“Think of all the military families… it would be perfectly normal for a 16 year-old to say, ‘I’m going to go into service,'” she said.
The Russian spy couple is back.
The Americans star Keri Russell promises that the third installment of the FX period drama, bowing Wednesday, will be just as much about marriage as it will be about turning tricks and kicking ass.
In the previous season, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings were starting to look like an actual married couple. But that sense of normalcy doesn’t last long. A wedge, once again, is driven between the two when they respond differently to the Center wanting to recruit their daughter, Paige. Phillip, less loyal to his homeland, can’t bear to see his daughter enter into their dangerous world, while Elizabeth believes Paige deserves to know the truth about who she is.
Russell says that upcoming episodes explore challenges that any married person can relate to, with more top-secret missions, affairs and, of course, wigs along the way. “For me being a woman that reads films, this is a good f—king job,” Russell said of her complicated female character. “Of the last things I’ve read, you’re a girlfriend. You got two scenes going, ‘Are you OK?'” This is so much better than that.”
Here, Russell explains Elizabeth’s perspective, talks her onscreen sexual relationship with co-star Matthew Rhys, and reveals her favorite cover identity.
In the first episodes of season 3, we see Elizabeth seriously contemplating recruiting her daughter to the KGB. Do you worry that viewers won’t be able to relate to your character because she seems so extreme?
Idealism is a hard sell. Everyone relates more to what’s human about it. Elizabeth feels that it’s just an incredible injustice for someone to not know who they are. I don’t come at it thinking that we’re going to recruit Paige and she’s going to be turning tricks in hotel rooms. That’s not what it is. She deserves to know who she is. We are substantial people who believe in things. We’re not frivolous. And if she’s going to be indoctrinated by Christian boys singing cute songs with their guitars, no f—king way. She’s going to be indoctrinated by us, by socialism and what’s right in the world. I think that’s a worthwhile argument, the base of which being you should know who you are. You can’t take that from somebody. When you take the spy stuff out of it, to lie to your kid growing up when they know there’s something odd, to keep that from them is wrong. My mom was adopted and it’s weird to not know what people look like or what they sounded like. It’s part of your being. It’s a part of how you fit into the world, and to not know how you fit into the world is unsettling. And Elizabeth is trying to do everything she can to be as patient as she can with Phillip getting there, but she’s probably not going to wait too long.
What’s driving that view in Elizabeth?
What further complicates and pushes forward the idea for Elizabeth is this relationship with her mother and the things she’s finding out about her mortality, especially because her relationship with her wasn’t clean and good and fuzzy and open. She had a complicated relationship with her mother. There was probably some dark, weird stuff. Those relationships are more powerful than even good relationships tend to be. And if you think of these people as leaving their parents at 17 years old and never seeing them again, it becomes a bigger influence.
Are you ever concerned that Rhys’ character is the more relatable one?
He’s definitely the more relatable one. He’s the more emotional one for sure. I would say that, first of all, it’s so fun that I’m not that person for once in my life. But when I read the first two scripts I thought that everyone was going to hate me. It’s worth noting that to work for the cause can be something very different than what we do. You could be a doctor. We’re not asking anyone to go be spies and wear wigs. There are 5 or 6 people who do what Phillip and Elizabeth do. It’s a very rare thing. Also, Joe brought up a really good point in our discussion of it all. He said, “I wonder if it’s just that you’re a woman and Paige is a girl. Think of all the military families that have great-grandfathers and fathers and sons. It would be perfectly normal for a 16 year-old to say, ‘I’m going to go into service.’ You say, ‘Yeah, you’re a hero.’” The fact that Elizabeth is a woman and is highly successful at what she does and that Paige is a girl is interesting because if it were a son and a father, you would go, “Yeah, you should join. You should go do it.” It’s always that weird conceit because we’re playing the Russians, which are sort of the bad guys. So we always discuss those sorts of things, like what if this was the deep South and we were fighting against slavery? There’s no way you’d let your kid go. You’d do everything you could to teach your kid what was right and turn the tables, even if was dangerous. It’s more important that there not be slavery in the world.
You mentioned that Elizabeth isn’t going to wait forever for Phillip to come around to her point of view. Where is she at with the marriage this season?
If the first season from Elizabeth’s point of view was about deciding to be in a real relationship — and for me, what that means is being seen and being vulnerable and really falling in love with somebody — then that was solidified in the second season so it was really about protecting the family. This season is a testament to where Elizabeth is in the relationship that from episode two she’s not like, “F—k off, I’m doing it.” She’s really trying so hard to be patient and she doesn’t want to lose Phillip, and she is aware of his feelings on the Paige issue. She’s doing everything she can to let him find his own way, but I think at a certain point it is too important to her. I think that’s a really normal thing in a relationship. You have core things that are intrinsic to your being, especially with raising kids from what religion to what school to attend. People have strong feelings about raising kids.
Should viewers really be cheering for Phillip and Elizabeth, even though they’re KGB spies? Wouldn’t that mean rooting against America?
Yeah, I think that’s the conceit of the show. As someone who reads scripts, I’m always rooting for their union. I’m not always rooting for them to win. I just want them to be together. I just love the metaphor of relationships. There’s this great scene where they get into how Phillip was trained with all the sexuality with the KGB, and because of the heightened spy stuff and the sexuality outside of the marriage, it allows you to discuss things that I feel are very relatable in any relationship. In fact, there’s this really heartbreaking scene where Phillip is describing how he was trained. Because a woman can kind of fake having sex all the time, but it’s a little bit more difficult for a man, especially with many different people. He talks about that in a very vulnerable way/ Elizabeth asks, “What do you do with Martha?” He tells her he thinks of other things and does other stuff with his mind, and she says, “Do you do that with me?” And he says, “Sometimes.” It’s really painful. I love when the show goes there. That’s my favorite stuff, when it’s really raw and honest.
What’s your favorite alter ego?
We just did one of my favorite ones, which is when we both play these punk rockers where I have some white asymmetrical Madonna-like hair and heavy eyeliner.
If the show were to get additional seasons, what would you want to see more of with Elizabeth?
My favorite stuff for Elizabeth is the chinks in the armor because she’s such a hardcore seemingly black-and-white person. My favorite moments are when you see her falter. Even with the Paige stuff, which she believes so strongly in, I love those moments where she’s like, “I don’t know.” That’s when the specificity of an individual comes out. That’s what makes someone unique. I also feel like every time I see those moments for her that she’s becoming better and better of a person because it’s not realistic to believe in sometime all the way. Life is lived in the grey areas.