‘The Americans’: Playing a foreigner natural for Matthew Rhys
JIM SLOTEK, QMI AGENCY
The Americans’ Matthew Rhys admits to having wrestled with an identity crisis lately.
In the FX series, which begins its second season Wednesday, the Welsh-born actor plays a Russian who’s pretended to be an American family man for 16 years until the Reagan era.
“I considered the task and said, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore!’” Rhys says with a laugh. “Then I realized I had to simplify. I’d been thinking about what it meant to be a Russian playing an American and then it got so confused, and I thought, ‘I did a TV show a while back called Brothers And Sisters (with Sally Field) when I was, in fact, a foreigner pretending to be an American.’
“And that’s the equation that stuck with me. Whether you’re talking Russian or Welsh, I’m a foreigner pretending to be an American.”
Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Rhys and Keri Russell) are not your typical suburbanites. They moonlight surveilling, seducing, planting bugs and moles in the recesses of the U.S. government, and even assassinating (sometimes without official permission of their Soviet bosses). All under the nose of the FBI agent next door, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), and their two kids – all of whom were becoming suspicious as the debut season ended.
“To me, it’s about a marriage,” Rhys says. “It’s a marriage with a phenomenal amount of baggage. But to me it remains a show about a relationship with a drop of espionage. That’s what the attraction always was to me, how that relationship would unfold.”
Elizabeth, outwardly at least, is still faithful to Mother Russia. But Phillip has embraced his role as a real American so well, his wife repeatedly questions his loyalty. (Though when required, it was as if a switch went on in both their brains, and they went about their duty with almost sociopathic deliberation).
“It’s a great dramaturgical device,” Rhys says. “Phillip realizes there is no longevity to the life they lead. They’re not going to return to Russia with the kids to live in a Communist paradise. He wants to see his children raised as Americans. He wants to secure their futures.
“As for Elizabeth, there’s an element that if she doesn’t follow through, then all the hardships have been in vain. She has to (remain a faithful Soviet), otherwise what’s the point of all of it? If there’s no belief what else is there?”
Of course, it’s not every marriage that has to deal with infidelity as part of their jobs. In Phillips’ case, the season even ended with him, under the fake identity of “Clark,” marrying a hapless, besotted FBI secretary named Martha, willing to jeopardize her job and (unwittingly) the safety of her co-workers for love.
I suggest to Rhys that moments like these are when The Americans is at its most entertaining – and belief-stretching
“You know what’s bizarre?” he says. “The most outrageous things in the script invariably turn out to be real. That was a huge ambitious project of the KGB, to have operatives marry low-level employees of the CIA and FBI. The biggest flight of fancy is reality.”
Keri Russell comfortable with using sexuality as a weapon on ‘The Americans’
BILL HARRIS, QMI Agency
Keri Russell's character in The Americans isn't shy about using sex as a weapon.
But that's what spies do, right? They use everything as a weapon. Guns, boobs, whatever they've got.
In The Americans, which returns for its second season Wednesday, Feb. 26 on FX Canada, Russell and Matthew Rhys star as Soviet spies living in the United States in the 1980s, posing as a normal American married couple. Their commitment to the cause of the homeland can be somewhat liberating sexually, if you know what I mean, and as an actress Russell finds that emotionally liberating, too.
“Well, the good thing about the sexuality in the show, at least where I'm coming at it from, is there is a gift in it not having to be (romantic),” Russell said. “It's not this big sweeping romantic movie where you have to be so in love and so beautiful and so sexy.
“(In The Americans) you're usually using the sexuality, at least in the spy end of it, to get something. So there is kind of a freedom in that. It's more direct. (Romantic movie love) is kind of messier. But I don't know. (Rhys) should talk about it, because he has the most sex on the show.”
Hmmm, so it seems that even pretend wives know how to keep score.