Filed in Articles & Interviews The Americans

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys Play Spies in Our Midst

Current events notwithstanding, the Cold War is in full swing on “The Americans,” FX’s Reagan-era spy drama.

The television series, filmed in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood and on-location throughout New York, follows two K.G.B. agents posing as an American couple in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, who ferret out U.S. secrets while running a travel agency and raising two children.

As it inches toward the Season Two midpoint, the show has sharpened its focus on the nebulous balance between espionage and domesticity.

Before “The Americans,” Ms. Russell, 38 years old, was best known for playing the title character in the college TV drama “Felicity.” Mr. Rhys, 39, is from Wales, and has become adept at concealing his accent in both this role and his former one, as Kevin Walker on the ABC series “Brothers and Sisters,” which ended in 2011.

Taking a break at the Russian Tea Room, the two actors discussed the show’s depiction of how spies raise children and filming through New York’s never-ending winter. Edited excerpts follow.

The show is set in the early 1980s. What were you doing then and were you aware of the Cold War?

Mr. Rhys: Massively. We had these little cartoon books in Britain called “When the Wind Blows,” about nuclear fallout and what you’re meant to do. I was 7 or 8, that dangerous age where you’re aware that there’s this dangerous thing called the Front, or the Cold Front, and you go, is that the end of the street? Where is that? You have no concept.

Ms. Russell: I definitely don’t remember little books about nuclear war. I was running around unaware. I was in my swimsuit in somebody else’s pool where my parents didn’t care where I was.

How did you prepare to play a Soviet spy?

Ms. Russell: I got a few biographies about Putin. I was curious about his childhood. I was curious what creates such a militant idea. But as much as [“The Americans”] is “spy” and historic, I do take the other path. I always look for the humanity. Wrong or right, that’s my way in.

Elizabeth and Philip have a stronger emotional connection this season. Is this an advantage or vulnerability?

Ms. Russell: It doesn’t make them as strong, as soldiers. I absolutely think it complicates things—in a good way.

Philip is particularly concerned about the kids, Paige and Henry. Is he pushing for defection?

Mr. Rhys: It’s certainly a question that’s been deep in his mind. He just wants to secure their future. I think he’s hoping she can go, “OK, this is too much now.” Elizabeth’s never one who’d be swayed. She has to get there herself.

What do you think about the steamy sex scenes, some with each other, others with characters you’re duping for Mother Russia?

Ms. Russell: It’s interesting and weird, and it feels new to me. Now that they are much more connected, she’s questioning his sexuality with other people. Elizabeth is like, “How are you with her?” and asks him to be like that. That’s when I like the show the most, when it’s dealing with the intricate little weird ways we relate within a relationship.

So you prefer the personal elements over the spy action?

Ms. Russell: I do. Rather than the dead drops, that’s the art I like.

Mr. Rhys: You spot the mess of humanity. It’s the cracks. That’s the stuff you get to sink your teeth into.

Ms. Russell: I love that this whole season has been about Paige and Elizabeth doing this mother-daughter dance. There’s this bad-ass spy who’s kicking people’s asses and sleeping with people but is just completely undone by a teenager at home.

You film on location throughout New York. Did this winter’s extreme weather affect shooting?

Ms. Russell: We were f— freezing! Fifteen degrees outside! I’m like, “Am I gonna be wearing a puffy coat?” They’re like, “Everyone else will be wearing a puffy coat. You’re going to be wearing a little leatherette.” It was a bad winter. [Mr. Rhys] shot outside during the winter vortex.

Mr. Rhys: We had to go inside, actually. It was an outside scene, and they said, “OK, we’ll shoot it in a car.” We were fine. We were in a very warm car.

You just wrapped production? Any anecdotes?

Mr. Rhys: The schedule is so ridiculous. The studios have their new M.O.’s about how long it should take to shoot 52 minutes of television. It’s near impossible. Sadly, it doesn’t allow for many anecdotes. We watched the gag reel at the wrap party, and there was nothing to it. For The Wall Street Journal, that’s my fiscal anecdote. Subheading: “The Sad Demise of the On-Set Anecdote.”