The Americans is a series that is merciless toward its characters, and wrenching on its viewers. Showrunner Joseph Weisberg and his talented bench of writers at FX lace these Cold War transplants with as much empathy as anxiety. You hurt when guest players have exhausted their invitation. Sometimes, when suitcases are involved, you hurt physically. The Americans doesn’t case you with storytelling-by-death sentences or trite Sherlockian plotting. It offers, week by week, a package whose depth cannot be strained—like the Jennings’ wigs; like Stan’s beer fridge; like Martha’s padded power suites.
Alison Wright plays Martha Hanson, an asset as prolific as the Jennings, who’ve tapped her. An F.B.I. clerk, she smuggles confidential files to them: names, locations, strategy. She gift wraps the sort of intelligence that, when tied tight with an American flag, seems invaluable. She is crucial in the thread of underground war against her country, on which The Americans focuses. And she is the sort of patriot that doesn’t need the jingoism. As it happens, love can conquer all, even perhaps America: her “husband” is a Soviet spy, who has nurtured her belief that he’s conducting a sort of internal investigation into a desire for children, for family.
Paste talked with Wright about her humanizing performance on The Americans, and the elegance and precision of lies.
Paste: This show is obsessed with details.
Wright: Love it. That’s what makes things so rich and fun. That’s what I like to watch when I watch TV—or movies. I like all of that stuff to be specific because it grounds it in a real place.
Paste: You mentioned in a Rolling Stone interview; that you bought era-appropriate condoms on eBay, just to have in the set’s bedroom nightstand. Do you like to fill in your character’s world with bits of the real world?
Wright: So, they’re very specific about the dates. I like to know what was on the TV that week, or what was on the charts, and just the sort of things that Martha would be exposed to. Or the awesome fondue set we’ve got in my kitchen. It’s never used, but I see it every day. I look through all my records by the record player, all my Pointer Sister albums, and that informs the smallest decision for me.
Paste: You’re interested in design, right?
Wright: Yes. It works out nicely for me. I enjoy getting to see what the designers and the decorators have done with these details. It’s lovely. With my fine arts background, it connects with my love of the visual and the aesthetic, which on our show happen to be really beautiful.
Paste: Still, you give Martha this attitude of someone who is an everyday citizen. She’s got this husband she loves, a good job, and, we’ll say, an above-average sex life. But she’s really quite tragic, and unlike the rest of the cast, she’s oblivious.
Wright: Yeah, tragic for us. She’s having a great time. Right now, things are a little more difficult for her. She is asking for the things that she wants, and whether that’s more responsibility at work or a child, she’s really asking for the things that she wants in her marriage. She’s not powerless.
I think that there’s something about her situation on some level that’s making her feel unsafe. She has this instinct to get a gun and learn how to use it, without any influence from Clark. She’s sensing on some level that she may have to learn how to protect herself.
Paste: Of course, she couldn’t have gotten lessons from anybody else besides the man who’s chasing down her actual husband.
Wright: That’s what makes it good television. She doesn’t have many outlets to go to. Stan and her people at her job are the closest thing she has to friends.
Paste: And would you say that Stan’s ex-wife, Sandra, is a sort of mirror to Martha? Both are shut out of the lives of their F.B.I. men.
Wright: Martha’s actually in a really hard place, whether she denies it, or is willing to admit it. Clark has isolated her quite well. He’s made her believe that her boss and her coworkers are making fun of her behind her back. He’s got her thinking she can’t talk to her friends or her family about their relationship. He’s got her doing these things that she thinks are for The Cause, but it’s not something that sits well with her. All of this she’s just putting on the back burner and not thinking about. Doing nothing is the easiest thing to do at the moment. But it will come to a head at some point. She’ll have to address them.
Though, I do think that she trusts her husband absolutely.
Paste: Which seems unfair because Martha’s actually quite fun. You bring some needed levity.
Wright: I’m not sure if she was intended to be that, I have no idea. But there’s a humor and a warmth and a kindness. I don’t know. I think that’s part of the deal they got when they hired me. Maybe the audience can easily be on her side. She’s easy to relate to. Lots of people respond to the mail bot. Lots of people are like urgh, I had one just like him, it’s the worst thing, it’s so annoying.
Paste: Has building the character been a collaborative process?
Wright: It has. They really do trust us to a certain extent. I’ve had a lot of freedom to lead her the way my instincts tell me to. Whether or not the writing adapts—I’m not sure exactly which directs which.
Paste: Have you been drawing from any first-hand accounts similar to Martha’s?
Wright: Yes, yes. There’s not that much published about the wives and the situations they were in while they were in them. What is published is after-the-fact. In three out of the four cases that I’ve read about, mostly from East Germany, the women ended up committing suicide when they found out. Their marriages went on eight, ten years in some cases. There were children.
Paste: Did they ever catch on and choose to go along with their husbands? Or did it fracture?
Wright: They may have had an inkling—that something was wrong or something wasn’t quite right. But they never knew that it was necessarily for the Soviet Union. Maybe just that it wasn’t who they thought it was. But they would never know which flag they were working for. You couldn’t figure that out.
Paste: Has the history been the biggest challenge to playing Martha?
Wright: Growing up in England, I was very unexposed to the majority of this stuff. The biggest learning experience for me has been all the intricacies of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. I’m reading a great book at the moment: The C.I. Desk: F.B.I. and C.I.A. Counterintelligence As Seen From My Cubicle. It’s this guy that worked at both agencies, and he talks about everything that happened at the office and how people interacted with each other—how things fell through the cracks and how disorganized it all was. Super interesting to learn, and to read about.
Paste: “Disorganized” isn’t the first way you want to characterize something that plays fate with so many people’s lives.
Wright:There are also so many things happening this season that I didn’t expect. I still don’t know where it’s going to end for Martha. Philip and Elizabeth just stuffed Annelise into the suitcase—an agent he’s been working and sleeping with for three years. He did that with no problem whatsoever. Martha’s not safe. It’d take one little slip up with work—potentially with Stan—for her to need to be silenced.
Kyle Burton is a freelance critic and an inaugural recipient of Indiewire and Sundance’s Roger Ebert Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter.