When she was 15 years old, Keri Russell was cast on the All-New Mickey Mouse Club. For the next three years, the fresh-faced youngster came of age alongside Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, forming the base of what could retroactively be described as the modern American pop culture landscape. All of which makes Russell’s latest foray into that culture so intriguing.
Twenty years after she landed America’s signature kids program, Russell is playing Elisabeth Jennings, a Cold War-era Washington D.C. Stepford wife who leads a double life as a KGB spy. As if to hammer the point home, the new FX series The Americans opens with Russell, best known as the soft-hearted Felicity in the romantic dramedy series of the same name, performing fellatio on an unsuspecting American target.
The Mickey Mouse Club, it certainly is not.
We caught up with Russell to discuss her return to dramatic television, memories of the Cold War and her most sexually graphic role to date.
Q: Your role in The Americans is a far departure from your previous work.
A: [The Americans] is so far from the standard network procedural that I thought, if nothing else, this was going to be interesting. Cable right now is such an exciting place to work and create so that was sort of why I was interested in it. The character also interested me. I like that she is sort of cold in some ways and that she is not the best mom. I think she will grow into becoming a better mom, but I think that is compelling to me and not something I normally get to do. Most importantly, the biggest interest point for me was the idea of this complicated marriage within the context of a spy world. To me, at its heart it’s really a show about a marriage in this very extreme situation. The spy stuff allows it to be very high stakes, but the marriage itself is fascinating. To be chosen for each other through this arranged marriage and then have this whole life together and just now really starting to choose each other interests me.
Q: Having been a so-called “American Sweetheart” for so many years, do you take a degree of pleasure playing an anti-American hero?
A: I think it’s cool. I think it’s interesting, I think it’s fun. I think it’s easy to kind of do the flip, to imagine we are Americans, and we are living in a different country and trying to protect America. You kind of sometimes do a mind flip. But I love it that the Russians are the good guys. I think cable is doing that story very well. The idea that the hero of the show is flawed and maybe not exactly what you expect.
Q: You were very young during the Cold War. What do you remember from that time period?
A: As a ten-year-old I loved Russia. Really my memory is more about the pop culture. I remember all the songs being Neil Diamond, and all the songs being about loving America and being so patriotic, and Born in the USA and all these patriotic songs. I also remember the movies. Growing up, you knew who the bad guy was because he had a Russian accent. That’s across the board; oh he’s the bad guy, he’s Russian. That was interesting to me that there was such a clear, defined enemy.
Q: Do you think your perception of that period of history has changed now that you are an adult?
A: I don’t know that my perception has changed of the eighties. The one thing that feels a little different to me is that it is a different time. In the United States, it feels different to me than the eighties. I think there is just a less innocent, blind patriotism than there was in the eighties. Even speaking about the pop culture, about that music and the films, it’s just a different conversation going on now. It’s just a bigger, more complicated conversation, the way we are in the world now, in a good way. That’s what feels different to me. I feel like there is much more transparency in our government and our press, and we know we want to know more of what’s going on, and that feels different to me.
Q: The show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, is a former CIA agent. How was your experience working with him?
A: The first time I had coffee with him, I made him sit for pretty much the entirety of our meeting and explain detail by detail about the vetting process of the CIA. I was just fascinated. How he got involved? What they asked him? What that process was like. And my favorite part of that story is that he was kind of in between jobs, and he was like, ‘What am I going to do? I think I want to work for the CIA.’ He looked up CIA in the phone book and called them. Literally, that is what happened. Obviously it’s a process that takes several years, but I just thought that was interesting. He is lovely and he is sort of new to film and television, I think in a great way. He is fresh and he is excited and maybe doesn’t know formulas and the limitations of things and has an incredible story to tell and I love him. I really like him a lot.
Q: Do you know how much his experience actually informed the show?
A: The show is definitely a fantasy. You know, he draws on his training but I don’t think he was in the CIA that long — maybe a couple of years after the training process. He knows so much of the lingo and the mechanics of the organization, but I think most of the show is fictionalized. We are able to ask him about certain things—the meanings of certain things and the way you handle certain assets that you’re recruiting or not recruiting, and you’re trying to just pry for information. There are just all different ways of handling people, mostly, in the spy world, and that’s what sort of what we talk about.
Q: The show has garnered a lot of comparisons to Homeland. Do you feel that’s fair?
A: The show has obvious similarities to Homeland, but I think the core difference is that The Americans is about a complicated marriage in the context of a spy world, versus Homeland, which is really based on the reality and the terror of this immediate moment and the threats surrounding the security of a country. I feel like our show is much more a story about a marriage.
Q: There are several scenes that are quite sexually graphic, notably your opening scene and your character’s rape flashback. Was that hard to shoot for you?
A: The rape scene wasn’t that hard to shoot, we did it pretty fast. It always helps when the actor is good and just kind of does it and we’re done. I love what it says about the character. It tells you so much about her and her introduction to sexuality and how that’s going to inform the rest of her life. For me, anyway, it forgives her for a lot of her behavior. For her coolness and her self-protective qualities, and I think it makes it more interesting. I like that she’s so cold and tangled up in her intimacy issues. I also like the juxtaposition of her being so outwardly sexual for her work. You know, giving guys blow jobs in hotel rooms and then not even be able to be warm or touch her husband, which is real intimacy.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX Canada