The spy life is hitting home for the Jennings in a huge way this season on The Americans, as embedded Russian/KGB agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) debate what to do now that their leaders want their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) brought into the fold.
I sat down with Keri Russell to discuss this huge turn of events on the show and the struggle between Elizabeth, who wants to tell Paige, and Philip, who is incredibly against it, and how it develops.
We also chatted about the newly-introduced Gabriel (Frank Langella), the rare times she and co-star Matthew Rhys get to work with their fellow castmates and a certain recent scene involving a body and a suitcase…
I should note I spoke to Russell right before I saw last week’s episode, in which Elizabeth barely avoids capture and has to go through a very painful bit of tooth-related procedure, or I would have brought that up too!
IGN: We have quite a debate here between Elizabeth and Philip on what to do about Paige.
Russell: I think, interestingly, like maybe in the first season, Elizabeth, because of her relationship with Philip, I think maybe this would have been a much easier debate. It would have been like, “No, I’m doing it and I don’t f**king care what you think.” But with the progression and evolution of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship, I think she has a real love for him now and does care what he thinks and is fighting every part of her body and what she believes is right, in this really intrinsic way to her, to not say, “F**k off, I’m doing this!” about something as important to her as her child. So I think there’s serious debate. I think she’s doing everything she can to bite her tongue and hope he sees her side but she’s a tough lady and she’s probably going to do what she wants.
IGN: Elizabeth seems to have this hopefulness… Not only that this is the right move for the cause, but that bringing Paige in could help their relationship. Could she be setting herself up for disaster, since it could quickly go the other direction?
Russell: Yes, I think it’s not just… I know the show is about spies and all this stuff but I think the important part is the human part and I think the main thing she believes, in her core, is that it’s such an injustice that this child doesn’t know who she is or who we are. Like this huge part of our being and especially the stuff going on with Elizabeth’s mother, which totally overshadows everything and pushes it forward… I think the human part is she deserves to know who we are. She has this huge lie and I also think there’s this very relatable thing in her mind. I think Elizabeth feels that Philip doesn’t see the reality, which is she has this fervor anyway, Paige. She’s using it toward church camp. And Elizabeth’s like, “There’s no f**king way she’s becoming a church camp kid! She’s being indoctrinated with or without us and it ain’t going to be them. It’s going to be us.” It’s going to be political awareness, socialism. She’s not saying, “I want her to become a spy and [be a] honey trap.” That’s maybe a select group of ten people in the KGB who do that. She just says, “She’s leaning away anyway, she deserves to know who she is and care about something that matters and not imaginary Jesus camps and little kids singing guitar songs.” And I think she feels that Philip has his head in the sand and doesn’t see the reality of what’s going on. But I also think it’s, just very amazingly, the most personal thing to Elizabeth and every time Philip says “No, I’m not going to tell her” I think Elizabeth feels on some level like she is rejected by that. Because it’s who she is so it’s like a rejection of her and everything she is. And I think it’s a really relatable issue to in the way that I love the show best when it’s these weird, vulnerable, marriage conversations. I feel like this is a relatable parent conversation about wanting to raise your kid a certain way and not agreeing on it. Raising a kid is incredibly emotional. You have a way you were raised and it doesn’t matter if your parent is a total jerk. That’s what you know and that’s the way you’re going to do it. It’s not always the same as someone else.
IGN: As you referenced, we’re getting to know more about Elizabeth’s mom this season. So we’re really getting to see more about what formed Elizabeth before she was recruited and what she might now be trying to guide Paige to.
Russell: Yeah, and I also feel like maybe even more so because it wasn’t such a smooth, easy relationship with the mom. I feel like sometimes when things are complicated they’re even more powerful on your psyche because it is sort of unfinished because you know the mother, there’s talk of her being sick and then you think about the mortality to that and you hold tighter to it. It’s complex and I think it’s really relatable. It’s things we all deal with, the mortality of parents and what’s being passed on and what am I furthering on and I think it’s intensely important to her.
IGN: The premiere, right near the top, has this very tense scene where you’re almost caught by Gaad. First of all, it’s funny because it was your first scene ever with Richard [Thomas], right?
Russell: Yes! And one of our camera guys was like you have to point the gun at him and just say, “Goodnight, John-Boy” and I never did it and I should have. He’s amazing. So he’s seeing me in disguise but he has eyes on me.
IGN: It’s an interesting show to watch, because it messes with your perception and your loyalties. I get so nervous for her getting caught, even though she’s, you know, an enemy of America! What’s it like for you as an actress to play her and see her side of things?
Russell: I always root for myself. Always. I’m the good guy. 100%. And some of them… like whenever Elizabeth’s doing something so hardcore and I feel so unsympathetic and I go talk to [executive producers] Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields] and I’m like, “Is this too far?” We do these kind of reversals… One of the things we talk about is what if this was set in the deep south, slavery time, and I was on the side of resistance of that and there is no way I’d let my daughter go and be on the side of these terrible slave owners. There’s no way. I would fight everything I could to show her the right way or fight against those bad guys who are doing something I just don’t believe in. So we do stuff like that. The other interesting discussion we’re having a lot is about Military families and the interesting idea of forever there has been a great grandfather, a grandfather, a father and then a son like a teenage son. You can absolutely relate to that son going, “I want to go into the military” and you go, “Yeah, you’re a hero, go for it.” Is it because I’m a woman and Paige is a daughter that you go, “No, that’s awful?” It’s an interesting debate because people still… I know that it’s tricky and it’s Russian and it’s all these different things but to this day, there are military families and legacies and you go to war and you’re a hero and that’s what our family does and we’re proud of you. It’s interesting.
IGN: There are these very different groups of characters and you don’t have reason to cross paths, so even if it’s a brief “beating up Richard” scene, is it nice for you guys to get to interact occasionally? Are you hoping that without the Jennings being caught and the show being over that you can at least try and make that happen here and there?
Russell: Yes! Always, so fun. Noah [Emmerich] is a great example of that. We’re always like, “Oh, you’re coming over for dinner? Finally I get to talk to you!” He’s always like, “I’m never with you guys, what’s goin’ on over there?” It’s true and it’s so fun when we’re together. In fact, Noah just directed the seventh episode. He’s incredible. One of my favorite directors this season. Incredible, so good so that was really fun and he had such an insight already to the characters and such a short hand with everything going on so it was really nice.
IGN: You got Frank Langella as Gabriel this season, who has a history with the Jennings. He seems to be a pretty paternal, caring figure. Can you talk about that relationship and what we might learn about Elizabeth through that dynamic?
Russell: He really introduces a lot of Elizabeth’s mother and clearly, especially in the beginning, I feel like it’s some of the rare moments when you see Elizabeth be really warm and taken care of. She has huge affection for him and sort of respect in a fatherly way. But what’s interesting, and I think speaks for the evolution of Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship, is with and through Gabriel, who is the voice and the center of the KGB, I am seeing the very first little push backs against it. There are a few storylines that Philip has this year that Elizabeth really – although her desire to please the center is so huge, as is her belief in it — you see her for the first time wanting to protect Philip and wanting to make it easier for him. Maybe that’s the beginning of their marriage and family being more important than the center. And it’s sort of through Gabriel that I see those little, miniscule moments of pushback like this is us and you’re you. It’s interesting.
IGN: I have to ask about that second episode and the scene of having to get rid of the body in that hotel room. First of all, there’s the “Oh my god!” of it all. And then also is it interesting for you to play a character who already had to compartmentalize everything, but this is a woman that her husband was sleeping with as a part of the job, and now she has the reality of that in front of her?
Russell: All I have to say is so many naked girls! Naked, beautiful actress, naked beautiful contortionist, yeah. Then on a second unit day of reshoots, a second naked beautiful girl. I was like, “There’s a lot of pretty, naked girls on this show!” Yeah, so bizarre! Really gruesome. I haven’t seen it. Does it play?
IGN: Oh yeah, it plays.
Russell: Obviously, Philip and that character, they have this real thing. I wish we would have explored that a little bit more for Elizabeth. Our show, it f**king moves. There’s no time to shoot it. We’re always behind. We do so much in those seven shooting days. I wish there was a little bit more of Elizabeth being like… because I love that just inching into the show are those moments of her about Martha. Like every time he goes, “I’m going over Martha’s tonight” she’s like… [Russell pauses for a moment, a la Elizabeth] I like that. It’s just showing how much more meshed in the marriage she is and it’s so complicated and so much more relatable other than spy stuff. But yes, that’s crazy. It’s crazy.