Never have I sat through a show that confuses me more than FX’s “The Americans” and not because the show doesn’t make sense. It’s a pretty straight forward political thriller set against the 80’s Cold War era. Nope, the reason is because I’m rooting for the Russians. Cold War people…America vs. Russia and the arms race, etc. and here I am watching a show about two KGB spies living in the U.S. and hoping they don’t get caught. After every episode I feel like I need to do penance by going to confession at a baseball game, where the umpire would tell me to say 50 “Pledge of Allegiance” while rubbing every star on the Flag and take holy communion of a hot dog and cola. Or something along those lines.
But I can’t help it! Matthew Rhys (who reminds me a lot of Lindsey Buckingham of “Fleetwood Mac” for some reason) and Keri Russell (“Elizabeth Jennings”) do such a good job of making you want to see them succeed at their missions. Granted Matthew Rhys’ character, “Philip Jennings”, is trying to get them to defect to the U.S. side, but he’s still carrying out his commands with gusto. And their relationship is the most mystifying thing. For those who haven’t seen the show yet here’s a brief explanation – but get your hands on the show because this will not do it justice:
“Philip” and “Elizabeth” are Russian spies near D.C. pretending to be a typical American suburban couple. They’ve got two kids, one a teenager, who they have to hide the truth from. They met when they were given this assignment, so they basically got married to become an American family having kids to complete the picture. Talk about dedication. Also, they are constantly going out on missions in some sort of disguise and they live across the street from an FBI agent.
If that doesn’t make you want to watch it, then I’m sorry for you ;P
I was really excited to be a part of this Q&A with Matthew Rhys – who is Welsh I might add. A Welshman, playing a Russian, pretending to be an American. Just wrap your head around that. In fact one of the interviewers asked him how that all worked: “The simple answer is, it’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me….In its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American…What I was genuinely doing was trying to be a foreigner assimilating to an American point of view, so I know exactly what it is (meaning he had experience with that from his work on “Brothers and Sisters”).”
A big piece of tension this season is “Philip” and “Elizabeth’s” daughter “Paige”. She’s hitting that age where keeping secrets from her is impossible because she’s going to snoop. It’s a tricky business being an undercover spy and trying to raise a family. The talk turned to the relationship between “Philip” and “Paige”. Like how playing this new dynamic between them has been: “I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show, and not just one that’s been added for good measure, but with real reason that you have two young children who’ve been lied to their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’re coming of age and the parents’ suspicious behavior and the long absences…It seems to be a very natural progression, and it raises questions in “Philip,” certainly with “Paige” that—I think he’s desperate for her not to take over a life…of just duplicity, deceit and lies; he’s desperate for her to avoid that. It pulls on him emotionally in an enormous way.”
Another big part of this family dynamic is the differing views “Philip” and “Elizabeth” have on raising their children. Matthew’s thoughts on that were: “His assimilation to the United States has been easier than “Elizabeth’s”…and he’s realized he has a family that he loves and wants to secure their future, and that’s threatened…he’s accepted the United States as a newfound freedom. There’s a number of ex-trappings that he enjoys enormously. I think he’s easier on his children because…—I’m sure there’s guilt about the lives they’re leading, the deceit they’re feeding them, and also in a way where he wasn’t allowed to be the person that he wanted to be. They were, to a degree, sort of brainwashed. I think he wants his child, even if they are in opposition to him, he wants his child to have those choices to form who she is independently, to be whoever she wants to be and to live the life she wants to live, which is something he certainly wasn’t allowed. So I think he allows them a greater freedom, and is that little bit more forgiving.”
Which brings us to the relationship between “Philip” and “Elizabeth”. It gives new meaning to the word “complicated”. Since they have to don a lot of disguises, there are times they have to work together while one of them is – ahem – seducing their ‘mark’. That’s caused some tension especially this season. As such “Philip” has turned to other female agents for these assignments. As Matthew explained: “Season One was seeing…the two of them—as they developed these real feelings…how that changes the game for them in Season Two is very apparent. These real emotions have developed for the pair of them, and now certainly, the conflicts between that and their mission statement, their mandate…makes for very difficult…situations whereby the thought of “Elizabeth” honey trapping, it preys on him enormously, and that’s why he chose to use “Annelise” because his feelings have evolved and grown so much, and are now very real.”
There was such a shift in their relationship between Season One and Season Two, so how does their relationship develop between this season and the next? “There is an enormous about-turn in the last episode that I think keys up the third season beautifully…in a way that’ll bring in a greater conflict of “Philip” and “Elizabeth.” Having seen them separated for the majority of the first season because of what they were going through, and then reunited for the second season which (was) great to see what happens at the end of the finale is, I think, going to bring such division to the two of them and will be very interesting to see how they play out.”
One of the assignments that plays into this tension is “Philip’s” relationship with “Martha” (secretary to a supervisor in the FBI). According to Matthew this was a known tactic amongst KGB agents but for Philip the relationship has also become a part of his emotional life: “Yes, it’s bizarre because obviously there’s an ulterior motive…this was an incredibly successful operation for the KGB and something they advocated enormously, which was the partnerships and managers of low level security cleared staff that they could infiltrate. This is something very real and very true. But the motivation is different, it’s two-fold in a way, I think. One is obviously to gain intelligence, but also if this relationship goes awry then his whole identity is compromised as is his family, therefore the stakes are incredibly high. It’s a real tightrope walk for him in that he either has to be real, because it inevitably will and has turned into a real relationship, but he also has to remember what he needs to succeed in doing is: a) getting information; and b) not blowing his cover. It’s a knife’s edge for him…”
Being a KGB agent, undercover in the heart of enemy territory, means “Philip” and “Elizabeth” do have to use force – sometimes fatal – to accomplish their ends. Someone wondered if this bothers “Philip” as he is growing to be more immersed in U.S. culture, etc.: “…As we saw from the first episode of the first season, “Philip” is incredibly torn as to where their future lies or where his beliefs and loyalties lie. So I think the killing of people is now more of a survival instinct for “Philip,” it’s more…—the security of his family isn’t breached…So I think he has to be the best spy he can be, and if that means killing people, unfortunately—if it means securing his family’s identity and future, then he’ll do that…”
A fun question was which character (other than “Philip”) was Matthew’s favorite to play: “My favorite character is one of them that has shoulder length hair, and a mustache and a little goatee and he’s usually a worker man, a phone electrician or caretaker, he usually wears the blue jumpsuit and has a tool belt. I enjoy him just purely because I’ve given him such an elaborate and detailed backstory. As all of us do, we sort of give them alter egos and give them these fantastic biographies. Mine is a flamenco dancer from Seville.”
Having to play so many different characters must mean a lot of research, so the question was asked if he did this independently or relied on the script: “…It’s an amalgamation of a number of inputs, really, and I always find usually in television, because you have a length of time, does tend to evolve quite naturally from all parties.”
So then the question became, what has been the most challenging aspect of the show? “The accent is always a tricky part for me because I think such a large part of your brain is working towards that, so you have to sort of stay on it as much as possible. I think just the physical filming of this series is incredibly difficult for the simple reason, the scene count we have, the amount of days we have to shoot, the jumping from disguises; it’s a big juggling act, this series…”
Matthew directed a few episodes of Brothers and Sisters and since The Americans seems to offer such a juicy amount of acting, plot, locations, etc. There was speculation on whether Matthew would ever direct an episode if given the opportunity: “Foolishly or arrogantly or ignorantly, before starting shooting this series, I thought, oh I’d love it if there was a possibility that I could shoot/direct an episode. Having seen the pace at which we shoot, and the hours which we shoot…(I was) incredibly indulged on Brothers and Sisters whereby they wouldn’t write me late in the episode before I would direct so that I could prep, and they’d also run me light in the episode I was directing, so I was incredibly looked after on that series. In this series, there’s absolutely no way I could do both jobs without either: a) killing myself or b) the use of incredibly heavy drugs.”
So I guess that’s a “no” ;D
And of course the question arose about how the subject could lead to the show not being as popular with audiences, especially given the recent tensions the U.S. is having with Russia at the moment. Does Matthew see this as a draw or a big hindrance? “I’m not sure…I’ve spoken with those people who didn’t watch, or couldn’t get into the show because they didn’t want to sympathize with Russian characters. I don’t know if that tends to be with a person of a certain age, but I think there’s a great success story in what the writer’s (have) done in making the two main protagonists antiheroes in way in that you are obsessively rooting for the bad guy. But…they’ve successfully…made them fully fleshed and fully drawn out very human characters. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether the troubles in the Ukraine would spark more or less interest in the show. But yes, I would agree that making your two main characters the enemies would certainly come with its challenges, but then I enjoy the elements in the show; the way they do sort of turn things on its head and ask an audience to question a little more.”
Well, as I said, I certainly understand that dilemma. However, I’m so glad a show like this exists.
Don’t miss the final episodes of the season, Wednesday nights at 10pm ET/PT on FX.
And just because…Matthew Rhys: