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TBI Interview: The Americans

The Americans is an upcoming spy drama for US cable network FX. The show, which stars Brothers and Sisters’ Matthew Rhys and Felicity’s Keri Russell, is Fox’s hot cable drama for MIPCOM, where the first episode will premiere.

Spy dramas are very on trend right now so what’s the main difference between The Americans and rival espionage series? The Americans is the only one written by a former spy. It was created by former CIA agent turned television writer Joe Weisberg and follows two Russian spies placed in deep cover in Washington, DC during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. The show is executive produced by Justified’s Graham Yost.

How did The Americans come about?

A couple of years ago there were a couple of deep cover Russian intelligence spies that were around in the United States and found by FBI. We were a little bit shocked. We knew that the KGB still spied but we were surprised that they were running the kind of operation that spied on ordinary Americans and everyday citizens and deep cover was still operating. We thought that was some Cold War, 1950s style espionage that once the Cold War had ended wouldn’t be taking place.

I was working in TV [on Falling Skies] and got a call asking if I’d be interested in developing a TV series based on that idea. I thought about it for a while and thought if I did something based during the Cold War that would be an interesting idea.

It isn’t that story but it was inspired by it and I came up with a couple of married characters that were two Russians that were recruited when they were very young back in the Soviet Union and had a kind of arranged marriage and sent in their early 20s to the US with deep covers and pretend to be married and have kids and to infiltrate American society.

When our story picks up, they’ve been married for 15 years and have two kids and they live outside Washington DC in Falls Church, Virginia and are trying to work against targets in nation’s capital and they are ruthless and effective spies but if you met on street you wouldn’t know that you weren’t meeting two ordinary American citizens that are travel agents.

Why did you set the show in the 1980s?

It’s great going back to that period. The Reagan era – I was 15 in 1980 – it was such an interesting time politically and culturally. It didn’t look that different; the clothes look the same but things felt different and it was such a crazy time. People talk about how divided America is politically now, but boy, did it feel divided under Reagan.

I was just remembering all of those touchstones when Reagan was talking about the Evil Empire and Nicaragua and the war in Afghanistan. It’s a great era to write about; it’s so vibrant.

You previously worked at the CIA. How did you become a TV writer?

I worked at CIA for a couple of years in early 90s as Soviet Union was in its death throes. I did a little bit of work in the part of the agency that dealt with the Soviet Union. I remember when I was working there, there were a few senior officers that when the Soviet Union was about to collapse, were saying this is the time to stick it to the KGB.

I was always a writer; but I never thought I would do it professionally. I was afraid to try and pursue it as a career. When you join the CIA they ask you questions that you have to tell the truth because they give you a polygraph and one of the questions is are you joining the CIA so you can write about it. They don’t want anybody in who is just looking for material.

I got very lucky because that’s not why I was joining the CIA and never intended to write about. Even after I left, I felt I would never talk about it, I would be betraying my friends. You’re technically allowed to write about it if you submit everything to them for review. Eventually I got over that and I had lots of great material to write about, although I do have to submit it all to the CIA.

I wrote a couple of novels and my second novel was a spy novel and that was my bridge into television because I got some attention from Hollywood on this novel and then as a result I wrote a TV pilot about a spy in Bulgaria. That never got made, but that’s how I ended up writing on Falling Skies and after that I ended up writing The Americans.

Has your CIA experience helped in television terms?

It’s interesting; I think a lot about how it helps me and I think the last show I wrote I don’t think could have been written by someone who hasn’t worked at the CIA, so much of it was filled with detail of the trade and craft.

The Americans is different, you could have dreamed up this show without working at the CIA. At the same time, there’s something about being a part of that culture that things twist your imagination in certain ways. Something about that pushed my imagination about being interested about intelligence officers and their families. It’s about what’s it’s really like about being a spy with a family. I’d like to think the emotion of the show has a lot to do with my experiences.

Did you consider any international elements while you were writing it?

Fox talks a lot about the international business and how it’s become very dependent of international markets for success. Particularly with cable dramas, which are made on a tight budget, whether or not they succeed overseas is can almost be make or break factor on whether your show will make it.

Could you envisage a Russian sale?

I wondered about that a lot. Whether or not this will translate for a Russian audience. I can’t figure out whether this will make sense and be interesting to them.

You previously worked on a pilot called Central with Paul Greengrass. Is that correct?

Before this was ordered I was working on Central. It’s in a holding pattern right now. It’s an active pilot about CIA HQ about a group of young people working there. It could get going any moment now. We started it last year but it didn’t get finished but it might be a midseason. I’m not sure what slot it might fall into.