "We were trying to include as many elements of the book as we could, while also fleshing out the fictional parts about Alex and his family," says Amini, who admits there were stumbles along the way.

"At first, maybe because we're such big fans of The Godfather, Goodfellas and the whole gangster genre, we put Alex in New York. Then we realized that was insane. London is also a huge financial center with an important place in the globalized economy. And we're not New Yorkers. You have to write what you know."

Whichever side of the pond Alex was on, Amini wanted to create a character who felt like a stranger in his own home. To do that, he looked to his own family history. "We fled to England from Tehran in 1979 after the Iranian revolution, when I was 11 years old. The experience of being an exile is so universal that it seemed natural to borrow from my past to create his. At school I was always getting called a wog and darkie, and I almost felt ashamed of where I had come from."

Amini coped by trying to be as British as possible and keeping a stiff, stoic upper lip. "But my identity got confused, and I had to figure out who I really was. In my mind, Alex is still going through that same struggle."

When it came to casting, Norton had a leg up. He played a conflicted soldier in BBC's War & Peace miniseries, so he had the brooding Russian part down. And in the BBC drama series Happy Valley, his spot-on portrayal of a shy, quiet ex-con who turns out to be a violent psychopath hadn't gone unnoticed.

"Alex also has this outward calmness, but there are primal urges bubbling underneath that he doesn't even know about, much less understand," Watkins says. "He walks a fine line between hero and antihero. James has a quality that makes audiences sympathize with him, so you're on his side — until he betrays your expectations in very ruthless and brutal ways. One moment you're falling in love, and you're horrified the next. It's a rollercoaster, but you still want to go on the ride with him."

Still, it wasn't easy for Norton to find his footing.

"I was playing an enigma. Alex has a lot of armor, but he's losing his moral compass and desperately trying to hold it together. The more he's exposed to the underworld, the more he's drawn to it, and he keeps choosing to go down that path. The note I got from James was to remember the darkness inside him and let the fear, greed and rage bleed out from his eyes. It was like I was wearing a mask all the time, which isn't my nature. I'm a pretty happy, smiley guy, but James [Watkins] barely let me even crack a smile."

Rylance also got the memo. "What I heard constantly was 'do less, do less,' and James was right," she says. "Rebecca is loving and trusting and her morality is clear. She tries to guide Alex back to his better self, which could be her undoing. Because her character is so clearly drawn, I could just play her intuitively."

McMafia doesn't have a cast of thousands, but with 150 speaking roles, many played by foreign actors, it's a real melting pot. With the exception of Strathairn as a Russian- Israeli, Brits play Brits, Israelis play Israelis, Indians play Indians, and Russians (and Georgians and Ukrainians) play Russians. Often as not, major characters speak in their own languages, making the series both authentic and politically correct.

"It would have been ridiculous for Alex's father to be played by a big-name English or American star putting on a silly accent," Watkins says. "And having an international cast helped us steer clear of stereotypes."

For Norton, working with such a diverse crew was an education. "It could be a bit of a circus with all the translators around, but I enjoyed being immersed in these different cultures. Everyone brought a different energy and a different approach to the craft," he says. "The Russians are very intense and come in all-guns. The Israelis don't put on airs — they'll tell you if they feel a line isn't right. That's so different from English actors, who tend to tiptoe around."

Directing a multinational cast would have been challenge enough. But McMafia was filmed in 12 countries — locations included Moscow, Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Istanbul and Belize — over a grueling 150 days. "It was definitely the longest shoot I've ever done, and you can just imagine the logistics," Watkins says. "To save money, we shot out of sequence, which made you lose your sense of internal continuity. I had the scripts stuffed in my pocket and I was on the phone with Hossein all the time."

London aside, the series was mostly shot in Croatia. "It gave us a lot of variety. For the sex-trafficking scenes in Egypt, we went an island just off the coast called Pag, parts of which look just like desert. That was just a five-hour drive from Zagreb, which doubled as Prague, since they have similar architecture. And the Dalmatian coast doubled as the South of France. It has the same light quality as the Mediterranean."

It's also spectacularly beautiful, which is why Norton chose to stay there on weekends rather than pop back home to London. "I spent a lot of time with David going on wonderful walks up and down the coast. We would be shooting at these beautiful villas, and you could sack off lunch, strip down to your shorts and go swimming."

Rylance also enjoyed some dips in the Adriatic. "When I first landed in this resort town called Opatija and got to my hotel, I told some of the other cast and crew that I was going for a late-night swim under the stars. Next thing I knew, all of us were running to the beach. Much of the shoot was just like being on vacation with friends. The best part was when this amazing mahogany yacht we were using had to be moved down the coast. I got to sail on it and see all these gorgeous villas and live like some of the characters did."

Meanwhile, back in the real world, McMafia has sparked plenty of discussions.

"When we first aired in the U.K., it got people talking on the news and on op-ed pages about how the Russian mob has moved into London, and about the intersection of business and politics and crime," says David Madden, president of original programming at AMC. "We're hoping to have the same impact here." Watkins also has his fingers crossed.

"One of our ambitions is to get audiences thinking that the stuff Alex is dealing with could be going on right now and right next to us. I think people really want that level of engagement now when they watch something — not just empty calories."


For catch-up viewing of McMafia, go to AMC.tv or Sundance Now.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2018