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Q&A: ‘The Americans’ Star Keri Russell on Playing the Spy Next Door

‘I love the idea of this suburban mom giving some dude a blow job in a hotel room and then packing school lunches’

Now that Abu Nazir is dead and Nicholas Brody is wandering around Quebec at least until September, viewers need some new duplicitous characters to shake up our TV dramas, preferably ones operating on U.S. soil. The Americans, a Homeland-meets-The Wonder Years thriller premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX, gives us Elizabeth Jennings, mom, homemaker – and KGB spy. A resolute Soviet officer living in 1981 Washington, D.C., Elizabeth has so successfully infiltrated Beltway suburbia with her impeccable accent and way around a brownie pan, even her FBI agent neighbor has no idea he’s sleeping one door down from the enemy.

Keri Russell, making a triumphant return to television after a string of successful film credits (Waitress, Mission: Impossible III and the upcoming Austenland, which recently premiered at Sundance), so deftly embodies the ruthless, ice-cold Elizabeth that from her first scene you’ll be going, “Felicity who?” Russell checked in with us recently from Brooklyn, where The Americans is filmed (“We’re about to start episode six”), to chat about going from coed to comrade.

What attracted you to the role of Elizabeth Jennings?
I just thought the show has so many different elements that I think are compelling. Most interesting to me is really just this relationship [with husband and fellow KGB spy, Philip, played by Matthew Rhys]. I love the idea that it was this arranged marriage – that you see very clearly that he obviously is in love with her, but is she in love with him? Does she just consider him a partner? How much do they talk about that with each other? I like the intricacies of all of that stuff. I like the idea that she’s the colder of the two, that he is just more easy with people and charming and is more comfortable in his space – and she’s so prickly at times and maybe not the best mom. I mean, she loves her kids, but I think it’s cool that she’s not quite great at all of it yet, but is so committed and good at her job. So all of those elements are great as pieces, and then when you bring them together with the spy stuff, which is also intriguing and fun and exciting, I think it has a lot going for it.

Speaking of the prickly side, aside from a small flashback in the pilot, there’s not much that makes Elizabeth sympathetic to audiences. Since most people know you for innocuous characters like Felicity Porter, was playing someone who wasn’t easily likable appealing to you?
Yeah. I think [FX president] John Landgraf, that was part of his casting me, because [Elizabeth] is unsympathetic in a lot of ways, so how do you get in there to like her? Obviously she has reasons, but I think that was part of it – to make her someone that you instinctively think that you like already [laughs], doing these terrible things. So it was compelling to me for that reason, but also more than just that she’s unsympathetic. I think people are a mystery to us and it’s impossible to know someone truly, even your spouse, and I love the idea of this suburban mom giving some dude a blow job in a hotel room and then packing school lunches. I think especially mothers, we have this idea of them, but you don’t really know what makes someone tick or what’s going on in their private fantasy life. I like that she’s so adventurous and confident sexually outside of her marriage, and then when there’s a real intimacy [with her husband], she’s so cold. There’s somewhere to go with that.

Philip is already expressing a desire to defect to the U.S., but despite having lived as an American for 16 years, Elizabeth remains strong in her resolve to continue their mission. Will we get more of a backstory as to what makes her so fiercely loyal to the Soviet Union?
Yes, definitely. You really get more of the insight into what makes her tick and what her past has been. We all know those people, especially in New York, who have left their home country and are so, “It was perfect there, it was the best there.” You’re like, “Really? Was it the best? Because then why are you here?” And I think it’s easy to make things so great in your memory, but I also think it’s hard for Americans to get in that mindset. Russians, they have a real passion for the common good, and I think Elizabeth does really come from that place. And more than that, she’s a good soldier. She wants to do a good job and as much as she’s not a warm mom at some turns, by being the best spy she can be she is being a good mom. Because if she falters at all, she’ll be captured and she’ll be taken from her children. One could argue that Philip, because he’s a little soft, could endanger his whole family.

In the pilot, during the flashback when Elizabeth first arrives in the U.S., she says, “There’s a weakness in the people, I can feel it.” Do you think she still believes that after 16 years in this country?
It’s interesting . . . I just read the sixth episode, so we’re still figuring it out, but where I’m living with it now is I sometimes think that people who are so black and white about things and believe something so ardently and can’t have any discussion about it, there are obvious holes in there for them. Because if you were confident enough, you could talk about it freely. But she is so absolute in what she believes. What I have to figure out for myself is that, from such a young age, she’s given everything to [the KGB]. They took her sexuality – she’s never been in a relationship that she’s chosen for herself – and her children, in a way, are [the KGB’s]. I feel like for her to admit defeat now would be to give up her whole life. For Philip to say, “Let’s just through our hands up now,” it’s like, “WHAT? I’ve given up everything! I can’t back down now! How dare you?”

How did your memories of growing up in the Cold War Eighties affect how you approached your character?
Well, certainly I remember the pop culture elements, like how every bad guy in a movie had a Russian accent. But the main thing is how I felt like, as a culture, we were so patriotic in this blind, innocent way. We were so proud to be Americans. Not that we’re not proud now – it’s just a different, bigger, more adult feeling about it. We know a little more as the public about how we’re engaged in the world, and I think that’s what I draw on as being the Russian. Like, to look at this culture and go, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just so blindly loyal, they don’t know, they’re not living in the world. They’re children.” I feel like that’s an easy place to come from, because I feel like people do think that about Americans.

Real quick: What are your thoughts on [Felicity co-creator] J.J. Abrams directing the new Star Wars installment? Will we see you playing Princess Leia?
I just heard about it! Heck, yeah! I wanna be Leia! No, I would do anything for that guy. I’ll do craft services if he asks me to.