Keri Russell still has great hair, but playing the deadly Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings on “The Americans,” she has come a long way from the shy college coed she played on “Felicity” 15 years ago. But unlike either of the tightly wound characters on “The Americans” (FX), Russell is relaxed and personable.
Still, the actress, 37, does have one thing in common with Elizabeth — being the mother of two kids. Russell’s are 6 and 2 years old; Elizabeth’s are 14-year-old Paige (Holly Taylor) and 11-year-old Henry (Keidrich Sellati).
“What’s fun about the show is that Elizabeth goes on all these spy missions, and then she’s in the car flipping out like a normal mom about something that her 14-year-old girl is doing,” Russell says.
This strange dynamic has made “The Americans” a hit among fans and a critical success. The show has received two Emmy nominations and was named best new program by the Television Critics Association.
When the series launched its second season Feb. 26, the storyline had reached the year 1981, and Elizabeth and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys) — KGB sleeper agents for 15 years who pose as travel agents in the Washington, D.C., area — have barely escaped being caught in an FBI trap. Now the couple is once again juggling parental duties with espionage — involving assassinations, sex and disguises.
“If last year was a metaphor on marriage, this year is a metaphor on family,” Russell says. “Philip and Elizabeth (started) the season with a new kind of unified front with each other. Certainly Elizabeth hasn’t been engaged emotionally before, and I think she has decided this is where she wants to be.”
When we met the Jenningses last season, their “marriage” was a ploy to strengthen their cover. But circumstances gradually forced them to reexamine the value of the life they’d built together and weigh it against their allegiance to Mother Russia.
The series is set amid the Cold War tensions of the Reagan era, which Russell herself barely recalls. “I mostly remember the America of the ’80s (in terms of) the songs of Bruce Springsteen,” she says. “And I definitely remember the bad guys in all the films being either Russian or East German.”
By the early ’90s when she was 15, Russell was a cast member on the Disney Channel’s “All New Mickey Mouse Club,” and after various TV and film roles she became a celebrity in J.J. Abrams’ 1998 hit “Felicity.”
A show-biz professional during her teen years, the actress took a year off after that series ended. “I had saved enough money to rent an apartment in New York,” she says. “I got to show up at my girlfriends’ birthday parties, got to go dancing and walk home in the snow. That saved me. I got interested in things, got to read books again and very slowly started working my way back to acting.”
But, Russell adds, she might not have come back at all, had celebrity then been like it is now with “all this extraneous stuff like clothing — especially for a girl (during the interview, she’s wearing white jeans and a black leather jacket) — and press stuff.”
Undoubtedly “The Americans” has brought demands from the media. And adding to them was Russell’s announcement in December that she had split from her husband of nearly seven years. Not long after the announcement, it was reported that she and Rhys were linked romantically, although neither has discussed that subject publicly. Last month’s GQ magazine featured Russell and Rhys in a sexy photo spread showing her in black lingerie.
Sex is the tricky part in the plot premise for “The Americans.” Even if Elizabeth and Philip come across as loving parents, their jobs require them to do anything for their country, including kill enemies and have sex with other people.
In the first episode of Season 2, Elizabeth was the bait in a “honey trap” sprung on an employee of Lockheed’s Skunk Works (then in Burbank, prior to the aircraft company’s 1995 merger with Martin Marietta), which was developing top-secret aircraft technology in the ’80s.
Meanwhile, Philip had a violent encounter with Afghan freedom fighters seeking funding in the United States after the Soviets invaded their country. Creaters of “The Americans” have done their homework, beyond just dressing Elizabeth in authentic Jordache jeans from that era.
Russell says it’s fun playing Elizabeth in her many disguises, but difficult sometimes during shooting to remember who she’s supposed to be on any given day. “With constant shifting relationships, sometimes we have to go in a room and sort it out,” she says. “That’s what’s so interesting.”
Russell, who makes cupcakes and does school drop-offs when not shooting for the show, is intrigued by a subtheme in the Season 2 scripts in which Elizabeth has trouble dealing with the teenage Paige, who’s “wearing lipstick all of a sudden.”
I remind Russell that she still has a few years before needing to worry about that sort of thing with her own kids. “I was a teenager, and I can imagine what’s in store,” she says.
I tell her, “I can’t imagine you were that bad.”
“You’d be surprised,” she says with a sly smile, “you’d be surprised.”