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‘The Americans’ star Keri Russell: ‘This whole season’s a little hard for me’

When I visited the set of “The Americans” in early December, attempts to interview Keri Russell kept being delayed, both by the complicated process of filming parts of four different episodes in a single day, and by Russell’s desire to prep for a physically and emotionally grueling scene (which appeared in tonight’s episode, as I reviewed here) involving the worsening condition of Elizabeth’s injured tooth.

Fortunately, once Russell, Matthew Rhys and director Tommy Schlamme finished shooting the scene, she had a few minutes to talk, and a lighter spirit thanks to a plate of cookies that was being passed around the stage. (There’s a good 90 seconds of my interview recording that’s just her trying to talk me into splitting a cookie with her, including her saying what is now my life motto: “Everyone deserves cookies.”)

Does it feel strange eating a cookie right after on-screen dental work?

Keri Russell: Eating a cookie never feels strange. I don’t care what I’m doing beforehand. I am a big believer in food in general.

So in the range of things you’ve been asked to do, this is a physical part. Where would you say that stacked up?

Keri Russell: Somewhere in between being strapped to Tom Cruise like a backpack and jumping out of a burning building, and doing a threesome with strangers in Staten Island on a Tuesday at 9:00 a.m.

Do you feel like (producers) Joel (Fields) and Joe (Weisberg) try to push the two of you in terms of the physical things that they give you to do?

Keri Russell: I think so. I love it. It’s so fun. That’s what’s so cool and surprising about this show. I love that I’m getting my teeth pulled by my husband, but it’s so strangely intimate. Tommy told us that this is our sex scene for this episode. And it is. It’s like this intimate, heightened moment. I love that about the show. These are my favorite things. Not just crazy kicking dudes heads through walls. I like it to be about a relationship. So I do. I love doing this versus, I don’t know, brushing a little girl’s hair and being a super nice mom and praying or something.

(Let the record reflect that Matthew Rhys arrived at this point carrying a second plate of cookies, and, as the lady said, everyone deserves cookies, so…)

I know we’re still early in production for the season, but how has it compared for you so far to the first two?

Keri Russell: A little too much night work for me. No. We’re only on episode four, but it’s hard. This whole season’s a little hard for me. There’s Elizabeth taking a really hard line about something concerning their children.

Yeah, I can imagine what that is (wanting to recruit Paige for the CIA).

Keri Russell: It’s difficult for me, because she’s really hardcore about it and I struggled with it a little bit.

Is it specifically the parenting aspect of it?

Keri Russell: Every aspect of it. It’s affecting every relationship she has. It’s pulling her further apart from her husband. It’s fucking intense what she’s doing.

What I’m saying is that you’ve been acting for a long time now, so is there something specific about this that’s making it so hard?

Keri Russell: What I’m doing is incredibly unpopular, and it’s hard to feel that on a daily basis. You’re like, “Yes, this is what I want.” But at the same time, it’s very interesting, because I’m trying to turn it and make it that it’s all about protection of her individualness and the value of who she is. But there are so many times in scenes where I’m like, “He’s right. He’s right!” So it’s incredibly unpopular and it feels bad sometimes on a daily basis. But I love Elizabeth’s fierceness, I do.

Do you remember what your reaction was when you got that script for 2013 and you get to the scene and Claudia says, “You’re going to recruit your daughter now”?

Keri Russell: “ Guys, what the fu – what are we doing? Are you serious?” My immediate instinct was like, “I feel like I’m turning my daughter out.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, you would never assume that she would be a spy. You guys are one in a million. It would be that she would just be a part of the cause. Like, in an office job or a very low-level type of thing. And it would be years and years and years and years down the road.” It’s just that you would have to get people ready for it.

When I spoke with Matthew, he said that his feeling is if Elizabeth were ever to say she was ready to defect, he’d be ready to go in a heartbeat.

Keri Russell: Yeah.

So you were the one holding the family back from becoming American.

Keri Russell: Totally. One hundred percent. And my whole defense back then was yes, he’s the one who wants to defect, but I’m being the better parent because I’m being the best spy I can possibly be. If someone fucking finds out that we’re spies, our kids are taken away from us, and we’re dead and they have no parents. So you’re gonna fuck everyone up by going to the FBI, and we’re going to Child Protective Services or how’s that gonna work out, Phil?

And do you still feel that way?

Keri Russell: Yeah. Listen, right now I would love a little bit more play with that. Right now it’s not that, but it’s also at that moment where we’re just, as parents, discussing it. And sometimes, there’s that thing between partners — especially in a relationship where if one person is so adamant about one side, you’re almost just as adamant just because you can’t give in yet. Like it’s in the first moments of this massive battle and no one’s given in yet.

How has playing the role and working with Matthew changed since the nature of Phillip and Elizabeth relationship changed at the end of season one and they decided to treat it like a real marriage?

Keri Russell: It’s so fun because it’s much more of a real relationship. So it adds to all the spy stuff, because interestingly it just makes it more real. Like, now Elizabeth can get jealous. It’s just so much more what I love about the show, which is a metaphor for a complicated relationship. Who cares about the spy stuff? Honestly it’s just the fun. It’s the thrill. So I love that, because to me it just makes what I find most interesting about the show more.

I want to revisit a scene from season 2, which was when Elizabeth has the terrible awful idea of wanting to have role play sex with Clark.

Keri Russell: Oh my God! It was one of my favorite episodes. It was so creepy and great.

Yes, especially the scene where she breaks down afterwards. What is going through your head? How are you approaching that scene?

Keri Russell: As an actress?


Keri Russell: I don’t know. I just love it. I think it’s so weird and I love Elizabeth’s sexuality and I thought she was really vulnerable and almost little girly with him. She’s like, “This is what I want.” And then she gets there and then it’s so awful and violent and not what she wanted at all. And I loved it. It’s my favorite stuff about the show. I love that idea that you hear that your husband is a certain way at work — “He’s so funny” — and I was like “He’s so funny? What do you mean? He’s not fucking funny at home. Why the fuck are you funny with those people and not me?” And everyone knows what that’s like and you feel betrayed sort of and you’re like, “No, be funny with me!” And he’s like, “I’m not funny with you.”

I’m off to the hair and makeup trailer after this, and I hear they have a Felicity wig in there that they photograph other people in. Have they come any closer at coaxing you into putting the damn thing on?

Keri Russell: No. Actually the closest thing we did was this: they actually did my own hair and they just kind of frizzed it up and made it curly, sort of. And I played this hippie girl in the park smoking cigarettes. That’s sort of Felicityish here. Let me see. (She takes out her phone and calls up the picture.) Let’s be real. This girl’s a little rough around the edges compared to Felicity.

Felicity made some bad choices in her life. You never know.

Keri Russell: She did. Who knows?

Does it feel strange like after all these years to be back on another show where your hair is like such this talked about thing all the time?

Keri Russell: With wigs and everything?

Yes .

Keri Russell: Yeah, what is it with me and hair? I don’t know.

Although it’s kind of funny, because he ultimately winds up wearing stranger wigs than I think you do.

Keri Russell: Yeah, although I’ve had some pretty bad ones this year. John Denver is not an attractive look. All my looks this year are very unattractive. Say to Joe and Joel that I need to be more attractive.

I will do what I can do.

Keri Russell: Just say, “People are worried; she needs to definitely be more attractive. John Denver ain’t cutting it.”