The FX series The Americans is a complex, complicated and intelligent period drama about two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C., shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected President. The marriage of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) started out as one of arrangement, but has since developed into something much more personally meaningful, which makes it that much more difficult to let their children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), know who they really are.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Keri Russell talked about the biggest surprises in the journey she’s been on with this show, why she loves getting to do so much action and physical work, how she views the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip, Elizabeth’s unexpected and growing jealousy, why this character is just so fun for her, and what it was like to work with Frank Langella, this season. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: When you think back to where things started, what have been the biggest surprises for you, on the journey?
KERI RUSSELL: I had no idea what this show would be. It’s been such an interesting surprise, the whole journey. From reading the pilot, she was so peripheral. She was way in the back, and she was so cold. I thought, “What is this going to be?” And then, it just became such a complex show about this relationship that I still really love. It’s such a fun place to work. When the show is really at its best, in my opinion, it is all spy aside. It’s just these really true, vulnerable, complicated discussions between a couple, and raising kids. I think all of the important issues or vulnerabilities around sexuality, trust, child-raising, what you want to impart on your child, and what you need them to see you as, are so relatable. That’s when the show really works. And just being a girl, it’s a fucking good job. With movies, you read things and you get two scenes where you’re someone’s girlfriend. It’s not near as complex as this stuff. I don’t have to be charming. I’m the opposite of charming on this show. Sometimes I panic and think, “Fuck, I’m really the devil. Everyone’s gonna hate me. But, it’s so good.”
You get very physical in this show, on a regular basis. How do you find those days?
RUSSELL: It helps that I enjoy it and have an interest in it, just from being a dancer, so I find those days fun. And I don’t have to talk or learn lines. That stuff is fun. I get to wear disguises and do weird other characters and do stunt work. I don’t even mind the sexuality of the show. It’s not about being romantic and beautiful. It’s about doing this whole other thing. It’s good. I really enjoy it. It’s like fake fighting when you’re a kid. It’s cool. My 7-year-old thinks it’s cool.
How do you view the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip, and how they’ve grown and changed?
RUSSELL: The first season was about deciding to really be in a relationship. The stuff that interests me is about really being seen and what that means, and being vulnerable. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I think that’s hard and very relatable. For my character, that season was about being vulnerable enough, and letting someone see her and love her back. And then, in the second season, things were good, and it was just about protecting the family and solidifying that. This season, for my character, she has this complication of her mother, which is hugely overpowering for people. I don’t think she had a great relationship with her mother. I think there was a lot of fucked up stuff with that. And yet, she’s still so beholden to it. It overpowers her, maybe because it was so complicated. That happening at that same time everything is happening with Paige was just so complex. She felt that Philip’s rejection of her wanting to tell Paige who they are was Philip rejecting Elizabeth, and that felt so intensely personal.
Spies aside, having a huge secret about your identity and not being able to tell your kid, who’s the closest person to you, who you are was so wrong to Elizabeth and just felt so unjust. Elizabeth was just not willing to budge on it because it felt too personal. She just saw Philip as having his head in the sand. Joe [Weisberg] said, “We’re only having a discussion about it because you’re a woman and Paige is a girl. Think of how many generations of military families there are. When a great grandfather, grandfather and father were in the service, and then the son says, ‘I want to go into service,’ you say, ‘Yeah, of course!’” Elizabeth is incredibly successful and powerful at what she does, and she wants her daughter to know about that. Obviously, it’s more complex than that. This show is about spies and Russians, but it’s an interesting discussion because, would it be the same, if it were the father and the son? I don’t know. We do have these generations of military families, and they’re heroes.
What do you enjoy most about getting to play Elizabeth Jennings?
RUSSELL: It’s so fun. I spent so many years being the really kind, pregnant mother. I can’t tell you how many times I gave birth. I don’t even have to pretend. It’s the opposite of that. I’m like, “You’re wrong. I don’t care what you fucking think.” Women don’t get to do that, or you’re really bitchy or cold. Elizabeth doesn’t fucking care. She’s like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” No, she doesn’t even say that. She’s just like, “Too fucking bad.” I really do believe that Elizabeth does love Philip and she doesn’t want to lose him. The complexity of this season is that she’s gotten to this place where she has this thing that she’s never had, but she just can’t give up what she believes, in her gut, is right. People get divorced about this stuff, all the time, whether it’s about religion, what school to go to, or what path to take. It’s a really worthwhile argument. Now, she cares about how it’s affecting Philip. In the first season, I don’t think she gave a fuck. I think she was like, “This is what we’re doing. Figure it out, but hurry up.” But now, she’s connected to him and is conscious of the way things are affecting him.
Are you surprised that Elizabeth actually got jealous about the fact that Philip has this other marriage?
RUSSELL: I’m so happy about that. I love all of that. To me, it just means that they’re more of a real couple, and less of a spy couple. I think everyone relates to that. Not everyone has multiple marriages, but it is a very relatable feeling to be jealous of your partner’s co-worker. I think that is such a universal feeling. I love when she’s jealous. It’s so great because it’s so vulnerable and normal, and it just means that she loves him. I love those moments. I love that she can be really tough and killing people, and then lose her mind over her daughter going to Bible camp. It’s so funny when the little things undo her.
What was it like to work with Frank Langella, this season?
RUSSELL: We would just sit and listen to him talk and tell amazing stories about Lauren Bacall, or whatever. He just has such weight and presence. He came in with such a different energy than Margo Martindale, who I love.
The Americans airs on Wednesday nights on FX, with the Season 3 finale airing on Wednesday, April 22nd.