Visiting the set of the FX drama’s new season and talking to Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and more about our favorite TV spies and a ticking bomb.
“It’s been such a big surprise from the beginning,” Keri Russell says, walking between takes last November on the Brooklyn set of The Americans, FX’s acclaimed, bona-fide water-cooler series. “The script for the pilot was so great, though. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I had no idea the arc it would take and I had no idea that it would evolve into the place it has. And it scared me to commit to a series. But I was interested. And it’s been so enjoyable and fun to work on. It’s been so interesting. But I had no idea it would turn into this.”
The “this” Russell is referring to is a show that seems familiar at first and yet is completely original—a spy show set in the early 1980s, when Reagan’s Cold War was at its coldest, in which the “bad guys,” two married Soviet operatives, are the heroes. “You never know, you know what I mean?” Russell elaborates. “That’s the gamble, especially with a series, because you go so many different places. At its core, the stuff I like the most about the show is always the complicated marriage, the relationship, the pushing and pulling, and the weird sexuality. I love that stuff. To me, it’s the most relatable part.”
Showtime’s Homeland has faced criticism for outlandish plotlines and seemingly tossed-off scenes centering on its characters’ family lives. But as The Americans heads into its third season tonight, the drama continues to strive for believability, in both the volatile relationships between the characters—most notably Russell’s frosty Elizabeth Jennings and her ambivalent but warm husband, Phillip, played by Matthew Rhys, and their two kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati)—and the finely detailed espionage machinations, informed largely by series creator Joe Weisberg’s experiences as a former CIA officer.
“I think I’d actually lost interest in espionage entirely,” Weisberg confesses about the earliest days of the show, when it had been greenlit by FX but the details were still to be developed. “I’d worked at the CIA 25 years ago and I think I had lost interest in the gadget side of espionage, the covert side, to a substantial degree. And that’s what everyone writes about, anyway. What still interested me, though, was the lives of spies. So when it came time to start writing, I knew that was a way to make this different. And as I started to think back to the days I worked in the CIA, what was really compelling to me was the people who worked there, their family lives, and in particular, the way that the people I worked with lied to their kids. There was a thing that people at the CIA called ‘the talk.’ When your kids reach a certain age, and you’ve been lying to them their whole lives about what you do, if you felt that they were mature enough to keep a secret, then you sat them down and basically said to them, ‘Okay, we’ve been lying to you your whole lives, and now we’re going to tell you the truth.’ That still interested me. That is about spies, but it’s not about gizmos, and it’s not about espionage, really. It’s about family, life, relationships, and emotions.”
That focus on the young family that Elizabeth and Phillip are raising while working as spies behind enemy lines is at the heart of what makes those characters so sympathethic, and what makes the show subtly different from others in the same genre. “To me it’s almost not a spy show at all,” Matthew Rhys says during a break from filming on The Americans’ set. “That’s the glory of it. Even when I first read it, that’s how it read to me. I’d never seen a concept like it, of two people who had lived together and had known each other so long, but didn’t know each other at all, and with the fucked-up nature of what they do as the backdrop. I remember, I wondered, ‘If they start to fall for each other, how is that going to play out?'”
That’s exactly what happened as season one ended. And as season two wrapped up last year, the Jennings’ bosses in the KGB had made it clear that they were set to recruit the couple’s young daughter into the next generation of spies. Set against that, and Russians facing a worsening situation in Afghanistan, the stakes for the couple in season three are exceedingly high. And, lest we forget, their neighbor and friend Stan Beeman is still on the hunt for something that’s right under his nose.
“My character has a hard job,” says Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman, off the set on a break for a snack. “Especially when the heroes of the show are the enemies. I hear that from people. They’re rooting for them.”
What is Emmerich, who will direct at least one episode this season, comfortable giving away to fans of the show about this season? “I think the scripts have gotten more sophisticated and complex,” he says. “There’s a comfort level between the cast and crew and writers. We’re operating on all cylinders with the writing, the acting, the production. It’s comfortable, it’s familial, and it’s fun. I’m having more fun than I’ve had at any point in my career. Also, my character is going through some exciting stuff.”
So, yes, there will be thrills, but The Americans will continue to stick relatively close to the reality of the spy world. “Our writers will pitch things that seem exciting, and they are exciting, but they don’t seem tonally right for the show,” Weisberg says of the choices he and co-producer Joel Fields make. “You can get that somewhere else,” Fields chimes in. “We joke when we’re faced with the opportunity for a huge action scene that, ‘Okay, now we’ll do the boring version of this.’ But it’s the real version, and it allows the characters to have a dynamic that feels true.”
“It’s terrible, dealing with what might happen to Paige,” Russell says of upcoming drama. “Phillip and Elizabeth are fighting a lot. We have very strong, differing opinions about what’s going to happen. It’s edgy. And hard. There’s a struggle. And I love the religious stuff, because Paige has gotten more involved in the church she fell in with last season. I love that that’s what she does. She’s not out sleeping with boys or doing massive amounts of drugs. Instead, this teenager of Elizabeth’s wants to become a Christian. She’s like, ‘What?’ I love that. This tough mom is undone by that, by this niceness. This season, my character is very much about how her mother raised her, and watching her own daughter now being raised in this completely other environment.”
Matthew Rhys, whose Phillip is perhaps the Everyman of The Americans, is clear about how he feels about his character and where he’s headed. “I’m very empathetic toward him,” Rhys says before shooting his next scene on a soundstage in a Brooklyn warehouse that doubles for the Jennings’ suburban Washington, DC, home. “I think he’s had a hell of a journey. Phillip and Elizabeth were thrown together as kids—they’ve been together since they were 16—and I think that who he is now is a very different person, especially having had kids. He grew up during an intense time. That was what was so interesting in the research I did for the character about all the KGB training and grim Russian culture that he would have grown up in: post-war, extreme poverty, food lines, all the rest of it. And now he’s like, ‘What’s not to like about America?’ And I always think that ultimately it’s the safeguarding the children that is his driving force. Therefore, in a way, for him to protect them, he has to be the best spy possible. He has to do his job incredibly well in order to safeguard their futures.
“But I also think he knows that there’s a ticking time bomb,” Rhys adds. “What we learned in the pilot was telling when he says maybe he wants to defect. I think that was such a good choice by the writers. You kind of show the bomb, but then you put it under the table. You’ve shown that the only way that he can truly safeguard his family’s future properly is to defect. And I think it’s always bubbling under everything he does. And Elizabeth’s reaction to it was so vehement that he knows he needs to sit on that thought for a while. But with every new danger, like last season and now this season, when things become more and more intense, I think he’s realizing that the heat is on.”
The third season of The Americans premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST on FX.