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. Only now that their children, who know nothing about their parents’ true identity, are getting older – Paige (Holly Taylor) is 14 years old and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is 12 – their own curiosity could become a very real problem.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Matthew Rhys talked about what it’s been like to go on the journey with this character, the huge potential he saw in the show from the pilot, the state of Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship this season, the continued tension between them, what they’re going to do about Paige, just how much longer Philip and Elizabeth can keep up all of the lies and secrets without getting caught, and what a great addition to the show Frank Langella is. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
MATTHEW RHYS: I always thought it had so much potential. Some pilots you read and go, “This could last maybe six episodes, and then what will happen?” With this, I just thought, “Oh, my god, this could run and run.” I’d never come across a concept where so much is set up and so much is ready to go. And what has happened since then is incredibly dense, rich, layered, complicated, and everything that you want, in the playing of a TV show. There are so many balls in the air, or plates, depending on what you’re juggling.
What can you say about the state of Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, this season?
RHYS: That’s the beauty in the set-up of it. You have this false past, in a way. It is a past, but there’s something unspoken about it. Now, they’re starting something very real, so there’s a unity and a coming together that is also influenced by their political beliefs, world beliefs, beliefs about parenting, and everything. You have two people desperately struggling to make it work, but they’re sometimes alkaline to each other’s acid.
Elizabeth is seemingly getting a bit jealous about Philip’s fake other marriage, and Philip seems to be encouraging Elizabeth more to let other people handle the missions that involve getting too close to other men. Will that continue to add tension between them?
RHYS: Absolutely! The one element I love watching is the conflict in Elizabeth. Her emotional life is evolving, but her mandate to the mission is still absolutely as strong as ever. So, for him to go to Martha, where Elizabeth knows it’s an incredible source for intelligence gathering, the conflict comes in her personal feelings, not enjoying the fact that her husband is going to another woman for an evening. You couldn’t ask for a better dichotomy. It’s those conflicts that are triggered by what they do, which are fantastic.
Because they’re so divided on what to do about Paige, will that really force them to face what their true beliefs are, at this point?
RHYS: Yeah. It’s a coming of age of revelation, and that drives a divide between Philip and Elizabeth that makes for some heavy fireworks.
Do Philip and Elizabeth firmly oppose each other on how to deal with Paige, or will they go back and forth on what to do?
RHYS: For me, playing Philip, what I see is that the Church thing is its own thing, which he doesn’t necessarily enjoy or like. However, in comparison to her joining the KGB, it doesn’t even measure up. So, as much as Elizabeth is upset about the Church thing taking over, Philip is like, “I’ll take this over what you’re offering, any day of the week.”
RHYS: How would that be handled, and how could it resolve itself? Elizabeth ultimately has an ace over Philip, in that she could, at any time, tell her who they are to get that ball rolling. She holds the loaded gun in that situation.
The more Paige becomes her own person, the less of a chance there is that she’ll just go along with all of this.
RHYS: Yeah. There’s the whole thing about letting her make the choice, but for me, there’s an enormous risk that she could reject the two of us for the rest of her life, and that’s not something he would like to happen.
In an ideal situation, what would Philip like to see for Paige?
RHYS: I think, deep down, he would love it if she never found out and grew up with a normal life.
Paige has been snooping around with her parents for awhile now.
RHYS: Understandably. We’re never at home, for a start, and when we are, we’re in the fucking basement.
Do you ever wonder about how long Philip and Elizabeth can keep up the rouse with their own daughter?
RHYS: Yeah, and the day was bound to come. When you have an inquisitive teenager on your hands, you can’t pull the wool that long. I love that. It brings a sense of urgency, and it heightens the stakes and the tension enormously. You’re not just trying to do your job, but you’re trying to keep it from your child in a far more immediate way.
RHYS: Exactly! In that way, that’s the beauty of it. You know there’s an inevitability. It can’t sustain itself. You know there will come a moment where she goes, “I can’t live like this.” How will that resolve itself?
There’s such an interesting dynamic between Philip and Stan, this season, with Philip being stuck in the middle of Stan’s personal drama.
RHYS: I know. Philip is torn about the way that he’s treating Martha and what he needs from her, and there’s an element of that in Stan. You like Stan, but you have to keep your enemies closer.
As Stan and Philip get closer while Stan has a renewed focus in trying to uncover Russian spies in America, will that make their friendship more dangerous?
RHYS: I think so. Philip is a nice guy and he enjoys Stan’s company, but it helps him to be that close to Stan to keep an eye on things. The little tidbits that he drops about work keeps Philip up-to-date.
What’s it been like to have Frank Langella on the show, this season?
RHYS: It’s fantastic! It’s like having a Silverback in the room. It ups your game. You’re like, “Oh, shit, I’d better bring it today.” It’s a hell of a presence. It was a shrewd piece of casting. He’s very present, he wants to play, he brings great weight and authority with him, and it just enhances the whole thing. I want Margo [Martindale] to come back as Frank Langella’s ex-lover, and for them to reignite a flame, and then fall out spectacularly. That way, they can fight physically and verbally.
Do you think Philip is at the point where, if there would be no consequences for it, he would walk away from it all and live a normal life?
RHYS: In a heartbeat! In the first episode of the first season, he asked Elizabeth if they should consider defecting. For him to get to that position with her, where he said, “We should defect,” was enormous. Clearly, this is something that has been enormously on his mind. I think it’s still bubbling. It’s the only way he can safeguard his kids’ future. He knows he can’t sustain this. So yeah, in that sense, if he were to defect, I think he’d be set for life.
The Americans airs on Wednesday nights on FX.