FX's latest drama, "The Americans" (premieres tonight, Wed., Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. EST), stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, Cold War-era Russian spies who have lived, worked and raised a family in America for 15 years as part of a covert mission to gather intel on the Reagan administration's plans against the Soviet Union.
The Jennings' lives are further complicated by the defection of another K.G.B. operative, which could jeopardize every undercover agent's identity; Phillip's growing affection for American culture; and the unnervingly curious FBI agent (Noah Emmerich), who has just become their neighbor.
HuffPost TV sat down with Russell and Rhys at the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour to find out more about what motivates their compelling characters, whether Elizabeth and Phillip's marriage is really just a cover story, why Russell said yes to "The Americans" (since she said, "I always say no to everything"), what "honey trapping" is and much more.
You haven't had a major dramatic TV role since "Felicity," so what was it about "The Americans" that lured you back to the small screen?
I thought the pilot script was just so interesting. It was so far from a procedural. And [originally,] I didn’t know that I wanted to do it. I always say no to everything. I never want to do anything. [Laughs.] But I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I read it, and it was one of those things where I was riding my bike around Brooklyn or doing the dishes, and I kept trying to figure it out, because it’s so not clear. It’s still not clear to me. But there’s so many different levels to it.
First of all, being K.G.B. operatives, being a spy. That’s a huge amount of duplicitousness in how much of your life you’re really living, and then to have this arranged marriage at such a young age, especially for my character who had, I think, no sexual experience or boyfriends. She was very sheltered in that way, and then, to just be placed into this [marriage] and your whole existence is just for the cause ... [That] lends itself to a great sense of growth as she gets older, starting to want things for herself. So I thought that was interesting and then obviously ,the exciting fantasy element is the spy stuff.
In terms of research and figuring out Elizabeth's backstory, was that something you had some input in, or was it all on the page?
We had lots of discussions. We’re still having discussions. But I think the main thing that Joe Weisberg, the creator, kept impressing upon me was just that she is the absolutely committed one of the relationship [in terms of their mission]. Whereas Phillip, in a way, is the much more relatable character. You know, I relate much more to him. He’s feeling. He cares about the relationship more than he cares about the cause, and she just doesn’t. Even though it’s a harder person to root for, I think it can still be equally as interesting. And those people are fascinating people. Their values are so strong. They have such a sense of morals and back bone, and I think someone who is that “all or nothing” is a difficult sell to American culture, because we live in grays. I feel like we live in shades of gray and she does not. So it makes it interesting.
Sex plays a big part in the series. Both Elizabeth and Phillip are required to use their sexuality for the job, in some cases ...
I think, especially for women, it must be similar to [being] in the military ... I would love for it to just be clean and not different, but it is. I feel like there’s always something, there’s always that to sell or to give up. The sexuality and to be taken … that’s why women, I think, are more powerful in spy world. [But] men use sexuality all the time too. That’s one of my favorite parts about the research; the CIA actually calls using sexuality "honey traps." I love that. And they’re so successful, it’s unbelievable.
People ultimately just want attention and love. And actually, in my research I read this book on the making of a Mossad agent ... it’s used over and over again. So I find that fascinating, figuring out people’s minds [and what makes them crave intimacy]. But, bottom line, the most interesting thing to me about the show -- which I still fight for and hope that at its best, this is what it’s concentrating on -- is the metaphor on marriage that it is.
I know they’re fighting about American values and Russian values and all, but to me, it’s just a metaphor for marriage -- how much do you really know somebody? You can’t really 100 percent know the other person’s mind and heart and you will constantly battle. And then, in this specific complicated marriage, you’re allowed to go have sex with other people. [Laughs.] It’s part of your job and you have to do it well. And you have to pretend to enjoy it. I just think it’s interesting and to be set up with someone and then after all of these years, 15 years, finally start really falling in love with them ... I think hers is a much more emotional journey about self-acceptance. And I think also, it would make sense to be separated from your sexuality if you have to use it constantly. It’s a tool. And you’re good at it, and that’s what you do.
One of Elizabeth's main issues in the first episode seems to be about how their kids are being raised and how they're becoming ingrained with American values and American culture. How much of a struggle is that for her going forward?
Huge. As much as she’s not the best mom yet --- which I sort of love, because the TV is full of all these perfect moms -- I think the children are a huge struggle for her because she wants them to be happy, but she feels so strongly about these ideals. I think like anyone does who has kids. You know, you have this idea of all these things: They’re not going to watch TV and they’re not going to play video games, and they’re going to go hiking every weekend, and we’re going to give our time to this charity, and they’re going to serve the homeless food. And by Saturday you’re like, “Oh, you guys just want to play video games for four hours? OK, that’s fine.” It’s hard, you know? So I think amidst all of the spy drama, our real values and struggles are absolutely relatable. This is just the fantasy element of the metaphor.
As you said, Phillip is probably more relatable to viewers. He's very enamored of American culture and their ideals. Why is Elizabeth so opposed to it and so loyal to the motherland in comparison?
Well, there is clearly something from her early childhood -- I think she lost her father and has a very hero worship idea of what he did, and how he served the country. I was doing a little bit of reading about Putin’s childhood and different characters who were part of the KGB, and I think it’s hard for Americans to understand the way they grew up. It’s very different ... it was such a communal type of living. They didn’t have things. It was about taking care of each other, and because there weren’t things, your values and your passion and your intellect carried so much more weight. And I just think that’s a different thing for Americans ... we love things. And by the way, I love things; I’m not saying one’s right or wrong, but I think she comes more from that place of who you are as a person and what you believe and what you fight for. You take care of each other and you don’t play video games. [Laughs.]
What attracted you to the role of Phillip? He's a deliciously complex character ...
A number of things, really. He’s a sort of gift of a part in that he's very sort of layered and multi-faceted. And when you meet him, he’s at this great turning point in his life where everything’s changing for him. You just get to do everything. You get to do the Kung Fu, and you get to do the emotional scenes, you get to do the disguises. It’s the full package for an actor. It’s a dream.
What did you look to in terms of research when you first got the job?
The motivator for [his choices in the premiere] for me was his family -- up until we get to the point where he realizes there’s an expiry date on the life they’re living and it will probably come to an end in a very horrific way. That means his kids will be in a home or they’ll be in prison or dead. And I think he wants that [future] to change, so that motivator was the family. The other thing I researched was what Russia was like for him growing up, which was an incredibly hard place at that time, coming out of the Second World War. So I did a lot of research on that, and then just a lot of your standard Cold War documentaries, spy documentaries, a lot of those and internet reading.
What is it about US culture and our way of life that attracts him so much, in comparison to Elizabeth who is very committed to Russia?
I think it goes hand in hand with two things: One, there’s the life he led prior to that, the hardships he had. But also the opportunities he sees his children having ... It’s the life they will lead, that he didn’t have that he wants them to have. And the luxurious trappings of that; nice cars and shoes and things ... why not adhere to the dream?
... I think that’s what we’re still discovering throughout the season as to why she’s such a hard line. I can only speak from Phil’s motivation, and I think it comes from his children -- that he’s just at this point now where he wants his kids to be safe and grow up happy. And it could be any country, really. It just happens to be America, which helps [the mission].
We see Phil doing some pretty questionable things without really second-guessing his decisions. Is there an element of his job that he sees as a release, some kind of escapism that appeals to him?
Yeah. Then there’s no query or doubt about what he’s doing. I think that strength of conviction aids him in a way. And you know there’s an element to it I think he finds possibly fun as well.
But then there are other, darker parts of his job that he might end up thinking twice about. How much do some of his missions weigh on him?
I think that plays into what I was touching on, that it’s a time of transition in his life. Maybe a few years ago, if he had to kill a kid for the motherland, he would’ve done it. [But now] those kinds of operations begin to play on his conscience. And as a result of that, everything feeding into each other, he sort of goes, “I can’t do this anymore.”
He's clearly more committed to the relationship with Elizabeth than she is. Does that make it particularly hard for him to seduce other people when missions call for it?
Right -- that was one element of the research where ... it’s called honey trapping, and I was like, “That didn’t happen.” The research is like it happened all the time. A lot ... When we find him, things are changing for him and having lived out this arranged marriage for 15 years ... His emotions are becoming real for her, and he finds the honey trapping difficult. You know, I think any man who has real feelings for his wife would. So yes, it becomes increasingly harder for him.
"The Americans" premieres Wednesday, Janary 30 at 10 p.m. EST on FX.
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