Catching Up With Noah Emmerich

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Last year, The Americans captivated viewers with its tale of espionage and political intrigue during the 1980s Cold War. The series follows two KGB agents—Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings—who are living deep undercover in suburban Virginia.

Noah Emmerich stars as the Jennings’ neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman. Stan is charged with ferreting out Soviet spies yet doesn’t know that two are living across the street from him (or does he?). Things became even more complicated last season when Stan began an affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a KGB employee-turned-triple agent.

The multi-faceted role has been a showcase for Emmerich, a veteran character actor perhaps best known for The Truman Show. What does season two, which begins Feb. 26 at 10 p.m., hold for Agent Beeman? Paste recently sat down with Emmerich to talk about the FX drama, where he thinks Stan’s loyalties lie and what he likes about working in television.

Paste: The Americans killed off quite a few characters in season one. Were you ever worried that Stan wouldn’t live to see season two?
Noah Emmerich: I knew from the very beginning that Stan was a character who would be around. Although it was totally jaw-droppingly startling when they killed my partner Amador [Maximiliano Hernandez, in season one]. I didn’t expect that. When I read that I thought, “Holy cow.” You can say a lot of things at the beginning [of a show] but as things unfold and plots thicken and you need to figure out where to go, it is possible that anyone can be killed off. That’s the world of television. Although I went into it with assuredness that Stan is a character who would be there for the life of the show, you do have a slight moment of, “Well, who knows?” and that’s okay.

Paste: When I watch the show I can’t quite tell if Stan is still suspicious of Philip and Elizabeth or if he just views them as friendly neighbors. Do you know?
Emmerich: I mean, I have to know what I think as a character, but I think the audience’s perception is also essential. We talked about that from the very beginning. At the end of the pilot, Stan breaks into their garage. He’s suspicious. How do you maintain that tension without either seeming stupid or incompetent or ending the show? We talked about that at length. There needs to be that very soft sweet spot where Stan seems suspicious, and he certainly is intelligent, but what he thinks, we can’t know too clearly as an audience.

Paste: So you don’t want to tell me what Stan thinks?
Emmerich: No [laughs]. All those questions are good to have and bad to answer. Who really feels what and who’s really playing who and what’s really happening—that’s the onion of the show.

Paste: Did you know the affair between Nina and Stan would happen?
Emmerich: I knew virtually nothing. When I read the actual script where the affair with Nina begins, it knocked my socks off. I had no idea that was coming.

Paste: Now Stan is in love with Nina. Does that make him more vulnerable in season two?
Emmerich: Maybe he’s not in love at all. Maybe he’s just a really good agent. Nina says to him in season one, “You Americans think everything is black and white, and we know that it’s all gray.” And I think that’s certainly on point in terms of what Stan’s feeling for Nina or not. How much is he exploiting her, playing her? How much of it’s real? How much is he fighting himself and his own feelings? What does she really feel for him? Is she totally playing him? Is she falling for him a little bit? Is she really going to turn on him? Is she going to turn and double-turn? All these things are possible, and they need to be so to keep it sort of fertile and alive. I think Stan has certainly found in Nina some companionship that he’s lost at home with his wife. He’s very estranged and isolated from his own family. First because he was three years undercover and second because he’s working in counterintelligence now, and so much of it he can’t really share with his family. It’s either top-secret or dangerous or totally inappropriate. And in Nina, although she is clearly from the complete opposite ideological camp, there’s a mutuality of understanding. They’re sort of two sides of the similar coin weirdly. They both inhabit this world of shadows and secrets and layers of truth, and that’s quite an intimate experience, I think, which is part of what leads to his lowering of his resistance to her. There’s a reflection that we all seek as human beings without which we wither somewhat. And with Nina there’s a mutual reflection between them that I think is grounding and nourishing to some part of themselves that needs to be reflected and understood.

Paste: Do you think he’d ever turn and become a double agent?
Emmerich: I do think Stan’s patriotism is sort of unimpeachable. I don’t think he would ever do anything to betray his country for his own personal gain. I think he’s sacrificed most of his life for what he considers a higher noble cause certainly at great cost to himself. But one never knows until one is confronted with that choice.

Paste: You grew up in the ‘80s. What’s it like to revisit that time in the context of this show?
Emmerich: It’s really interesting to revisit because I was quite involved in anti-nuclear politics when I was a teenager, so I have a very strong emotional and physical memory of this time. It’s really interesting to revisit that time as an adult. It’s sort of surreal, in fact. Obviously everything in our lives, if we think about it, we’re obviously adults looking back. But this detail, this depth, this imaginative immersion is really like being my own father somehow. Like being your own wiser self. That’s part of what’s made the show really interesting for me, sort of collateral bonus prize of having been alive and being old enough and present enough to have really strong memories of how I saw the world then versus how I see the world now. It’s fascinating.

Paste: This is your first television series. Why did you decide to do TV?
Emmerich: It seemed like the writing on television was outshining the writing that was available on films—certainly the writing that was available to me as a sort of character actor. Films these days, I feel like they put a lot of energy and effort into shaping their protagonist. And then all the supporting characters around them are oftentimes not as dimensional or complex or interesting, and television is really more ensemble work happening. There’s edgier writing happening. There’s a chance to be involved in something with some continuity, which is really extraordinary for me. This is the first time I’ve come back to a job in 20 years. I’ve never come back to a job. Most people come back to a job after every vacation. I’ve never done it. It’s a great feeling. It’s familial, and it’s relaxed, and your comfort level grows. It’s a great experience that I’m having. First and foremost the material is quite rich and complex and challenging and interesting, and I get to sleep in my own bed, which I’ve very rarely done.

Paste: Was getting used to the episodic nature of television challenging?
Emmerich: It’s a very different technique and method and system from film, where you obviously know the entirety of the story from the beginning. At first I found that somewhat intimidating. I like to do a lot of homework. I like to know what I’m doing, and weirdly, in television you don’t. You sign up for an idea and a promise, but you don’t actually know what it’s going to be in execution. But ultimately I found it quite freeing and exciting and challenging and interesting. It’s fluid. It’s less precious. You don’t know what you’re going to do, so you can’t work on it. You have to be relaxed. It’s more improvisational in a weird way.

Paste: How did you start acting?
Emmerich: I was a real latecomer to acting. I dropped out of law school to become an actor. I did it right at the end of college, and it sort of awakened in me that sense that I should have tried this but I never sort of realized it. I was a singer. I fell into a show because I was in an a capella group, and my friend was directing a musical and desperately needed a singer in my range, so I said “yes” on a lark, and my life changed from there.