The Americans is FX’s new period drama about the complex and complicated marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington, D.C., shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected President. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have a network of spies and informants under their control, while their two children – 13-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 10-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati) – know nothing about their parents’ true identity. Even though Philip’s growing affinity for America’s values and way of life leads to tension with Elizabeth, the two must work together to keep their new FBI agent neighbor (Noah Emmerich) from discovering who they really are.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Matthew Rhys talked about how he came to be a part of this show, his reaction to the material, the research he did to get into the mind-set of a guy like this, embracing the ‘80s, the journey his character will be taking this season, and working with co-star Keri Russell. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did this show come about for you?
MATTHEW RHYS: I was doing a play in New York, this time last year, and the head of DreamWorks casting and Joe Weisberg, the creator, came to see it. Someone asked me, “What do you think was in the play, that they saw, that made them think of you for Philip?,” and I was like, “Oh, my god, I don’t know!” It was Look Back in Anger, and one of the great themes of that play is this great frustration this husband has for his wife and can’t communicate that.
Had you even thought about doing another series, or was it specifically that you had responded to this material?
RHYS: As soon as I read it, I was like, “Oh, my god!” It’s just so different. For an actor, it ticks every box, in one show. It has everything. And then, the audition process started. It’s worse when you get a project that you genuinely like and really want. You’re like, “If I don’t get this, I’ll be upset!”
If you’re going to sign on to do a TV show for a number of seasons, is this the ideal situation, since you get to constantly have different looks and personas?
RHYS: That’s the beauty of it. If you’re on a long-running show, there are times when you certainly get a little bit tired of playing the same character. With this show, you play a different character within that character, every week, so you never really get tired.
Did you do any research to get into the mind-set of a guy like this and what it might have been like then?
RHYS: Yes. One element of the research was that we meet Philip during this enormous transition in his life, especially with the defection. I think that’s motivated by his family. He realizes that there’s an expiration on this life that they’re leading, and it can potentially and possibly will end tragically, if something isn’t done about it. So, I think the reason the defection comes into it is because he wants to secure his family, or at least see them grow up. The other element of that, that I thought would be interesting, was to research the Russia that he would have grown up in, which was incredibly hard to place. That was a greater motivator for him to go, “You know what? The U.S. is pretty good compared to where we’ve come from.”
When you play a character who has this layer of being from Russia, even though you’re pretending to be American, is it something you’re always thinking about, or do you just focus on whatever persona he’s living in, at that time?
RHYS: More that. At first, they would have tried incredibly hard to be as American as possible, until the point that it became second nature. What you continue to try to do is not to be as American as possible, because that, in itself, might draw attention to itself. If at all possible, you hope the audience forgets and goes, “Oh, yeah, they’re Russian.” It has that element to it. You’re not telegraphing toward the fact that you’re Russian.
Did you embrace the ‘80s look, or do you dread it?
What can you say to tease the story that you’re telling this season and the journey that your character takes?
RHYS: Another element that I was incredibly attracted to was the relationship at the heart of this spy thriller and I think that’s one of the greater roller coasters of the whole season. How will these two figure it out? You find him at the beginning, where he has real emotions for this girl and tells her he wants to defect, and she’s the hard line. How is that going to work out? It does make for a very turbulent half-season. I don’t know what happens in the other half of the season yet, but so far, there’s more ups and downs than a roller coaster.
What’s it been like to work with Keri Russell and develop the dynamic between your characters?
RHYS: Given a piece like this, where it’s all about the relationship, you pray that you’ll get on and that you come from the same place. We’re lucky that we come from the same ideas. We’re very similar. That’s fantastic. She has a great sense of fun, and you need that in this business with the hours you work. We’re lucky that we’re like-minded.
Did you ever watch Keri Russell in Felicity?
RHYS: I didn’t. But, I heard it was wonderful and that her hair was wonderful in it.
Do you feel like Philip has gotten to a place where he puts his family first, while Elizabeth still puts Russia first?
RHYS: Yeah, the question of whether she’d put her indoctrination in front of her children makes for interesting TV. Coming out of the Second World War, Russia was incredibly bleak and in a difficult period. If you compare the two, it’s understandable why he enjoys a good car and cowboy boots.
Why do you think it took 15 years for Philip and Elizabeth to develop feelings for each other?
RHYS: I don’t know. They’ve been very, very busy. There were a number of elements. They’re at a transient time in their lives where there’s incredible change. This is the warmest she’s been in 15 years.
As they develop feelings for each other, does it make it more and more difficult to do whatever it takes to complete a mission?
RHYS: Yes, and I think that’s the beauty of it. That’s where the conflict comes in. As their real emotions come in, the honey trapping gets hard to do. Where they used to have less investment in each other’s danger, now that’s up. If she’s in a dangerous situation, it makes it far worse for him. The ante is raised enormously, which is fantastic.
Is there a constant threat of the kids finding out about their true identity?
How will FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) throw a wrench into things, now that they’re neighbors?
RHYS: It sets up this beautiful cat-and-mouse game, immediately. There are times where they genuinely like each other, but they are polar opposites. You’re always second-guessing who’s working who and who’s doing what, and that’s a great device for this show. It’s such a fantastic dramatic device that’s a total tango. The fact that they don’t reveal who’s thinking what is great.
How will Margo Martindale fit into the mix?
RHYS: What’s fantastic is that there’s this air of mystery about her. She plays this mercurial character who relays all the information to the KGB. It’s a tricky part to nail done, but she just brings this gravity to it, as she does to most parts, and makes you go, “Who’s this?”
The Americans airs on Wednesday nights on FX.