Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

'The Americans:' Matthew Rhys kicks butt as a secret agent man

Espionage and IntelligenceTelevision IndustryMarriageFamily

Matthew Rhys was slightly hesitant to play a Soviet spy working undercover in the U.S. on FX's "The Americans."

"I'm not the big, macho, butt-kicking person," the Welsh actor said, "but I think as a cover we work well in that we blend into Americana suburbia, and therefore there's a sort of twist to it."

The "we" of which Rhys speaks is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the married spies played by Rhys and Keri Russell. He needn't have worried. The 1980s drama garnered critical acclaim and audience approval in its first season, and its Season 2 premiere at 9 p.m. Wednesday is one of the most highly anticipated returns this season.

According to Rhys, fans won't be disappointed.

"I think the writing is more muscular in the second season. The onset of imminent danger is greater, the tempo and beat -- the drum to which they walk -- is sort of louder and faster," he said during a phone chat with reporters last week, adding that the show's writers are "ticking all the boxes."

Last season, fans learned the KGB had thrown the two strangers into marriage for the greater good of Soviet Union. The Jenningses were sent to the U.S. to live as a suburban couple, carrying the ruse so far they now have two children, teenager Paige and her younger brother, Henry.

The pressure to live that lie weighed more heavily on Philip than on his defection-is-not-an-option wife. Needless to say, Season 1 was a rough time in their marriage. The new season will see a different Philip and Elizabeth, Rhys said.

"They're a much stronger front as a unit," he said. "We see them as a family -- as a unit in that respect -- face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that's encroaching on the Jennings' household."

That danger comes from outside the house -- they still live next door to FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) -- and within: Teenage Paige's growing curiosity leads her to snoop into her parents' business. That mix of spy thrills and family drama is a delicate balancing act for the show, Rhys says.

"One second you can be assassinating or honey trapping or whatever and the next you're making PB&Js for the kids, and both lives have to be credible," he said. "It's that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does."

Going from a highly successful first season, did you have any special concerns for Season 2?
To be perfectly honest, and I know this is a monumental buck pass, but I think it's the writers that feel that a lot more in a second season. They feel the pressure to deliver sort of more muscular, punchier scripts that have more bang for their buck and more pizazz, power and punch. I hate to say it, but it's their storytelling that will be the compelling magnet to draw an audience back. I think they certainly have achieved that.

Philip really busts out the disguises early the season. Will we see a lot more of them?
The disguises -- I don't envy the unenviable task of the hair and makeup department that feel with each new disguise they have to be different or bigger or better, because the reality is with the CIA they tended to use two or three sort of disguises and round-robin them. But you know it's television and we're a little more heightened and dramatic, so therefore they do need to kind of have a little bit possibly more dramatic impact. But that feeds into what the more general storyline for the Jenningses is: There is this greater feeling of danger. [It] is a lot more palatable and a lot more present, and I think they take their role of not being recognized and not being caught that much greater now, because the intensity is sort of closer on their doorstep.

Do you have a favorite?
I do. I've named him; he's called Fernando. He has longish hair. We actually saw him in the first episode of the first season when he beat up someone who was being rather lascivious with his daughter at a department store. He has, like, a mustache and long hair and a little goatee, and he feels very Latin to me.

When Philip scolds Paige about snooping around and some of the things she does in the third episode, is he doing it as a father or more as a spy who's afraid of getting caught?
One of the things I love is how layered that is. I think primarily for me what was the bigger driving force is that Philip has lived a life of lies his entire life, and I think, as a result, it had this reaction or effect on him in that he doesn't want his daughter to inherit that element to his life, which he kind of loathes now. I think there's a huge part of him that hates the fact that he has to lie bare-facedly to his children, and has done his entire life. It eats away at him. And lies become a sort of louder thing in his head when he desperately doesn't want his offspring to follow in what he had to endure.

Are Philip and Elizabeth more worried about her finding them out or their handlers finding Paige out and doing something to her?
I think they're more concerned with Paige finding out, especially finding out not on their terms. They're not wholly ignorant to the fact that there's an enormous part that's the reality of Paige finding out and how they deal with it. I think they have said that they never wanted the children to discover [the truth]; they said that a long time ago. I think what's happened was the reality.

So I just go back to the first part of your question, I also wanted to say the element of him as a spy not wanting her to find out is incredibly important as well, just for the safety of their family. And then going back to the other part, I think they made that decision a long time ago rather naively, and now the reality of having a 14-year-old, an incredibly inquisitive teenage daughter, the reality has changed their ideals, ideology.

In theory and on paper your character should be the villain. What is it about him that makes the audience root for him? What do you find sympathetic about him?
A number of things really, and I think you find this sort of characteristic in those men that you do root for -- men and women -- it's the sort of everyman. He does have romantic ideals as well as materialistic ideals, because he came from very harsh, fiscally challenged place. But I think he longs for a wife to love and to have those things reciprocated. His main priority is his children, their future and their safety.

I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for the sort of white picket fence life and have those nice things and live out a nice life. I think those are sort of very real, palpable and obtainable dreams and aspirations of so many people that we're sort of raised to think that in a way, and Philip has come from an extremity of that, a very harsh place, very difficult place, and there's a real opportunity to live out a real dream. It's in front of him, it's obtainable; he just has to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle.

Last season it was very apparent that Philip loved Elizabeth more than she loved him, but she grows closer this season. How is that going to play out as far as jealousy is concerned?
You've hit the nail on the head of quite a punchy theme for the Jenningses this season, which is dramaturgically fantastic, this other element you bring to the relationship as this new relationship evolves and etc. etc. These two people that have fulfilled a very specific mandate all these years about sleeping with people for information, and suddenly their feelings become real, and the green-eyed monster makes a very rude appearance in their lives and it's incredibly difficult for them to deal with. It continues and they struggle, and in that way that many relationships, I think, struggle with partners who flirt or there's insecurity in a relationship. It's magnified by a million because of what they have to do. So there's no resolution; it's certainly an ongoing problem for them, but it's certainly a very present theme for them this season.

Joe Weisberg has mentioned that he sees the show in a lot of ways as a story of a marriage, but it also seems to be a bit of an immigrant story, and certainly we see that Elizabeth is sometimes alarmed by how American her children, especially Paige, are turning out. Was that a theme we'll see throughout the second season and if you can maybe speak to the difference in attitudes toward that between Elizabeth and Phil?
It's still a bone of contention between Philip and Elizabeth. ... Elizabeth's still being very much the hardliner in that she was indoctrinated with a very firm belief system that she doesn't waver from, and Philip certainly begins -- they begin to separate on that specific level, which makes for a great element of conflict. You sort of see it so many times in marriages and relationships.

I think in many ways what I loved what Joe did with their relationship is he kind of flipped obvious clichés on their heads where Philip, the male, was slightly closer to the children, possibly the better parent figure, and Elizabeth seemed to be the harder, colder, more hard-line, aggressive one. And in that respect where sometimes the archetypal clichéd version is that maybe the wife or the girlfriend spends too much money or enjoys the fine things, and this time it's the male of the relationship who kind of says, "No, I want to buy a good cashmere, and why not?" So I love those particular dynamics that come to the relationship.

Have you discovered any new acting challenges, would you say, with the growth of your character in Season 2?
It's a fine line. It's a good question, though. Those moments between Martha and Clark, those I do find a great ... challenge. The thing between Philip and Elizabeth, the more relationship-based moments between them, I find incredibly difficult and challenging, but great to get your teeth into.

So the challenge to me in Martha and Clark is that I always think back to Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day," whereby if you see an actor who's lying, but showing the audience he's lying, often he's showing the other actor in front of him that he's lying, so he ... we all know that you're lying. So you need to trust the script that the script will tell the audience that he's lying, and you don't have to do it in that moment. Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day" has these scenes with Emma Thompson where he tells the entire audience exactly how he feels and moves you to tears, but you are utterly assured that there's no way Emma Thompson will know.

So in those moments with Martha and Clark where I'm lying to Martha, and the audience knows I'm lying, and I should trust that a lot more, there's a part of you that goes, "I kind of need to show both; I need to play the moment to Martha, but I also need to kind of show the audience that I'm lying," which you don't. It's not much showing that you're lying, it's the struggle that you're having in that moment that's kind of interesting, and those are the moments that I struggle as to how to pitch properly.

Can you tell us a little bit about what's going to be happening in his relationship with Martha (Alison Wright)?
Again, it's so beautifully laid out and it's so problematic in that Philip has a real conscience about things, and as they evolve in the way that they do he becomes very aware of what he's doing in the manipulation of Martha and how it's spiraling ever downwards. It pricks his conscience, definitely. He has a heart and he is sensitive, and he finds it increasingly harder, the level of lies and level of betrayal. As she wants to evolve in the marriage he's trying to stall at every level. And also because of how things are evolving with Elizabeth that presents itself as a difficult riddle for him to overcome, in that it becomes a greater thought inside. So he's certainly torn in that respect enormously between these two situations.

Now that Philip and Elizabeth are attempting a "real marriage," what kind of challenges will that create in the work relationship?
The greatest one we touched on earlier is the more sexual element of their marriage with the honey trapping, the sleeping for information, which we saw a lot of the in the first season. That takes a great toll on their marriage, and plays out in some incredibly ... surprising ways.

The marriage with Martha, what's so great is they plant such a beautiful seed of conflict within Elizabeth. Because she's been this stalwart, this hardline, hardnosed agent for so long, who's still incredibly loyal to the cause, she has this great enormous struggle within her where she realizes that she has these feelings for Philip, and what he's doing when he is honey trapping and gaining information for the cause, for Mother Russia, it makes her feel terrible, and she's caught between that great place of saying I hate the way this makes me feel and I hate that you have to do it, but it's for the greater cause. So, as a dramatician with a device it's rather fantastic, but it certainly takes its toll on the relationship.

When Elizabeth and Philip were separated, Philip seemed to escape to the relationship with Martha a little bit. Now that he and Elizabeth are giving it a go will he kind of feel any guilt about maybe having some sort of feelings for Martha?
I don't think he does have any feelings for Martha. I think from the onset his feelings for Martha have been very clear. You're absolutely true saying there was an element of escape for Philip, whereby he went to somebody that was sort of nurturing and nice and loving and caring, but I don't think that they manifested themselves in specific with genuine feelings for her. I just think he found solace in a place like that with someone like that.

Given the historical context and the insurmountable odds that keep stacking up against Philip and Elizabeth, can they go off into the sunset together?
I think they can. I think that was laid down by Philip in the first episode the first season where he presented the defection packages basically saying they could go into witness protection, they could work for the U.S. government, they could be put into hiding, make a lot of money and live out their days. And I think there's an element of Philip that still hangs on to that dream, because I think the realization of how sustainable their lives are and how unsafe it's becoming for the children sort of grows day by day. So I think that, in the back of his mind, the happy ever after for Philip is louder than ever.

Are the subtleties in the performances--sideways glances and shifts in stance--outlined in the scripts or do you just kind of add it on set?
No, that kind of stuff is the things we bring to it really. But usually it's twofold; it's one informs the other. There's sort of the writing at times it brings out that uncomfortable element I think definitely, and I think that it's just a manifestation of what's being said or of what's being written really.

What kind of research were you able to do about the Soviet spy program prior to accepting this role?
An incredible amount, actually. Research to me now as an actor is always slightly amazing. When I first left drama college many moons ago, I remember research as going to a library and taking out books, or if you had to have an accent you'd, if you were someone in the British Isles, like it was for me, you'd get on a train with a tape recorder and tape those people. And now you type in YouTube on your browser and off you go, and the amount of information I found, not just on the Internet, but on YouTube was staggering really, and it was all done on the sofa with a laptop. But it is sort of amazing.

There's an incredible book about the KGB archivist who was archiving everything for the KGB. He was sort of charged with this job of documenting everything for the KGB, and he did two copies; he did one for the KGB and one for himself, this over decades. And then eventually walked into the U.S. Embassy and said, "I am the official KGB archivist and I have all this stuff." The U.S. thought it was a sting and said, "Get out." He went to the Swiss Embassy, and so everything he documented is available, which is amazing, really.

And the more disturbing stuff I found was like when the [Berlin] Wall fell and ... in East Germany all their files became public knowledge, and all these sort of people found out who had been informing on them all their lives. So husbands found out their wives had, and wives found out that husbands had. It's sort of incredibly disturbing, I thought, what that knowledge becomes once it's available.

What are your thoughts are on America's current obsession with spy dramas, and also as a follow-up, what you think about us using so many non-Americans playing American spies?
I'll start with the second part of the question, if you don't mind, because, to be honest, I'm equal parts baffled and grateful as to why so many Brits, and also Australians, are used in American television. I think we're just cheap ... generally. But I don't know -- and I do ask a number of producers, and they don't really have an answer either. I think maybe someone set a trend and others joined, which I'm incredibly thankful and grateful for. ...

With regard to the first part of your question, I think espionage as a whole has always been incredibly mysterious and intriguing to the public, and continues to be so. And it's strange, our show [is set] in the Cold War where there was a very definable front and, although it's based on truth, there were sleeper cells working. I think people in this day and age are far more aware of that sort of enemy within and the world of espionage and how personable it is and how on your doorstep it's now become. I think people are aware of that and have a great intrigue as to how that reveals itself.

Before this job came up for you did you dig spy dramas, and if so what are some of your favorites?
John McCauley was a favorite. I had always had a Richard Burton fixation, so "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" was my first, and that's when I kind of discovered him. I'm also classically a James Bond fan. ... I'm not a huge spy fan, but I have certainly become more so in the learning of their world and how insane it is. At times I go to Joe Weisberg, the creator, going, "This seems a little farfetched to me," and he'll usually turn around and say, "This is absolute truth."

Was there a pivotal moment for you in life that compelled you to become an actor?
It was a slow burn, to be perfectly honest. In Wales especially they're big on performing arts, so you're always in some drama club or singing/dancing club or something like that, and then chapel had the same kind of effect. We had these sort of competitions with poetry recital and singing and all the rest of it, so you're always kicked onto a stage from an early age. And I think everyone does it up until 18, and then they go to university and get a real job.

I think I was always aware that that's what I was going to do, and then about 17 I just thought, "Oh, well, there's a possibility you can actually do this for a living." And at that point parents and friends go, "No, no, no, no; you're meant to doing it as a pastime, it's not as a career." But I just thought, "Yes, if I can get away without working for the rest of my life I'll give it a go."

Want more? Discuss this article and others on Show Patrol's Facebook page

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Espionage and IntelligenceTelevision IndustryMarriageFamily
  • 'The Americans' review: More family, more suspense
    'The Americans' review: More family, more suspense

    My heart sank when I heard the new season of FX's spy thriller "The Americans" (9 p.m. Wednesday, FX; 4 stars out of 4) would focus more on Cold War spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings' family. Remember how the momentum of Showtime's "Homeland" crashed to a...

  • Trending TV: Spies are hot, again
    Trending TV: Spies are hot, again

    Secret agents are lurking everywhere on TV in 2014. From "The Avengers" to "Mission Impossible" to "24," spy thrillers always have been a TV staple, but with the National Security Agency under fire for spying on everyday Americans and others, espionage stories seem...

Comments
Loading