Christy Grosz is a contributor to Awardsline.
Playing a Cold War-era Russian spy undercover in the United States on FX’s The Americans offers Keri Russell plenty of opportunities for hand-to-hand combat. But Russell says she doesn’t focus much on the spy stuff in building her character, Elizabeth Jennings. She’s more interested in the show’s complicated relationships, particularly the marriage between Elizabeth and Phillip, played by Matthew Rhys. Russell, perhaps best known for her starring role on the WB’s Felicity in the late ’90s, next will star in Fox’s July release Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Here, she discusses those wacky ’80s wigs and why she turned down the role of Elizabeth three times.
AWARDSLINE: What made you want to come back to series TV?
KERI RUSSELL: As an actor, you’re at the mercy of what’s around, what comes your way, and I definitely have been taking some time out raising my family. Although I wasn’t looking for a TV job at all, this had a really great pilot. It sounded fresh. My image (after) reading (Elizabeth) the first time was Brigitte Nielsen in Rocky. I was like, “OK, she’s this kick-ass Russian—cold, beautiful, sexy. How did this make its way to me?” So I obviously said no about three times, and then (FX president) John Landgraf just sold me on it. He basically said, “No, that’s the whole point. We want someone who’s instantly relatable, and kind, and all those things that people project onto you.” And I’m so glad I said yes. It’s always a gamble—every job you take—but this one has been really interesting these last couple of seasons.
AWARDSLINE: And that relatability works so well. It plays with the audience’s expectations, and you start to think, “What is that nice Keri Russell doing?”
RUSSELL: (Laughs) “Why is she giving that guy a blowjob? This is so uncomfortable.” But that’s something that we talk about a lot. CIA (agents) and those kind of guys, they aren’t James Bond. They’re normal looking because their whole point is to blend in. If they’re standing out as the most attractive person or the most powerful, studly-looking person, they’re not going to lure you in and get your trust.
AWARDSLINE: What have you really relished in playing this second season of Elizabeth?
RUSSELL: It’s much more about her frailties, which we hadn’t seen before, and I liked that. All these scripts where there’s a female lead would come my way. I would read them, and it was always this new young doctor, who’s amazing. She can do everything right, and she’s really funny, and she does this and this. And that is not enjoyable to watch. We hate those people. (Laughs.) What I’ve enjoyed about this second season is getting to play this person, who was very good and was very black and white about her job, and now is fumbling. The way she lived her life up until this point was being emotionally cut off and being the best soldier she can be, and now it’s not serving her. That was fun to play, not to be slick and strong all the time and just be messy. Those are the parts I enjoy watching or reading about in books, when people are frail and find their way through it, because I don’t know many people who are perfect at everything.
AWARDSLINE: Did you have any input into your character this season?
RUSSELL: I don’t know about other people’s (shows), but we are on such a tight, crazy schedule that there’s no time. You get the script, we’re shooting it, and then you’re lucky if you get two takes. It’s fun because there’s this real energy to it, but there’s not a lot of deliberation. We fight for things all the time—“Oh, that’s not great for the relationship, and here’s why”—and they hear us out, but I’m not saying, “This year, I think Elizabeth should get into painting.”
AWARDSLINE: It’s not always clear whether Elizabeth is playing a role or whether she’s being herself. Is that part of the fun for you?
RUSSELL: Yeah, that ambiguity is interesting, and I think it’s written to be unclear. And, I think, to Elizabeth it’s unclear. She is using these experiences in a way she didn’t before. (She’s) finding herself slipping into things that she would not (have done) in years past, but when you’re vulnerable, you’re more open. You can be sitting at a dinner table and someone you don’t know is talking about breaking up with someone or their dog dying, and you’re so upset and moved by it because you’re cracked open in that way. It’s sort of like that. That was my take on the character. Everything is blurry when you’re that vulnerable.
AWARDSLINE: The physicality of Elizabeth has to be a lot of fun, but what’s the hair and makeup like for the show?
RUSSELL: It’s hilarious. It’s really fun at times, and other times you’re like, “What the heck is happening?” And there are certainly times when Matthew and I can’t stop laughing, but it really helps. I feel like men have this capability that women don’t have, where they get to wear facial hair—a mustache, a beard—and that hides your face. It changes it so dramatically versus a wig. I can never truly hide my mouth. You know, we put scarves on, (or) they take away my lips with makeup, but there are times when (Matthew) has on one of his costumes, and it’s incredibly transformative. It completely aids the character or a scene. So that is the fun part of the show.