Debuting on January 30th, the new FX new series, The Americans, stars Matthew Rhys (Brothers and Sisters) and Keri Russell (Felicity) as Phillip and Elizabeth, KGB spies living deep undercover in the United States in 1981 – in the midst of the Cold War.
At the TCA (Television Critics Association) press tour today, The Americans’ creator Joe Weisberg was asked if viewers are being asked to root for the enemy, as it were, and he replied, “I think that is one of the big questions of the series, and I think we would all very much like both for Philip and Elizabeth to have a happy, healthy marriage that goes on for a long time. From the start, it’s going to have a lot of ups and downs like most of the marriages that we’re all familiar with. And then in the Cold War, although it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to, we want you to root for the KGB.” He acknowledged, “They’re going to try and undermine the U.S. government. They’re going to try to have the Soviet Union win in the Cold War. We know that’s not going to work out too well for them.” Quipped Russell, “We will rewrite history!”
However, executive producer Joel Fields noted that there’s also a big part of the show set at the FBI, with US agents attempting to find exactly the kind of spies that Elizabeth and Phillip are and, “The hope is you’ll root for them too. What’s great about what Joe created is it’s a show about marriage, and the marriage is an allegory for international relations. So you kind of root for where you are, we hope, emotionally in the scenes.”
Weisberg is a former CIA agent, and there were indeed deep cover agents who infiltrated the US who influenced this story, with Weisberg noting, “They played an important part in penetrating the Manhattan Project and getting the plans for the atom bomb from the United States. We don’t know everything about what they did, but they were always out there.” While in real life, they may not have had the perfect accent of The Americans, “they did live among us” and “One was getting very close to someone in the president’s cabinet.”
The project that would become The Americans got started in 2010, when the then-current real-life Russian spy scandal caused DreamWorks to ask Weisberg if he’d be interested in developing a series based on that idea. He recalled that he wasn’t initially interested, until he thought about setting it during the Cold War. Justified’s creator, Graham Yost, serves as an executive producer on The Americans and said, “As soon as I heard the pitch, 1981, I went, ‘That’s it. That’s the way to do it’ If anyone else tries to do this Russian spy story and they don’t set it in 1981, they’re not getting the show on the air.”
Elizabeth is portrayed as the far stauncher member of this spy couple. She and Phillip, as part of their cover, have two children together – who are unaware of their parents identity – and she tells Phillip she is concerned they’ll grow up to be decadent Americans.
Asked to elaborate on how you get a US audience to relate to this, Field said, “You know, we actually talk a lot about this question, about the question of values. And part what we’re trying to explore is it’s easy to talk about rooting for the Soviets or rooting for the Americans in terms of that big sense of two countries who are out to destroy each other at the time, but there really were two very competing value systems, and there’s no question that repressive socialism failed in the Soviet Union. It failed in the Cold War, and it’s also failed around the world. But unbridled consumption hasn’t necessarily led to great satisfaction on the part of hordes and hordes of people. And part of what we’ve been struggling with is how do we express that dramatically through these characters? That starts to answer to the question.”
Weisberg noted that when it came to the kids, “The cover of the parents ultimately can only go so far. They can withstand a lot of scrutiny. But Philip and Elizabeth could never, for example, try to join the CIA. The background check that would entail, their cover would not survive that background check. But Paige and Henry’s cover, if you want to call it that, would survive that. So theoretically, it is possible, and the KGB hoped for this with the actual illegals, is that the children could eventually possibly join the CIA and things like that. So you may want to eventually turn your own kids one day.”
While based around fictional characters, The Americans will incorporate real life events. The series begins just after Ronald Reagan has been inaugurated as president and Weisberg noted, “The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan took place just 60 days after he was inaugurated, so we’ve got that to deal with and that’s going to be a big event in their lives, because their whole job is to be in the United States, trying to deal with things like that. We’ve got to make sure they didn’t do it, by the way, but it turns out they didn’t do it, I’m happy to report. So you’ve got your real events. And then you’ve got the secret history of clandestine activity during the Cold War, some of which is known and some of which isn’t. For example, when Al Haig in that same famous event said, ‘I’m in charge here,’ as we were looking into that, we discovered that one thing that actually happened was he got a copy of the nuclear football. He didn’t just say, ‘I’m in charge.’ He went to his people and said, ‘If I’m going to be in charge, I have to make sure I can launch nuclear missiles.’ That’s terrifying and extremely relevant to Philip and Elizabeth whose country is in a kind of danger it’s probably never been in for 24 hours and they find out about it. So that’s a true event for us to deal with.”
It’s clear that Phillip is more enamored of America than his wife and more curious about the possibility of the lie they’re living becoming a reality. As Fields put it, “You’ve got two people with very strong, different ideologies. And I think part of what is being explored here is where is your commitment: To each other, to your nation, to your family?”
Said Weisberg, “We thought a lot about who was going to be the more stalwart, tried and true KGB patriot. And I think it’s worth remembering that we always saw it through the lens of — think of it like you’re Americans behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union, that this is an admirable quality. This is the American who is never going to waiver from supporting America, no matter what kind of pressure is on them, so this is a great quality in Elizabeth in so many ways. And we ran it back and forth with ‘Should it be the husband, should it be the wife?’ And something about it seemed a little kind of fresher and more powerful if it was Elizabeth.”
As for what it was like playing against Russell, playing such a tough and hardened character, Rhys cracked, “She scares the s**t out of me!”
Referencing a scene where Elizabeth deals with a foe, Rhys noted of Russell, “Her dance background lent itself perfectly to kicking men’s heads through walls.”
When it came to doing a scene like that, Russell remarked, “It’s pretty hard core. I just had to shut the world out and just do it. You know, that’s kind of the cool part of this job is experiencing that kind of masculine aggression.”
The Americans premieres Wednesday, January 30th on FX.