The Americans, FX’ intelligent, complex, character driven drama about two KGB officers planted in the US begins its third season with a bang.
The spies, passing themselves off as ordinary middle class married couple with two children, are at a pivotal time in their personal and professional lives.
It’s the 80’s Cold War, one of the most dangerous periods in political history as the US and the Soviet Union dance around one another, as the threat of nuclear war looms.
Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys and his real-life partner Keri Russell are about to have their worlds turned upside down.
We spoke to Matthew about his role:
The center wants to recruit your character’s daughter as a spy. Elizabeth is okay with it but Phillip is not. Why?
Matthew Rhys Philip and Elizabeth were children when they were picked. They were in late teenage years and I think heavily indoctrinated. Really, you look back at your own age; you’re not very sure who you are at that time. He’s found himself in a vocation that he really didn’t choose; it was chosen for him, thrust upon him. Now he’s evolving and bursting out when he realizes it probably isn’t the life that he would not have chosen nor is it the life he wants. He doesn’t want his daughter pushed into something at such a young, vulnerable, impressionable age. It’s not a job you can quit overnight or walk away from and he doesn’t want Paige (Holly Taylor) to have to do the many awful things that he has to do in order to stay alive. He’s absolutely immovable in that respect. Nothing on God’s green earth could make him acquiesce to the fact that she should join the KGB.
Why is Paige is becoming so heavily involved with the church Bible study group?
Matthew Rhys: Phillip and Elizabeth are killing people and having sex with them for intelligence but ultimately it’s a communal, supportive group that has a strong belief, which is the same, but there’s no risk of being killed or hurt or imprisoned as a direct result of your job. I think there’s great responsibility, there’s great guilt, for Philip and Elizabeth when she joined the church. They’ve been absent parents in their children’s lives up until this point, and it’s a very real reason why she’s sort of sought that support and that comfort from a group elsewhere. I think children tend to find the rebellion of the opposition of what their parents want. For them, it was the church. In a couple years she might say, “That wasn’t for me,” and then you know, no harm done whereas I’m sure to join the KGB or anything related in that sense, that’s it. Once you’re in, that’s it. There’s no turning back.
Philip is forced to seduce a girl Paige’s age in the line of work. Yikes.
Matthew Rhys: As conflicted as he is, because he’s deeply, deeply upset by the mandates of this particular operation, I think he finds it incredibly disturbing for the simple reason that he does have a child the same age, but it reiterates the fact that this girl is, just purely by association being the daughter of a CIA, she’s put in harm’s way by people like him.
Describe your partnership on the show with Keri as Elizabeth.
Matthew Rhys Their relationship and life together is so complex that it’s gymnastic in a way that it can leap from something incredibly domestic as to do with the kids’ school and then to do with a mission and then the killing or disposing of a body. They jump these huge caverns, these leaps, varied and often and that’s true of their emotional life. Also, they only have each other in this situation. There’s no one else they could turn to. There’s no one else who can empathize or sympathize like the other one can. Therefore, in that respect, they’re sort of beholden and dependent on each other. It makes for this amazing relationship whereby they need each other, but they antagonize each other enormously and they fight and they’re poles apart at times, but ultimately, knowing that they absolutely will always need each other, so it makes for incredibly interesting play. What happens in those moments whereby their life is so extreme, whereby they have to do these things like the scene you’ve referenced, it’s only, I think in their relationship, and only their relationship that can happen when it becomes something else. It almost becomes this gruesome thing, becomes almost an act of love, and therefore, something incredibly sensual to the two of them, if that makes sense.
Phillip and Elizabeth have done really bad things in the line of work. Where would they draw the line?
Matthew Rhys It was pretty tough for Philip to agree to sort of follow-on with the operation and the seduction of this 15-year-old. If for some reason there was an order to come through to harm or terminate a minor, then I would imagine that would be something that he probably wouldn’t carry out.
We don’t really get a glimpse of Philip’s early life. Do you personally have a backstory for him?
Matthew Rhys I do have a backstory for it, which helps me. I create my world for Philip. God willing, if we do get a fourth season then maybe we’ll see some of Philip’s more miss-spent psychedelic days.
Are there elements of yourself in Phillip?
Matthew Rhys I’ve always appraised any character I approach with the characteristics built up of myself. I’m always interested in the truth of the character and the way I bring a truth to the character to make him, I hate to say, but it’s your own makeup that you bring to the character. With television writing, as the first season unfolds, writers tend to write to your own characteristics. When things evolve, naturally they see the family orientation and the rest of it, Philip’s humanity. I like to think that those are characteristics that I share heavily with him, the same kind of hatred of the deaths that happen. There’s a lot of me in Philip.
Philip seems to have sex more often than anyone else on TV!
Matthew Rhys That’s based on my life!
As an actor, though, is it ever easy shooting sex scenes?
Matthew Rhys No. It never gets comfortable. It never gets to a point where you go, “Oh, this is normal, this is natural,” you’re simulating sex with 40 of your closest friends. It’s bizarre, the random bizarreness of it. Then it’s magnified when you have to do the gymnastics of the Kama Sutra as well. It’s never – I’d answer with never. It’s not close to a place where I can go, “Oh, great, another sex scene. That will be normal.” We did suffer for (the Kama Sutra stuff). There was a lot of pulled tendons and cramping because you’re on one foot trying to balance basically.
Do you think it’s more likely that Phillip and Elizabeth will eventually be captured and killed or defect?
Matthew Rhys My hope is that they do defect. Philip mentioned that in the first episode of the first season. I think that’s something that remained with him very closely until now and that’s really the absolute only way he could guarantee the safe future of his children. To me, I would love to see them defect. There would have to be sort of unmitigated sets of circumstances whereby it would be a deal that if they didn’t they would go to prison for the rest of their lives, the kids would be put in a foster home, or that they could become double agents. Then it begs the question, does Elizabeth then become a triple agent? Story-wise dramaturgically, I think it offers an enormous amount.
So you are pretty happy in this role?
Matthew Rhys This was my dream role. As a sort of box ticker for actors, I don’t think you could get better than this. It’s been a real dream. As I said, the layering, the complexity of it keeps getting deeper and more varied. There’s no danger at all of it ever becoming dull or repetitive. It’s incredibly challenging and dynamic. It’s everything you want or ever wanted to do in one part.
The Americans – Season Three Premieres Wednesday, January 28th at 10:00 p.m. EST on FX
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