This season, the KGB agents will don punk rock garb. It’s a shocking ensemble for Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, even though the pair of Russian spies have worn a milieu disguises on The Americans, the acclaimed FX espionage series set in Washington at the height of the Cold War.
“We’ve gone on a lot of missions dressed as bureaucrats and business people, who often look mainstream and a bit boring,” Keri Russell, who stars as Elizabeth Jennings on the hit drama, tells Paste. She adds that The Americans’ third season (which premiered on January 28), features some more extravagant getups, especially during one scene in which Philip and Elizabeth infiltrate a college campus. She laughs, adding, “Our marks are young people and we have this rocker look, just like Sid Vicious and Nancy. It required Matthew and I to use very similar eye liner.”
Russell is referring, of course, to co-star Matthew Rhys, who plays her husband and KGB cohort Philip (the two actors are also an item off set). Rhys tells us that he and Russell frequently come up with their own small narratives to go with the disguises, before describing the backstory for his most frequent alter ego—a moustached, ponytailed hitman named Fernando.
“I have him coming from Spain. He was a flamenco dance teacher in Pasadena, before becoming a professional hitman. So that tends to inform his walk, and the boots he wears,” Rhys says drolly, his real life Welsh brogue making him sound entirely different from his character. Rhys adds that he and Russell have, on occasion, spent many hours in makeup and hair chairs on set, as their disguises were finessed. “So, to keep ourselves occupied we gave these alter egos little biographies, more than anything, just to make ourselves laugh.”
In response, Russell laughs and says, “Matthew is just playing teacher’s pet. I don’t come up with that many backstories, it’s mostly him.”
Rhys has an apparently obvious reason to show so much gusto for those costumes, at least according to series creator Joe Weisberg. “Keri has a beef,” he elaborates, a bit cheekily. “She says all of Matthew’s disguises make him look incredibly sexy, while hers are boyish and unflattering. I just laughed at that because, this is Keri Russell we’re talking about, and you can’t deny that she’ll always look fantastic.”
Russell counters by describing, with mock indignation, a costume that she and her friends at home have taken to calling “The Boys Don’t Cry disguise.” She adds, “It makes me look androgynous and bad skinned, and a bit like someone who does questionable acts at truck stops. It’s not my favorite costume.”
Those gripes seem more than a bit frivolous to Rhys, who points out that his costar has a considerable upper hand in one of the series’ other facets: the fight scenes. When the cast began martial arts training in 2012, before The American’s early 2013 debut, Rhys found himself winded and struggling to keep pace with the surprisingly kinetic Russell.
“Keri came head and shoulders above everyone else because of her dance training, which she likes to bang on about,” Rhys says about Russell’s self assured tenacity during the fight rehearsals. “That’s probably why more action scenes are written for her character.”
Audiences have been even more delighted to see the slightly-built actress wallop and disarm hulking henchmen. This is partly due to her efficiency in such tussles. But another factor is how far removed the lethally trained Elizabeth is from Russell’s title role on Felicity, the subdued late ’90s college drama that made her a household name. Russell says she has fond memories of her time on that earlier series, but adds that she never expected to even continue acting after its finale, much less star on another critically acclaimed series.
“It felt like such a fluke that I got [Felicity],” Russell says. “After it was done I just took time off to read books and be with friends. I wasn’t thinking beyond that.” She spent the rest of her twenties and early thirties enjoying the downtime, and partaking in a few small films. Felicity creator (and future Star Wars director) J. J. Abrams gave her an action-packed cameo in his fairly successful Mission Impossible threequel, but few roles inspired a major commitment from Russell, until she read Weisberg’s scripts for The Americans.
“This is a tough business for women,” Russell says. “But cable TV, and especially this show, are so much more layered, and interesting, and fun. I get to do so much more on The Americans than I would playing someone’s girlfriend in a big movie,” Russell explains. And she goes on to add that the aforementioned fight sequences are probably some of the most enjoyable moments of all. “I’ll have days and days of shooting these intimate, intense romance scenes with Matthew, or one of the marks that our alter egos are supposed to seduce. So it’s great to have these kick-ass action shoots, because they’re a bit like my old dance choreography, and are such a great physical release.”
That last point is especially crucial, because, even though fans may be initially drawn to The Americans’ quirky disguises and pulse-pounding action, those viewers continually tune in for its more restrained moments. Weisberg says he is, above all, inspired by the family dynamics between these undercover spies. And he is the ideal screenwriter to expound on such themes, thanks to his pre-Hollywood career as an actual CIA agent.
But, of course, Weisberg can’t tell us too much about his time at the agency. If he did, he’d have to kill us.
“I’ll submit questions to the CIA from the media, to get talking points for their approval,” he says. “Pretty much all I can tell you is that I got a basic background in the way espionage works, the complexities of it. In fact that word, ‘complexities’ was very carefully negotiated between them and I.”
Fortunately, Weisberg can divulge one more “top secret” detail about his days as a spy. “Some of the people that I worked with would tell me about how they finally told their kids what they really did for a living, which was a secret they kept for most of their lives. That kind of thing is so emotionally compelling, and not what most spy stories are about. That’s what drives me during this show.”
Russell says those plot lines about parenting are especially complex during Season Three, as the KGB attempts to recruit the Jennings’ eldest daughter Paige (played by Holly Taylor). During the second season finale, Elizabeth and Philip were at an impasse on the issue, with the father being protective, and the mother hoping to pass on their lineage.
“Elizabeth is not a great mom, which I love,” Russell says, before elaborating. “We see all these perfect parents on TV, and that’s just not the reality. Life is complicated, and you’re not always a good parent. Elizabeth is no exception. She’s not warm and fuzzy, but this season she’s closer to Paige than ever before, because she can tell her daughter has long been suspicious, and wants to know who she really is.”
And while critics have praised The Americans for those apt parental metaphors, Rhys says the series serves as an even better commentary on marriage and fidelity. “It’s not analogous so much as an extreme version. The themes on our show are the same as in any marriage, but the stakes are higher.”
This is especially true during the second season’s most intense episode, “Behind the Red Door,” in which Elizabeth learns about Philip’s more carnal tendencies, after questioning an informant that he had been stringing along.
“I think a lot of fans relate to that scene because, even though we don’t have these kind of affairs, and secret second marriages, and double lives in real life, a lot of us still don’t know what our spouses are like at work,” Russell says. “Plenty of wives will hear from their husband’s coworker about how funny he is at work, and they’ll think ‘Really? He’s not funny at home.’”
Elizabeth grows so jealous during that episode that she teases and chastises Philip into treating her the same way. The result is an unsettling bout of rough sex that leaves Elizabeth, and the audience, reeling.
“The truth was that she didn’t want that at all. What she wanted was to see all of him, and it got really dark and sad,” Russell says of that unnerving scene, adding that Season Three’s intimate moments are equally nuanced. One upcoming episode, for instance, will reveal how the KGB gave Philip sexual training, in order to help him seduce informants. Russell says, “This makes Elizabeth ask him, ‘Do you have to think of something else to get you there with these women? Do you have to do that with me?’ And he gives this really honest answer that’s so moving and surprising.”
Russell says such subtle scenes—rather than the action sequences, clever disguises, or Cold War era intrigue—are what truly make The Americans a success. “Those are my favorite moments of the show, the ones that speak to vulnerabilities that everyone has.”