As Phillip Jennings, the ‘married’ Soviet sleeper spy husband to Keri Russell’s Elizabeth on FX’s The Americans, Welsh thesp Matthew Rhys is called upon to flawlessly snake through a ringer of emotions. Beyond the demands of Phillip’s day job that’s full of disguises and a fake marriage, he’s been hitting his head against the wall in the show’s second season between his goody-two shoes daughter Paige who is swept up with a Born-again Christian group and his fellow comrade wife who isn’t as drunk on U.S. capitalism like Philip is. Prior to The Americans, Rhys was known to U.S. audiences as Kevin Walker, the gay lawyer on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters as well as Demetrius in Julie Taymor’s big screen Shakespeare adaptation Titus. At home in the U.K., Rhys made his mark with such stage productions as The Graduate, playing Benjamin to Kathleen Turner’s Mrs. Robinson, and in the BBC crime action drama series Backup. Click through to read the interview:
AWARDSLINE: How did The Americans creator Joseph Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields prepare you for your role as a Soviet Union spy in 1980s U.S.? I know the concept is loosely inspired by the 2010 Russian sleeper spy arrests in suburban New Jersey.
MATTHEW RHYS: There was a number of different ways. Joe personally did some sort of counter surveillance work with us, which Keri Russell and I would be doing as intelligence gatherers. We were already doing a lot of research and they left us to our devices. I’m always weary about what research can bring to a performance unless it’s incredibly specific. The reading of dates and information — I don’t know how it necessarily translates into the in-the-moment acting. The more technical things we do: the dead-drop missions make a lot of sense to me. The study of human nature serves you slightly better than the study of facts. For Phillip, my way in regarding his capitalist leanings: I wanted a way in my own head to ground that, so I read up on the Soviet Union he would have grown up in during post WWII. It was a place of intense of poverty. I could understand where his appreciation for the finer things in life come into play.
AWARDSLINE: There’s a moment in the pilot that speaks volumes about your character: When he tries on the cowboy boots in the department store and dances to “Playing With The Queen Of Hearts”. Was there a moment in the second season that further defined Phillip?
RHYS: One of the big key moments was when he reprimanded (his daughter) Paige (Holly Taylor) for lying. So many people griped, “Phillip is such a hypocrite” and I didn’t see it as hypocrisy at all. It made a great deal of sense to me: Phillip and Elizabeth were raised without choices in terms of their future. They shoved into these roles (as spys) willingly without thinking about what they were doing. Living a life of deceit, especially to his children, kills Phillip. The first whisps of Paige lying has this adverse effect on him because he doesn’t want her to be raised in a life of deceit. That was a defining moment. He doesn’t want his children to grow up like him because of the effects that those lies have.
AWARDSLINE: How did this project come to you? Had Joe and Joel seen you in Brothers & Sisters or did they see you on the New York stage in Look Back In Anger?
RHYS: Leslee Feldman, the head of casting for DreamWorks, purely by chance saw me in Look Back In Anger. It puzzles me what she saw in the performance that convinced her I could play Phillip. She suggested to Joe to come see me in the play and then we had a meal afterwards and it went from there.
AWARDSLINE: The play’s director Sam Gold told The New York Times in their Look Back in Anger profile on you that the role of Jimmy Porter required an actor who could turn his emotions on a dime. Is there a similar multi-layered, emotional process between playing Jimmy Porter and Phillip Jennings?
RHYS: Definitely for Phillip because he has to be on and off, particularly when he’s with (his FBI secretary/fake wife) Martha (Alison Wright). He has no choice to jump from one minute to the next. His life is a life of pretend. Those switches are well honed and trained in order to cover and also to convince the other person in front of you. With Jimmy, you do a see roller coaster of emotions that develop. He fluctuates wildly from one to the next because he is lost, and that’s where there might be a parallel: Seeing someone who can move from one (emotion) to the other with speed.
AWARDSLINE: On Mad Men, their production schedule is so tight, there’s isn’t time for the actors to get into character or rehearse necessarily. They have to be ready to go on their marks immediately. Is it the same rhythm on The Americans? Do you actually have time to go through your emotions before you step in front of the camera?
RHYS: There’s a lot of flying by the skin of our teeth because of the maniacal speed that we shoot. Sometimes, you turn up knowing you don’t have time to rehearse. But that can turn against you when you arrive with ideals that don’t fit with what’s happening. So you have to be more flexible. On the flip side, you then become more adept at trusting your instincts, trusting who the character is. There’s no time for ‘Give me a moment” and coming out of your trailer.
AWARDSLINE: I remember Joel Fields saying that there’s an early part in the process where you can provide creative input on the direction of your character and the writers might actually consider it.
RHYS: Yes, and very much so in the second season. They moved the writing offices from Manhattan to the opposite side of our studios (in Queens). So in between lighting set-ups you can go and ask about specific parts of the script.
AWARDSLINE: A nerdy question – so Phillip and Elizabeth speak U.S. English quite well and they have to because they’re sleeper spies, however, why don’t they speak Russian to each other, especially when they are alone? What’s the creative justification with that?
RHYS: The creative justification is because the producers heard Keri and I attempt Russian and said that will never happen again. They kindly inserted a line in the pilot, just before our characters are stepping into the U.S. The commander-in-chief says “You must never speak Russian to each other ever again to keep your cover completely full proof.” Under the proviso that were the children to walk in, or overhear, Phillip and Elizabeth just need to keep up the cover, primarily at the beginning, to be more of a normal American cover and avoid the danger of being discovered.
AWARDSLINE: One of the quintessential episodes in Season 1 was when President Ronald Reagan is shot. It showed from various angles what was running through the minds of the Soviets and the FBI at the time. Was there an attempt to do another episode like that in Season 2 which focuses on a historical situation from various angles?
RHYS: I know that to a degree, it’s fun to be rewriting history or putting your own slant from a Russian point of view. There are constraints that come with that, and I don’t think the writers want to be a show that becomes skeletal in its historic events. Certainly, an enormous majority of what we do is drawn from historical events. In the slightly more incredulous moments they ask, ‘Is this going to work?’ and often the answer is ‘Well, this happened in real life’. What appears unbelievable to a member of the audience, can be skirted by grounding (a storyline) in an element of reality.
AWARDSLINE: The Jennings have a complex marriage. Sleeping around is just part of their job – it’s just that Elizabeth doesn’t want Phillip to enjoy it while he’s doing it, especially with Martha.
RHYS: There’s this incredibly unique relationship that I haven’t seen before on TV. They pretend with this very high octane mandate. Then they have real feelings for each other. Then part of this is sleeping with other people. Where does their sexual life lie? Where does it fit? Because it’s been in a bizarre, weird place for so long. Then you try to bring normality into it, which is going to be affected by their official mandate. There’s a gray line and it’s incredibly messy, and to me that’s the most interesting as they try to define something that’s romantic, normal or tangible. They have to deal with elements that others with a normal life don’t have to.
AWARDSLINE: And what type of offers have come your way because of your work on The Americans?
RHYS: Oddly enough, it always amazes me, but I’ve had more espionage film offers. I’m off this summer to do a World War II movie with director Christian Carion who made the Oscar-nominated film Joyeux Noel. I play a British commando trying to make his way to Dunkirk before the British army leaves. I’ve tried to shy away from the more espionage scripts.
AWARDSLINE: What does it mean to a British performer to be nominated for an Emmy? What does it say about your work to your peers and the entertainment industry over there?
RHYS: We grew up with American TV and it means an incredible amount to us; it’s this very exotic, far off thing. If we’re lucky to come to these shores and have a crack at it and gain a modicum of success, it’s that other level above an award at home, because it means you found your way into a nation’s DNA in a different way. I’ve been asked about learning an American accent. The hardest thing about an American accent isn’t the sound. You can make the right sound, rather it’s the rhythm or something more indefinable than that. If you can convince people that you’re an American, it’s another feather to your cap. You’re convincing a nation that you’re one of theirs. It’s a great achievement.