When The Americans stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell arrived for Deadline’s shoot at a quaint upstate NY inn near where they were on holiday, they brought the latest member of their entourage. That would be Sam, a two-month-old who seems right out of central casting for cutest baby ever. In a fourth season of the Reagan era Cold War FX spy drama series that featured a dizzying amount of surprises on screen, the pending stork visit for Rhys and Russell’s first child together was one of two plot twists that surprised showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who had to accelerate shooting to get the season in before Russell was due, hiding a pregnancy that was not worked into the plot line.
The other surprise was that, after three seasons as a critical darling and a guilty pleasure, The Americans finally got love from the Television Academy, and reached that critical consensus that occasionally catapults an established show like Friday Night Lights. The Americans is up for five major Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series, one each for Rhys and Russell as lead actors, one for Outstanding Writing for Weisberg and Fields, and another for Margo Martindale, who last year won the show’s only Emmy in the Guest Actress category.
This fourth season was the show’s most eventful. The noose tightens for these characters. And in a parallel plot, the TV Academy has finally recognized a show that has been a guilty secret, and you are basking in Emmy nominations.
Matthew Rhys: I think they just succumbed to the pressure.
Keri Russell: The pressure of Solberg.
Rhys: John Solberg, head of FX publicity, also known as the enforcer. Our Ray Donovan.
What were the most satisfying moments during the season?
Rhys: A highlight for me was the big argument that happened in Episode 8, that was a long time coming for Philip and Elizabeth. So much is quashed, and sat on, and not addressed, and finally, in a world where so much isn’t said, they had an opportunity to really, albeit briefly, let some things go; to air some truths.
Russell: It was such an old marriage fight, too. I don’t know what ended up making it in the edit, but there were a few lines in there where we’re talking about people from the first season arena, and I remember, in the midst of this vicious retort back and forth, they’re like, “You have to say her name because you have to [remind] people who she was.” It’s like, it doesn’t matter what her fucking name is. They get the point. It’s like a wife yelling about…
Russell: Over something that happened years ago. That was good because that’s the show, and it’s so interesting to me when it’s just this great marriage show.
When The Americans began there was plenty of standard James Bond spy stuff, but glimpsed from the other side. Action, sex, suspense. Somewhere along the way, that was overtaken by this heavy toll that these betrayals take on the conscience of these people and their family. When you signed on, how much of this evolution was mapped out and explained to you by the show’s creators?
Russell: From the time I read the pilot, I feel like Elizabeth, that character, was almost in the background. So I had no idea where this was going to go—zero idea—and had no idea how emotional it would become, which has been such a good surprise about this job.
Keri, everybody knew you as this America’s Sweetheart from Felicity. Did you want something where you could show a bit more edge?
Russell: I wasn’t even thinking of it like that. I was intrigued by the spy element, but I was more intrigued by the relationship; the idea of these two teenagers who were placed together. What would that be like, and what would it be like to watch that unravel. Living together, and having babies with somebody, missing out on your whole childhood, and then spending all these years with someone. I was more intrigued by that.
Like a bizarre arranged marriage?
Russell: Such a bizarre arranged marriage, with everything that was going on in communist Russia then and just the heavy indoctrination. That interested me, with that arrested development aspect thrown into this. And then I sat with Joe Weisberg over coffee and was, more than anything, fascinated by him telling me his story about joining the CIA. I was like, “Stop. Tell me everything. I want every detail about how you signed up.”
Rhys: The application process is incredible. It’s a two-year vetting process, because they vet you. We met a guy who did the [KGB] job, he came to set, and to talk with him was mind-blowing about why he did it and what he went through, to a far less degree than us. He was completely alone. There were no handlers. There were no Margo Martindales. He was utterly alone in New York, working as an illegal, pretending to be someone from New Jersey. He’d gone to Russia. He was in Moscow for six years being trained by a guy from New Jersey to speak like someone from New Jersey.
Russell: Isn’t that crazy?
Was what he did as effective as what your characters do?
Rhys: None of them were killing people. It was all intelligence gathering, and political intelligence gathering was his mandate. And what he realized was how the KGB knew nothing. Eventually, they put him in Canada for X amount of years to Americanize himself. Finally, he gets to New York, and he’s like, “OK, what’s the mission?” They went, “We want you to befriend the political professors at Columbia University, because they have strong links to Washington.” You can’t just turn over and say, “I want to be your friend.” You just think, “Oh my God. They didn’t know what they were doing.”
When you ask a guy like that, what do they tell you about the extreme places your characters go to? Matthew, yours seduced a CIA officer’s secretary, followed by a phony marriage that continued even when she realized she was betraying her country…
Russell: They did that.
Rhys: That was a very real operation the KGB set up. The KGB officers would marry low-level, intelligence-cleared personnel in the intelligence world—the CIA and FBI—with some degree of success. What they were most surprised by was, when some of them found out who these men were, they stayed with them. They didn’t go, “Fuck you, you betrayed me, you liar.” They were in love with these people, and they stayed with them.
Did they continue to get involved in these nefarious spying activities?
Rhys: I don’t know. We’ve taken liberties there. The mere fact they stayed with them to me is mind-blowing.
It would be hard to be in a marriage where your job is to sleep with strangers and do all this crazy stuff, and then return to your arranged marriage.
Rhys: It is.
I don’t recall a relationship quite like this one on TV before.
Rhys: No, and that was a real worry. Keri and I are the same in that we see this as a show about a relationship; an exploration of marriage in a very heightened way. The normal marriage we have is more-or-less life or death than for these two, but then you are bringing this bizarre backstory. So landing that in a very real place is hard, because it just makes everything that much more complicated. Yes, the themes we deal with are very easily relatable to marriage, but the baggage you bring as two people who lived a false life? Where does infidelity and betrayal live if there was never a real couple in the first place? Where is that gray area where all those feelings live? That in itself is incredibly attractive as an actor, but landing it in a real place I thought would be the challenge.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable that you’d struck that balance?
Rhys: Four seasons.
So that’s why they said this was the best season?
Rhys: Yes. That’s what it’s about.
And when they tell you it will all be over in another two seasons?
Rhys: We’re like, “Well, these will be the best two.”
The kids really flourished this season. Paige, still trying to get used to the idea her parents are Russian spies, was very dramatic on the surface. But Henry, who for a long time seemed to have his head buried in a video game, has now bonded more with the FBI agent across the street than with his father. How do you see the family dynamic and the way it developed here?
Russell: I love the complication of the kids in the characters’ lives. I love that these two people are very capable in all these ways. They’re so trained. They’re kind of deadly. They’re smart and vicious at times, but I love that they’re undone by a teenager, like we all are. We’re all incensed and undone by the ungratefulness of a child, and I love that it matters so greatly to them, in a way that it matters to every parent. Teenagers are going to do that no matter where you live or who you are. This is just an incredibly complex version of that story. Henry, the same. It’s heartbreaking, this alienation of him and how he’s just kind of left there and is trying to find love or acceptance from this neighbor. It’s heartbreaking that he’s finding this father figure next door.
Especially when the neighbor happens to be hunting these elusive KGB spies.
Russell: Which is great.
Rhys: You know, when this guy came to the set, he said he had an FBI agent living next door to him.
Russell: And he befriended him. Well, they moved him there because of that, right?
Rhys: It was a little bit different. The FBI agent had this hunch about him, and persuaded the FBI to buy the house next to him. The FBI signed off. They let him buy the house, and they surveilled him for years.
Russell: And they’re still friends, right?
Rhys: He turned him.
The FBI agent turned this guy?
Russell: Isn’t that crazy?
Keri, your description of Elizabeth’s mothering dilemma is intriguing, because at the beginning she seemed to look at the kids as props.
I don’t mean to insult your character and after seeing her in action, how about not snapping my neck after I drove all the way up here.
Russell: You’re not insulting my character. Being a woman, especially in this business, it’s so thrilling to get to do that. It’s so rare, especially right now the way the film industry is. If you’re a girl, the part you get to play these days…because there’s so many less movies made…in a good movie, if there’s a girl in it, there might be a handful of scenes, and your job is to be supportive to the guy who’s messed up. Be the loving rock at home, or be the good mom, or be the attractive person. You don’t get to be the bad mom and still succeed at your job and be tough. It’s such a good job because it’s so rare. It’s a really rare job.
I recall when you starred in Felicity, you cut your hair and it was national news.
Russell: I remember.
It doesn’t seem like someone would say that to a man who cut his hair. Did that feel sexist?
Russell: Isn’t that funny? Men cut their hair all the time.
Was it a shock you got the reaction you did, and would it be better if you did that now?
Russell: It was such a shock to all of us. The whole reason we did it was because that’s what college girls do. The love of their life at 18 years old breaks up with them, and they make this huge decision. My best girlfriend did it. They make this huge choice to cut their hair, and go with this cool haircut that only looks good on Winona Ryder. Then it’s oh my God, I have this terrible haircut, and you have to deal with it for the next year, which is hilarious and so true. The other thing that was so surprising: it would be one thing if that character was a fashion plate. She wore men’s sweaters, and rolled up chino pants, and Converse. She didn’t wear makeup. So I was like, why do you care? That’s not what this person is, but people like girls with hair.
Speaking of surprises, what’s it like when you show up to work this year and say, “We’re pregnant”?
Rhys: I was terrified when we told our showrunner.
Russell: We were terrified.
Rhys: Because, God bless them, last year they promised they wouldn’t be handing us pages as we walked on set, and no more crazy midnight rewrites. We’re going to get the whole arc locked before we start Season 4. So it was like…
Rhys: They tell us, “We have the whole thing locked. Done. We worked tirelessly over the summer.” And we’re like…
Russell: “Oh, shit.”
Rhys: “She’s pregnant.”
Rhys: They could’ve said, “OK, we’ll write it into the storyline,” but I think they just worked so hard over the summer. They’d given up their entire summer, all the writers. They went, “You know what, we’re going to stick with what we wrote, and I’m sorry to say, you’ll be wearing big coats and sitting holding laundry.”
Russell: There were definitely some tired nights, but it was all good, and it kind of speaks to how the show has evolved. Maybe in the beginning, there were a few more theatrics, action and sex, and it’s truly become a quieter relationship show. There was less choking dudes out in the public pool.
Rhys: Joe Weisberg has always maintained that’s his dream; that this is a show where people talk. He goes, “If it was up to me, there’d be no guns and fights at all.” I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that… But FX are incredibly good about that. If they believe in the show and the ratings aren’t great, we’ve never been pressured by FX to do sex scenes or gunfights.
Matthew, you directed an episode, and it was one of the more complex ones that settled some storylines and set up others. Among other things, Elizabeth murdered the drug-addicted friend she recruited and whose life she ruined. And David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear. A lot happened.
Russell: It was our biggest episode of the season.
Rhys: Yeah, but there was a slight comedy of errors in that when we did tell them that Keri was pregnant, the hope was to kind of shunt everything forward and finish the season a little earlier. So we really hauled ass last season and as a result of that, the directors got shifted, and they had other commitments. So the whole directors’ schedule got moved, and I basically got an episode I shouldn’t have got.
Russell: Yes, you should’ve. You were great.
Rhys: I should’ve got a later episode that was much quieter, but director availability became nightmarish, and they took a hell of a risk. I got very lucky. I was incredibly mentored by Chris Long, our producing director. I had all the fireworks, you know? I had planes, and murders, and big fights, and kind of everything. Personally, a little too much.
How does that impact your attitude when you go back to acting only?
Rhys: In many ways. Now, if they say, “Go stand by the window,” I’m like, “Done.” Because I know inside, they’re just ripping their organs apart to make their day. Still, as an actor, it gets me when they puppeteer you. Do you know what I mean? But I found myself with actors thinking, “I’m so behind. You just go stand by the fucking window.” That’s the only thing you want to say.
Russell: Actors are inclined to say, “Why would I do that?”
Rhys: And you’re having to invent this motivation to get them to the window. That is what takes the longest amount of time in your brain. So it’s hard. It makes me act a little quicker because, in the edit, you’re always going, “Oh, why didn’t we just say it faster? Now I have to cut away.” It’s a real double-edged sword. So many actors should direct just to go, “Oh my God, this is horrific.”
Each of your characters have gotten into situations that make you wince. There was Philip’s seductive relationship with the CIA guy’s underage daughter, Kimmy, and Elizabeth’s fake seduction of her only friend’s husband, and then the whole pregnancy and suicide ruse, just to get computer codes. Since you live in the skin of these characters, have you ever told the producers they’ve crossed a line and you aren’t comfortable?
Rhys: Yeah. When it comes to acting, I’m ardent that you don’t judge. But I did have a problem with the Kimmy thing. It is great drama because what you’re ultimately striving to do is create conflict, and the conflict within him as a man who has a daughter the same age is a great form of conflict. It ties into his motivation. He has to be the best agent he can be in order to keep his family alive. And if that means the seduction of a girl the same age as his daughter, then what it creates is an inner conflict that’s fantastic to play. But as a human being, I went to them, and I said, “I’m struggling with this.” They were very open, and they had a lot of valid points as to why it’d make good television. It became a hot talking point. They got a lot of people talking about this incredibly difficult subject.
Russell: I was just thinking, is there anything that I ever talked to them about, and my thing would be about Paige, and turning her.
Yeah, that was tough, too; indoctrinating a teen daughter into becoming a future KGB spy.
Russell: We both were worried about these young girls, which I think is exactly what they were trying to create. You wanted to be worried for Kimmy and in some way for Philip having to do it, and you wanted to be worried for Paige. That was what they were trying to show, and even in their discussion when I said, “Am I setting my daughter up to have her turning tricks?” They were like, “No, no,” but they really broke it down, in the way that a 16- or 18-year-old wouldn’t go that way; that what they do is so highly specialized and she would be going in to work for the cause as a paper pusher. That’s the ultimate goal, to get her to the highest level to work for a senator or something.
It’s a tough role for Holly Taylor to play. Her decision to confide to her pastor that her parents are Soviet spies brings unimaginable stress.
Russell: And when my character has unleashed on the Paige character, there’s been so much going on, and I love that it’s really fueled by personal stuff. The most recent one was in this episode where I had to yell at her about… who knows what it was that time, but I feel like it was all spawned from the jealousy and the resentment and everything going on with Philip and Elizabeth and what she was supposed to be doing. But I felt like it was a real parent moment as well.
You would never know what this young actress is capable of until you test her.
Russell: Right. There’s another thing I want to say about the Paige recruitment, and Tommy Schlamme, one of our directors who I love so much. There was a scene which, on paper, sort of read a certain way, and he had such a good note about it. It was my problem with the recruitment issue. He says, “Yeah, but it’s about her knowing who you are.” She doesn’t know anything about [the fact] that we’re Russian, or our heritage, or truly who we are, and you want to be seen [incorrectly] by these people that love you. You want them to truly see who you are. So, in a way, it’s less about her becoming a spy, and more like, “This is who I am. I want you to know who you are versus this lie of a person.”
All this unraveling of the story, it is still so interesting to me, and that’s a good thing.
It is better than some series where the original showrunners go do something else, and the episodes feel the same, and it’s like you’re playing out the string until the ratings get low enough to cancel it. You guys are still on an emotional trajectory.
Rhys: Yes, and there’s still some evolution for us all. We’ve all got so far to go, which is great.
Yeah, and next season you’ve got an illegitimate son who’ll come looking for his father.
Rhys: I totally forgot about him until this moment.
You forgot your son? You are so focused on your actual newborn son that you aren’t thinking about your pretend illegitimate son that your character didn’t even know he had?
Rhys: I had this moment when I was directing Gabriel, Frank Langella’s character, in a bar. He tells me that my illegitimate son is alive and well, and because I was directing it, I kind of did that with Frank.
Russell: What are you talking about?
Rhys: I was like, “What would my reaction be to that?” And bless him, he was like [does his best Langella impression], “Well, you know, you’d realize you’ve got no relationship with this person.”
Russell: Oh my God, I love it. I love it.
Rhys: “It’s an abstract thought. So you don’t have to be sad or cry because you don’t know this person. You’ve never met this person. You would always be confused.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Russell: I love Frank for doing that.
What does it feel like when you know you’re doing great work, but you’re a guilty pleasure, and you watch other shows get the Emmy love—and then suddenly, it’s your turn, and everyone’s binge-watching to catch up on earlier seasons? How cognizant are you of that?
Russell: I feel like we’ve had the best of all worlds. We’ve been the underdog, but we’ve been written about nicely by critics. It’s the ideal place to be, because you get to do your work and you’re not overly famous.
Rhys: You’re not in the spotlight or under a magnifying glass.
Russell: And the people who really enjoy that kind of stuff really enjoy it and write great things. We’re always going, “They know the show better than us.” And we say, “Oh… so that’s what the show’s about.”
Rhys: It’s true. They see nuance in it.
Well, now, those producers have basically said they kind of know how it’s going to end.
Russell: They’ve always said that.
Do you know? And how would that knowledge inform how you play the scenes?
Russell: We don’t know.
Rhys: They’re very open and always have been at the beginning of a season about what will happen, and I think they’re shrewd in not telling us what the long term is, so we’re not playing toward something that hasn’t happened yet.
So it’s up to you to play out scenarios in your minds?
Russell: Totally. We have our own dream scenarios.
Rhys: Mine is Elizabeth, being sworn in as the President of the United States. And then it’s, “Oh, no, we can’t, we’re factual.” We wake up and Paige is being sworn in.
Russell: I don’t think Elizabeth would want it.
Rhys: I know what it’ll be. The last episode, Paige changes her name to Hillary Clinton.
Or you change yours to Donald Trump.
Rhys: Oh, yeah, that’ll be good.
Russell: Oh my God. Camaro-driving, cowboy-boot-wearing.
Rhys: Or, Paige changes her name to Monica Lewinski.
That sounds like an FX spinoff.
Rhys: That would be good. Is the age right for that? It’s not far off.
Russell: Can we fudge it a bit?