Matthew Rhys’ life prepped him for The Americans.
As an actor, Rhys, who was born and raised in Cardiff, South Wales, constantly morphs into different roles. He spent five years perfecting his American accent as Kevin Walker on the ABC drama Brothers & Sisters.
Now Rhys stars as Philip Jennings in the new FX series The Americans, which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. It’s 1981, and Philip is a covert KGB spy living in suburban Washington, D.C. His entire existence is predicated on everyone believing he is an American.
“You’re from a different country pretending to be someone else. It’s what I’ve done for most of my career,” Rhys says, laughing.
When they were both very young, Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), his wife by a KGB arranged marriage, were sent to the United States. They now have two children and run a travel agency business. But what their neighbors and their children don’t know is that they are covertly fighting the Cold War—obtaining classified information by any means necessary, threatening lives and killing people.
The series does something quite tricky—it has viewers rooting for two people who are ostensibly the bad guys. “They were raised in the same way we were raised,” Russell says. “We were raised thinking all the Russian-accented people in the movies are the bad guys. I get it. I saw Rocky. They were raised with the same thing—that the Americans are the bad guys.”
Series creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg doesn’t think this series could have existed in the 1980s when the threat of the Cold War was real and constant. “I think enough time has passed now that people are willing to look into their hearts and see them as people we can understand,” Weisberg says.
When viewers met the couple in the series premiere, Philip is contemplating defecting to America and turning himself into the FBI. “He’s found himself in a place where he realizes this life has an expiring date with the severest consequences,” Rhys said. “He wants to safeguard his children’s future.”
Growing up in Wales, Rhys watched American television and wished his dad drove a Chevrolet, so he understands Philip’s fascination and enjoyment of “the capitalist dream.” “Russia would have been an incredibly difficult place,” he says.
Elizabeth has more to lose if she and Philip defect. “She has given everything to this job,” Russell says. “Her innocence was taken from her. If it doesn’t work out it’s for nothing. She’s done everything. So to give up would be like, ‘What was the point of all of that?’”
Elizabeth’s steadfast commitment to her country is admirable, Weisberg says. “Think of it like you’re Americans behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union. This is the American who is never going to waiver from supporting America, no matter what kind of pressure is on them, so this is a great quality in Elizabeth in so many ways,” he explains.
This central tension between husband and wife will unfold during the show’s first season. “It’s a great device of conflict to drop in the first episode,” Rhys says. “It’s that turbulent rollercoaster that plays heavily in the series between the two as they try to figure their stuff out.”
It was the marriage that drew Russell to the series. “What kind of kept simmering to the top for me is just the relationship [between Philip and Elizabeth]. I know the series is couched in the spy aspect and couched in [the time] period. But they are just two people who were chosen for each other, and they are so dramatically different in their survival in the world and the way they look at the world,” she says. “I just think there’s so many ways to go with that.”
While Russell believes Elizabeth is clearly devoted to her children, she doesn’t necessarily think she’s a good mother. “I think she’s a cold mom. I think she craves wanting to be close. She’s so cut off from her own emotions. She does have to compartmentalize. She loves her children fiercely and I think that keeps coming up,” she says. “She feels she’s doing the best job possible, and if she’s doing the best job possible she’s not endangering her kids because if she slips a little bit she could be caught and taken from her kids.”
The series is a marked departure for both actors. In 2011, Weisberg saw Rhys in the off-Broadway play Look Back in Anger, which led to Rhys reading the pilot script. “It was one of those great quirks of fate that sort of stumble your way,” Rhys says.
And he’s getting used to living in a world of secrets and deception. “There’s a lot that isn’t said,” he explains. “There are a lot of elephants in room that they have to navigate. You’re not sort of speaking from your heart like we did on Brothers & Sisters.”
For Russell, who shot to fame in the 1998 series Felicity, acting remains such an interesting job to have. “Even though you’re night shooting and it’s 3 a.m. in New York and I’m like I’m pretending to kill somebody and I’m tired and I have kids at home,” she said. “You get to go and meet all these interesting people and learn about a specific subject whether it’s reading a Putin biography or learning Russian accents. There’s nothing else like that.”