TV & Film

Matthew Rhys on 'The Americans' And His Sexy Undercover 'Staches

It's hard not to look at the array of cover identities Matthew Rhys has used on the FX network spy drama "The Americans" and not conclude that they should star in a Web spinoff called "The Porn Identity."

"That's brilliant!" Rhys said with a laugh, when pitched the idea.

We actually did get into a reasonably non-silly discussion of identity and how Rhys approached the theme of assimilation within the context of the drama, in which he and Keri Russell play Russian spies posing as American suburbanites. But we'll get to that after Rhys divulges the details on some of the secret identities he's used on the show.

Rhys thought a lot about the backstories of Philip and Elizabeth, but he also devoted a great deal of time to thinking up histories for his various undercover getups.

"You know how it is, there's so much tedium on a set that you come up with these stories to amuse yourself," Rhys said.

And let's face it, given that "The Americans" is set in the early '80s -- a time of big hair and even bigger mustaches -- a few of Philip's cover identities look like they moonlight as actors in adult films.

So in the spirit of bringing you a full array of intelligence about Philip and his alternate personas, here are a few of Rhys' favorite cover IDs (some are pictured above):

Where we met him: In the season premiere, he was the guy who beat up a man who had leered at Philip's daughter.
The backstory: "Someone said he looked like a Spaniard, so he became Fernando," Rhys said. "I would speak with a heavy, sibilant 'S' and a Spanish accent when I was dressed as this guy, and all the girls seemed to love him. We came up with this idea that he's a flamenco teacher in Pasadena and a hit man on the side."
Adult-film career? "Fernando is probably too good at porn," Rhys said. "The women actually don't want to work with him because he's too good. There's too much sexual prowess."

Where we saw him: He first appeared in Episode 5, "COMINT."
The backstory: "He skis in the ski season and sells weed in the off-season," Rhys said. "He's always like, [heavy American accent], 'Yeah, totally, nothing's a problem.'"
Adult-film career? "He's probably dabbled in porn. He's that guy who's done a little bit of everything."

Gordo's brother
Where we meet him: This character appears in the finale.
The backstory: "He's Gordo's overachieving older brother, who doesn't talk about Gordo because he was arrested for selling weed."
Adult-film career: Not so much.

Where we meet him: He first appeared in the pilot
The backstory: He's romancing an FBI employee, who doesn't realize he's feeding the intelligence she gives him to the Kremlin. Talk about meet-cute!
Adult-film career: Probably not -- Clark's a bit of a pill -- but he certainly keeps his new bride Martha happy.

Rhys noted that going on set for the first time as one of his cover identities is one of his favorite parts of the job. He's always amazed at how long it takes for people to realize who's under the wig. "You can stand next to people you've been working with for eight or nine weeks," he noted, and they still don't know who he is half the time.

He said he once walked up to "Americans" director Holly Dale and stood near her for several minutes while he was in costume as one of his undercover characters.

"She started looking at me weirdly -- she thought I was some background artist asking for something," Rhys recalled. "So she turned to me and said, 'Can I help you?' and I said, 'It's Matthew,' and she went 'Oh my God!'"

The actor also noted that his own history, as a Welsh man who has often played American characters, has been very helpful when thinking about Philip's transition to American life over the years. He said he thinks Philip is a careful observer, especially when it comes to the nuances of language and accents.

"I just imagine what he went through -- you spend your time watching and listening to other people in order to assimilate," Rhys said.

When trying to master an American accent, for example, "you can nail the sound, but sometimes I think you can tell a British actor when he's playing an American, because it's the other things [that matter]. Rhythm and cadence and syntax [are important,] and emphasis is a massive thing. It's those things you're always tuning into and I'm always trying to nail."

Rhys has a theory about why UK actors are often better at American accents, and why Americans can so rarely master them in believable ways. Growing up in Wales, he and his friends would run around imitating the characters from "Starsky & Hutch," "The A-Team" and "Air Wolf," whereas most American kids don't have similar exposure to British culture.

"We were impersonating those characters from a very early age, but American boys and girls don't run around and play 'Downton Abbey' in the garden," he said with a laugh.

Having softened him up with questions about secret-agent mustaches (I also pitched a fan gathering called "Commie-Con," which he favored), I ended by asking Rhys a serious question about the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, which has taken center stage all season.

Did Philip fall in love with Elizabeth right away, or was it a gradual process?

"I think it was a gradual thing," he answered. "Possibly there was an initial attraction that he he may have repressed over the years, but there's a part of him that's softened in a way."

Much of the first season of the show was about establishing a certain level of trust between Philip and Elizabeth, but even when a couple trusts each other, there are still potential problems and challenges, I noted.

"To me, that's where the interest lies," Rhys said. "I think that's the real juice and pulp of the series. That relationship is so unique. A big part of me wanted a far deeper, juicier exploration in this first season, but I understand there are other boxes they have to tick as well. But there's so much that can be got from all that."

Note: We have a big interview with the executive producers of "The Americans" here; don't read it unless you've seen the finale. And don't miss these recent interviews with "Americans" actors Noah Emmerich and Margo Martindale, as well as a new Talking TV podcast on the show's first season.

The Americans