“The Americans,” a new espionage series set to begin on Wednesday on FX, stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet sleeper agents posing as an average married couple in the Washington suburbs in the early 1980s. (You can read more about the series here.) The show, a spy thriller/domestic drama, requires the actors to balance violent fight scenes and other action set pieces with the more delicate work of portraying a coldly professional relationship that is evolving into something more.
“It’s a real acting challenge,” Mr. Rhys said. “You have these extreme moments hand in hand with the relationship they have that grounds it, or makes it a little more human.”
Ms. Russell and Mr. Rhys didn’t really know each other before filming started. But spend any time on the show’s set in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood and multiple people will remark, unprovoked, on the chemistry between them, something that became apparent during an interview with both actors in Ms. Russell’s chilly trailer (the heat wasn’t working). Mr. Rhys wore a thick black winter coat, earning mocking scorn from Ms. Russell: “Do you want me to get you some earmuffs?”
In the conversation, excerpted below, the actors discuss kicking heads, twiddling mustaches and why strategic spy sex tests the bonds of fake marriages.
Q. Did you two know each other before doing “The Americans”?
MR. RHYS We had met many years ago.
MS. RUSSELL Many years ago. But no, not really.
MR. RHYS She was drunk, lying in the gutter. I helped her up, gave her $20, threw her in the cab and sent her on her merry way.
MS. RUSSELL That was so generous.
Q. What attracted you to this show?
MR. RHYS Working with Keri Russell.
MS. RUSSELL Cash. Always cash.
MR. RHYS It was a number of things. The generic description is it’s a spy thriller. The more attractive element to me was this incredibly complex relationship that sort of begins at the beginning of the series. You have two people who have led the most incredibly strange life together with incredibly high stakes, in this scene of domesticity that is an absolute lie, and at the end of the pilot they’re finding each other for the very first time.
MS. RUSSELL I agree with Matthew that the interesting thing is the metaphor on marriage. Regardless of whether you’re spies, how much do you really know somebody? How much do you really choose somebody? Or does circumstantial life and all of that stuff mean more in a marriage? But the spy element makes it exciting and crazy and you’re having sex with other people, which tests all of those boundaries.
Q. Your characters are spies using marriage as a cover but Joel Fields, an executive producer, noted more broadly, “What is marriage besides going through the motions?”
MS. RUSSELL That’s the show at its best. But then there is all this crazy — I just killed someone last night.
MR. RHYS She’s not talking about the series.
Q. The show does include plenty of fight and chase scenes — have you done this sort of physical action stuff before?
MS. RUSSELL A little bit — I did [“Mission: Impossible III”] where I was killed off very early on.
MR. RHYS Producer’s choice.
MS. RUSSELL They were like, get rid of her.
MR. RHYS The occasional war film, bits and bobs. Nothing as consistent as this.
Q. Has any of it been especially challenging?
MS. RUSSELL When I had to kick [the actor David Vadim’s] head through the wall, that was challenging. He just looked at me as he was putting in his mouth guard and he said, “Listen, do it right once, otherwise I’m going to be mad if we have to do it again.” And I was like “[Fake crying] O.K., booosh!” [Demonstrates a vigorous kick.]
Q. You really seemed to commit.
MS. RUSSELL [Laughs] Well, he scared me.
Q. The ’80s are hardly ancient history but is there any sort of period adjustment you have to make?
MS. RUSSELL I can’t believe the ’80s are already period. The biggest thing is no cellphones, which is sort of great because everything is so gadgety these days. When we go to intercept a message we have to drive by our drop spot — like, we’re looking under rocks for messages.
MR. RHYS It makes for better television because you’re not just looking at a computer screen. There’s a lot of human ingenuity involved.
Q. Do you remember growing up back then with a fear of the Iron Curtain?
MS. RUSSELL The way I remember it is more through all the movies we used to watch when we were kids. Every bad guy had a Russian accent. So in that way it was very clear.
MR. RHYS It was enormous because it was so present for us [in Cardiff, Wales, where Mr. Rhys grew up]. East Germany was just a few hours away — nuclear invasion was possible. It was massive at the time.
Q. Does it ever feel odd to now be playing “the enemy”?
MR. RHYS Not personally because when you play someone villainous or evil you search for the human aspect of what would motivate them, just to make it real. There’s never an element of remembering that they’re the axis of evil. But I occasionally twiddle my mustache.
MS. RUSSELL Too much. Too much.
Q. “Homeland,” another espionage thriller, has been a big hit for Showtime. Do you think people will compare the two shows?
MS. RUSSELL It’s so different.
MR. RHYS But it’s inevitable that people will have a snap reaction to it. To be perfectly honest I hope they don’t, because it’s such a different show.
MS. RUSSELL “Homeland” is so good.
MR. RHYS [Laughs] “It’s such a different show — ‘Homeland’ is so good.” P.R. Machine Russell.