Think it's a tough sell to get viewers to watch a Cold War drama in which we're supposed to not only sympathize with but also root for a pair of undercover KGB spies living in America?
Consider this: the spies are played by beloved "Felicity" alum Keri Russell and another fan favorite, "Brothers & Sisters" star Matthew Rhys. The duo play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, who have been living in the United States for about 15 years, raising two children and posing as a happily married couple living in the burbs of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s.
Ronald Reagan has just been elected president, and the Cold War is escalating, which is half the drama; the other half revolves around the Jennings's KGB-arranged marriage, which is slowly becoming a genuine marriage as the season unfolds.
Rhys talked to Yahoo! TV about playing a Russian-spy daddy and hubby who's ready and willing to pledge his allegiance to America (and to his marriage), about his chemistry with co-star Russell and about how Phillip and Elizabeth's Facebook status (had Facebook existed in the '80s) would definitely be "It's complicated."
What drew you more to the show: the action and the spy side of it, or the complicated relationship and marriage between Elizabeth and Phillip?
[The former] was the greater draw for me. I'd never seen a concept or a premise whereby you have these people who have been following their orders in basically an arranged marriage. When we meet them for the first time in the first episode, those parameters, those boundaries are changing. And then, on top of that, they're coming from two incredibly differing political points of view, which just adds this other layer of conflict on top of it. You have no idea how the relationship will work itself out, how they'll figure it out.
So you've got this complex, conflicted relationship, the action, the disguises, the multiple personalities they play ... it's everything you want. Sort of an actor's dream.
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Did you think it would be fun or challenging to play a character we might not have liked? They're Russian spies, pretending to be Americans, spying on Americans, and helping their country plot against America.
Yes, definitely. You're presented immediately with the premise that, you know, he's the bad guy. But then you find yourself rooting for someone you potentially shouldn't. I think the beauty of the writing comes in here and makes [Phillip and Elizabeth] so human. Their problems are universal, in a way, and that makes you empathize with them.
Phillip also really embraces life in America; he genuinely likes living here. How much does that factor in making him a likable character?
I would say there's an element that will side with Phillip for that reason. He wants to defect early on, not only because he's fallen in love with a more possibly materialistic or capitalistic element of the American way of life, but I think also because he's realized the lifestyle, the life that they're leading as spies, is unsustainable. Now that they have children, if [he and Elizabeth] are caught, their future would be pretty bad. I think his greater motivation is securing his family's safety, really. I think ultimately that's what he wants to do. He wants to secure them and to enjoy the life they've made for themselves.
It's not just the material things, the niceties of his life in America, but it's also his family's future.
Absolutely. I think at his heart, that's his motivation for everything, [wanting to defect] and the fact that he is having real feelings for Elizabeth. He's an old romantic.
You and Keri have great chemistry, which isn't always a given. Was it instant?
It always is in those moments. They have this terrible term in the business called a 'chemistry read,' where you're brought in to see how you get on with whomever you're going to be playing opposite. It's one of those strange, intangible, mercurial things you can never quite define. It either clicks or you don't. Because basically, you know, chemistry ... you're given 20 minutes to try and prove to [everyone] that you have a chemistry. It's impossible to work on. Either it clicks or it doesn't. I was just incredibly lucky that it did with Keri.
The show is set in the early 1980s. It's one thing to do a movie set in a different time period, but to do a series ... is it a factor for you?
I don't find it to be a factor. It's a period I grew up in, so I'm quite comfortable with it. I think it lends itself to our show beautifully in that the simplicity of the technology then makes for some greater human ingenuity. It's more interesting to watch. It is always strange to me, though, when the young actors on set are asking us what it was like back in the '80s. (Laughs)
The cast for "The Americans" is much smaller than the cast on "Brothers & Sisters," and you and Keri are very much the focus. Obviously, your workload must be much, much bigger. Are you enjoying that?
Yeah, I am, actually. I absolutely loved my time at "Brothers & Sisters," what I learned and everything that went with it. It was an incredibly formative time for me. Being in that kind of ensemble, it really was ... that learning curve was enormous for me. It stood me in good stead for something like this, where there's a little more focus.
Were you looking to do another series?
Not specifically, no. I'm happy just to go where the work is, really. But when this script came along, I was bowled over by the pilot. I would have sold an arm to do it.
Without spoiling anything major, how will we see Phillip and Elizabeth evolve throughout this first season?
I think the beauty of [their relationship] is that the roller coaster that they will embark on, that we actually know is coming. Because of what Phillip says in the first episode -- that, yes, he does want to defect -- and we see for the first time these feelings for them opening up, really, it's an incredibly difficult ride for them for the first season. It's not clear-cut. They're coming from two different political standpoints. It's a very difficult ride for them.
So their relationship will deepen, but his feelings about defecting don't necessarily change because of that?
"The Americans" producer Joe Weisberg actually worked for the CIA. It's probably a little tricky, given security issues, but has he been able to share much with you about his experience?
He has. He's amazing. He told me this crazy story the other day. What do you call that test when they're hooked up? It's a lie detector? I can't remember. One of the techs must have told me. But this was when [Joe] was hooked up to this machine, this test, and he was asked a question that he had to respond yes or no to, and it was like, "I joined the CIA in order to research the intelligence agency so that I can write about it after." He said it never occurred to him until that moment. (Laughs) And he's like, "Oh, wow." And then he went into a panic. He was like, "I wonder if they can tell that when I'm lying?" It's all great. Joe has to submit his scripts to the CIA; he's legally obligated to, since he worked with them.
But, yes, he's been good with Keri and me. It's kind of amazing. He brings us into the office and he's like, "OK, I'm going to show you some countersurveillance techniques," and things like that. You don't often get to be on a show where you get that kind of insight.
You feel like you're getting the real spy experience?
Absolutely. There are several times where there's an element that you might think is a little far-fetched or whatever. You say to Joe, "I'm not really sure this would happen." He kind of looks at you and goes, "It did happen." (Laughing) You go, "Oh, wow. I'll shut up then."
Watch a preview clip of tonight's episode:
"The Americans" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.
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- Keri Russell