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The Americans: Keri Russell on Life as a KGB Spy in Suburbia

Keri Russell gained fame playing a quintessential girl next door type on J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ Felicity, which perhaps makes it all the more fun to see her subvert that image in FX’s new series, The Americans. This time, Russell is playing the girl next door… who is secretly a KGB spy working to help defeat America from within in the midst of the Cold War.

Russell stars as Elizabeth Jennings, a suburbanite living with her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and their two children in 1981 Washington, D.C. But Elizabeth and Phillip are in fact deep cover KGB operatives trained since their youth to play the part of the perfect Americans, while gaining information for their Soviet superiors, in any number of ways one might associate with a spy… All while maintaining their cover as a normal, friendly family to everyone in their life, including their oblivious children.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Russell to discuss her role on The Americans and her approach to this very intriguing character. Note that some spoilers follow for events that occur in the early scenes of The Americans pilot episode.

IGN TV: I remember when Alias was on and, thanks to the J.J. Abrams connection, people would joke, “Keri Russell should play a spy and fight Jennifer Garner!”
Keri Russell: I know, J.J. would always make that joke to me, too. I was like, “J.J., I’m not doing that.”

IGN: And then he did finally get you as a spy in Mission: Impossible III.
Russell: I know! He made me do it.

IGN: [Laughs] So, obviously, when you were actually offered the ongoing role of a spy, at this point, you could firmly say, “Okay, now I’m ready”?
Russell: “Now I’m ready to say yes!” Yes, the spy stuff is cool, but the part that’s interesting to me and the part I kept wrestling with and the part I kept replaying in my brain when I was thinking about taking it, was really just the marriage and how — I know its couched in the spy world in the 1980s and all this stuff — but the interesting thing for me to untangle is, what is this relationship for these people who have been chosen for each other? And what they’re doing… They’ve been living together for 15 years, but they didn’t choose each other. They’re trying to find a way to make it work, and they clearly have such opposing ideals about what this life should be. How do you find that? She is so closed off emotionally, compartmentalized, much more in the way a man does with sexuality. She so keeps him at a distance, and I think that endpoint in the pilot where this just this little opening, that interested me. I thought, “Oh, what is this going to be?” It could go so many different ways, and the minutia of that might be really fun. So that’s what interested me more.

IGN: It is such an interesting dynamic, like you said. They have been living this life for so long….
Russell: For a long time, yeah!

IGN: It’s especially notable because they have kids, which I actually didn’t know when I sat down to watch the pilot. I thought that was really cool because at this point you’re “living a lie,” but of course it then partially becomes reality, because they are in fact raising two children…
Russell: …And you’re dropping them off at school, you’re going to PTA meetings and you’re like, “You can’t do that!” The show has so many different elements. I don’t know which will rise to the top. We’re only shooting the fourth episode right now, so we’ll see. But it has so many components that are completely worthwhile and watchable. Even the neighbor moving in next door that Noah [Emmerich] plays. All of those elements are really interesting and so not just a basic procedural show. I think it has a lot of good stuff and potential, and we’ll see what happens.

IGN: What makes it fun about the whole 1980s/KGB thing is that I was thinking about the opening sequence and how we’re introduced to your character. It’s kind of a classic Cold War-era spy movie trope of the Russian temptress who uses her feminine wiles to get information. But then it’s like, okay, when she’s not doing that, what’s her life like?
Russell: Right! Wig off, goes home, makes sandwiches, just had to f**k some weird dude! Comes home, has to drop kids off at school, do the dishes, make brownies for the neighbors… Yeah, I know. To me, it isn’t just spies. Someone has this complete, full, other personal life outside of just the intimacy of this marriage, and what happens in all those moments? In her case, yes, she’s wearing these sexy outfits and giving this guy a blowjob in a hotel room, trading all these secrets… You don’t really know the other person, and you can’t really know what’s in their brain at every moment of their life. You can’t. And what that means for a relationship… I think that’s the interesting stuff.

IGN: As you mentioned, she obviously has a very different vibe from her husband. Do you think it really is that she’s just sort of able to compartmentalize more and just say, “Well, this is part of the job, and these are the things we do”?
Russell: I think he is just — which is instant from the first time you meet them in the pilot — he’s just much more accessible. He’s so much more in touch with his emotions and able to love her. I think, because she’s so closed and damaged in her own way, it is easier to compartmentalize. I think it’s interesting that she is such a sexual being, but not sexual in her own marriage and in being intimate with her own husband. And that makes sense to me. And it makes sense that she can really be a good soldier by doing that. To open yourself up to the vulnerability, in her mind, would make her vulnerable in that outside world, which is the world that really matters to her. So I guess that would be the journey. To watch the outside world of the work — which is so important to her — and the internal, self-acceptance world and love for her husband hopefully merging and finding a way to coexist.

IGN: As we meet her, she is much more of the hardline loyalist to the country of her birth and what the mission is. How hardcore do you feel she is in that? Right now, she’s kind of trying to rein him in from any wandering thoughts of “What if we actually just were an American family…”
Russell: Yeah, and I think that is such a betrayal when he says that. I think it’s the equivalent of saying, “I just f**ked your best friend, and I think I might run away with her.” It’s like, “What!? We have two kids! Are you f**king kidding me!? I’ve spent 15 f**king years — there’s no f**king way you’re going to do that!” I think it is such a betrayal. Also, I don’t know how much she is aware of it, but I think in her mind she’s given up everything. I do think she really believes it and believes in the cause, but she’s given up everything. They took her innocence from her, she’s never had a boyfriend before… Everything’s been decided. She’s done everything she’s supposed to do, and it has to work out, because if it doesn’t, everything was for nothing, you know? And I think people who are all-or-nothing have a little bit of that. When you’re not flexible, there’s a weakness there. There’s a vulnerability. He’s much more able to be open and hear and move and shift and things, which makes him so good at what he does. I think that will be her vulnerability, too, because she is so defiant about the one way. But there’ll be some stuff eking out a little bit, hopefully… Or no, it’s just the most boring character of all time. [Laughs]

IGN: [Laughs] She just never changes!
Russell: She never changes… Ever!

IGN: If there was any danger of her kids finding out the truth, how much of an impact do you think that would be on her?
Russell: I think the kids are what really cross those different circles; the outside circle and the intimate circle. I think the kids are huge. Because even though she’s not the best mom — she’s sort of a cold mom in a way — I think she loves them fiercely, and I think in coming episodes, there is a part of Phillip’s weakness that I think she feels is a huge threat to the kids. Because if he is found out, her kids… If they’re taken, who’s going to take care of the kids? And I think her being good at her job assures their safety, even though they’re being raised in a culture that she doesn’t subscribe to. I think the kids are hugely important. I think it’s very important that they don’t find out. Although, [series creator] Joe Weisberg’s said a few things, so we’ll see where it goes. They’re kids… They can’t find out! And that’s her fear, that they would feel so betrayed by everything.

IGN: In the two episodes we were sent, Margo Martindale’s not in them yet. She was so terrific on Justified. Can you talk a bit about her character?
Russell: Oh, Margo. She’s so great! Oh my God, she’s amazing! My fantasy dream sequence is that Margo wants to be my friend and will take me out for late-night drinks and fireside chats in New York.

IGN: I think you can make it happen.
Russell: I’m going to put my best foot forward. I really love Margo. She was getting ready in the makeup trailer — she’s just f**king awesome — she’s like, “Well, this is stupid. This whole scene is stupid.” [Laughs] I’m like, “I love her so much!” I love her! Margo is a new character that comes in who plays the new KGB handler for Phillip and Elizabeth. It’s so interesting because, how do spies meet the other spies? They’re kind of watched and approached, and who do you trust? She’s great because she’s Margo, so she’s this bold, sassy lady with a slight Texas accent. She comes in, and she’s like, “Hi!” There’s just this great moment when Phillip and her meet each other first and have more of a connection, but I haven’t really met her. I’ve heard about her. Phillip says, “Oh, we have a new handler, and we’re calling her on this.” Then the first time I see her, Margo and I had this great thing — I’m jumping over the story here — but we’re passing over this girl, who she’s going to take care of. I’m passing her, but I can tell there’s something about her I don’t like, and she says, “Oh, Elizabeth. It’s so nice to meet you. Zhukov wanted me to tell you ‘Hello.’ Do you want me to pass anything on to him?” I’m just like, “Just that you saw us.” She goes, [very stoic] “I saw you,” and she just walks away. [Laughs] She’s just tough and good. “I saw you…” Walks away.

IGN: There are flashbacks to your training and early days going undercover in the first two episodes. Will they continue?
Russell: I hope so, because I think they’re interesting. Those are my favorite parts. What were they like before everything? What were they like when they were young? Those are the things that interest me, so I hope that they do. There are a few more flashbacks we’ve done so far, actually…

The Americans premieres Wednesday, January 30th at 10pm ET/PT on FX.