In order to play a fierce, fearless KGB agent on her hit FX series The Americans, actress Keri Russell trained with Avital Zeisler, a self-defense and hand-to-hand combat expert who consults for private security companies. Zeisler is also the founder of the Soteria Method™, an exclusive method of self defense for women. And her expertise in krav maga—the skill Russell learned to perfect her super-tough character—made her the perfect trainer for the job.
Zeisler worked with the star three days a week for a few hours a session for a month, focusing on the fundamentals of self defense. As a survivor of sexual assault in her teens, Zeisler is on a mission to empower women everywhere, in and out of Hollywood. “I’m working really hard to redefine self defense and shine a positive light on it. It’s about letting your emotional guard down to create the best life possible but still learning how to defend yourself,” she says. “I figured out a way to get the body I want as a woman while being able to fight like a man.”
And Russell can attest to the workouts: “I did get a bloody lip, which I am sort of proud about, in the training. You should see the other guy though,” she has joked. “Working out this way makes you feel fierce. I tend to be internal—getting on the subway and keeping my eyes down. But I would leave those workouts looking people in the eye like, ‘sup?'”
We went one-on-one with the inspirational trainer to get the details behind Russell’s killer fighting figure.
Shape: What was your goal when training Keri?
Avital Zeisler (AZ): She plays a KGB agent on the show, so I really worked on preparing Keri both physically and mentally to look authentic on camera. It was really intense because I wanted to make sure her muscle memory was being developed properly so that her movements would be consistent during every camera take.
Shape: What were some of the specifics of your training together?
AZ: I took her through the fundamentals and basics of self defense. I also wanted her to understand the mechanics behind her movements. It’s really important for women to know how to strike properly, so I incorporate the technical aspect of self defense with performance-based conditioning. You can do a kickboxing workout, but if you’re consistently doing it wrong, your muscle memory will forever affect the way you strike in a situation where you might have to defend yourself. Focus on the concepts and aim for consistency, and you will see yourself transform into a weapon rather than thinking about how many reps you have left.
Shape: What are some of the strikes you taught her?
AZ: Starting with the upper-body strikes, I focused on straight strikes with variations such as the palm strike. I then transitioned into various elbows, upper gouges, hook punches, and hammer fist strikes, then lower-body combatives including push kicks, roundhouse kicks, and side kicks. Keri is amazing to work with, trained so intensively, and picked it up quickly. It’s beyond rewarding to see someone transform physically and emotionally. When I learned how to do that for myself, it transformed me.