Matthew Rhys plays Philip Jennings on the FX series THE AMERICANS that airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific only on FX. There are two episodes remaining to air this season so be prepared for surprises as only this show can bring.
Rhys career began in television when he landed the role in TITUS ANDRONICUS and quickly changed to film with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HAROLD SMITH? It is his role in BROTHERS & SISTERS that Americans took notice.
With film and television under his belt, it should be no surprise that Rhys also played Benjamin in a stage production of THE GRADUATE in London. It is his return to television that we really see what Rhys is capable in his role as Philip in THE AMERICANS.
It is a pleasure to talk with Matthew about his role and how he sees the complexity of the relationships and keeping up with his alter characters:
Thank you for talking with us today Matthew.
Does Phillip feel guilty about his killings?
Yes, absolutely. I think part of what Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields—well, all the writers really, I think there’s an element that “Philip” and his feelings and point of view is slightly [indiscernible] the social conscious. “Elizabeth” has less of a hard time in doing so because her belief in her mandate is so strong whereas, as we saw from the first episode of the first season, “Philip” is incredibly torn as to where their future lies or where his beliefs and loyalties lie. So I think the killing of people is now more of a survival instinct for “Philip,” it’s more [indiscernible] so his family aren’t—the security of his family isn’t breached. That’s his primary goal in life. So I think he has to be the best spy he can be, and if that means killing people, unfortunately—if it means securing his family’s identity and future, then he’ll do that, but that’s where his motivation comes from.
Do you do research to develop your character or something else?
It feels, to me, it’s an amalgamation of a number of things. Sometimes writers take from what they see and steer a character in that way. The evolution can be quite natural, I think, in that there’s input from both parties. The more sort of technical-related issues, then yes, I’ll do my own research or talk extensively with Joel, who always has great input obviously because of his CIA background. Yes, it’s an amalgamation of a number of inputs, really, and I always find usually in television, because you have a length of time, does tend to evolve quite naturally from all parties.
How did you deal with shooting in New York during all that snow?
It was pretty vast in the way that you can slightly shoot yourself in the foot in a TV series where you’ve accepted a particular time of year, and then you have an adverse snow flooding or whatever, which doesn’t help your continuity; the costume fitting you’ve had for that episode happened a week ago when you accepted the continuity in a house wearing a thin polyester jacket, and now you can’t be putting on a big puffer. It definitely has its challenges.
I know on the day of arctic—what was the term they used? I can’t remember. We were meant to be outside, and that was changed and we were all of a sudden inside. New York is its own animal, and brings its own challenges be it weather, or its vibrant, colorful residents.
Do you think with the recent issues with Russia that your show might spark more interest or make people less sympathic to your character?
I’m not sure. I know certainly there are those—I’ve spoken with those people who didn’t watch, or couldn’t get into the show because they didn’t want to sympathize with Russian characters. I don’t know if that tends to be with a person of a certain age, but I think there’s a great success story in what the writer’s done in making the two main protagonists antiheroes in way in that you are obsessively rooting for the bad guy. But I think what they’ve successfully done is made them fully fleshed and fully drawn out very human characters. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether the troubles in the Ukraine would spark more or less interest in the show. But yes, I would agree that making your two main characters the enemies would certainly come with its challenges, but then I enjoy the elements in the show; the way they do sort of turn things on its head and ask an audience to question a little more.
How has dealing with Paige this year changed things or has it?
I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show, and not just one that’s been added for good measure, but with real reason that you have two young children who’ve been lied to their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’re coming of age and the parents’ suspicious behavior and the long absences, the phenomenal amount of laundry that they have to do; questions are going to be raised. It seems to be a very natural progression, and it raises questions in “Philip,” certainly with “Paige” that—I think he’s desperate for her not to take over a life that he didn’t have his entire life which is the life of just duplicity, deceit and lies; he’s desperate for her to avoid that. It pulls on him emotionally in an enormous way. That just makes it that much more interesting. It’s another great conflict within the family that lends itself.
You are an Englishman playing a Russian playing an American playing other people. How difficult is that for you?
The simple answer is, it’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me. At first, I kind of went at it from that point of view thinking, oh I’m a Welsh Russian playing an American, and it just makes for a great amount of confusion. In its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American, which is what I was doing on Brothers and Sisters, and now I’m legitimately doing it on The Americans. It helps my cause enormously that you’re—and I’ve been through it in doing Brothers and Sisters. What I was genuinely doing was trying to be a foreigner assimilating to American point of view, so I know exactly what it is. It’s strange with all the accent work I was doing on Brothers and Sisters more often than not, the dialect coaches say, you accomplish sound right, you sound right, but you don’t sound like an American if that makes sense. It’s more about an inner temple, you just have to be in the country for long enough to get the right rhythm and right cadence, and that took a long time. Something I’ve been familiar with.
How difficult was it to do the episode where Philip rages at Paige?
The training I received many, many years ago when I was at college in London; a very strong [indiscernible] philosophy based training where your real emotion, your true emotion is used, and there’s a term they used called emotional memory or emotional callback. I just used something from my own past that was similar that would elicit the same feeling, and then you kind of go through an emotional trigger that gets you to that base so you kind of access a [indiscernible] that comes quite easily. That was the primary focus for that scene. I think “Philip” realizes that it’s a number of things. Obviously the pressure on him is enormous, and he realizes there’s an element with his daughter that she’s slipping out of his reach, and in that way that so many of us do, you lash out because you feel helpless. That’s how I went about it.
What is the biggest challenge of doing THE AMERICANS?
The accent is always a tricky part for me because I think such a large part of your brain is working towards that, so you have to sort of stay on it as much as possible. I think just the physical filming of this series is incredibly difficult for the simple reason, the scene count we have, the amount of days we have to shoot, the jumping from disguises; it’s a big juggling act, this series, and the pace at which we shoot. In a day you’re in the chair, a wig is going on your head and you don’t even know if you’re doing a pickup shot or whatever, you can’t remember what episode it was from. It’s kind of an [indiscernible] say, keeping your head sane in the madness, and keeping a focus on where you are in the arc of the season and just trying to keep level headed with the madness of it all.
You have directed before, is there a chance you will direct an episode of THE AMERICANS?
Foolishly or arrogantly or ignorantly, before starting shooting this series, I thought, oh I’d love it if there was a possibility that I could shoot—direct an episode. Having seen the pace at which we shoot, and the hours which we shoot is incredibly indulged on Brothers and Sisters whereby they wouldn’t write me late in the episode before I would direct so that I could prep, and all the rest, and they’d also run me light in the episode I was directing, so I was incredibly looked after on that series. In this series, there’s absolutely no way I could do both jobs without either: a) killing myself or the use of incredibly heavy drugs.
Moderator: Next question is from Ernie Estrella, BuzzFocus.com. Please go ahead.
When you get the script, do you only know your side of the story or do you know both?
Just purely from reading the script I do enjoy what’s going on because I think there’s so much juice in their storylines, the [indiscernible] one especially. But purely just because the way we shoot we never see those guys, I very rarely have a scene with Noah [Emmerich], and that’s really my only communication, but we never see—we rarely cross paths in the make-up [indiscernible]. We don’t get to see them; we don’t go on their set. It is like, in that way, you’re sort of separate entities working toward the same goal.
Wearing all those costumes, do you have a favorite?
My favorite character is one of them that has shoulder length hair, and a mustache and a little goatee and he’s usually at worker man, a phone electrician or caretaker, he usually wear the blue jumpsuit and it has a tool belt. I enjoy him just purely because I’ve given him such an elaborate and detailed backstory. As all of us do, we sort of give them alter egos and give them these fantastic biographies. Mine is a flamenco dancer from Seville.
With two episodes left, can you talk about them?
There is an enormous about-turn in the last episode that I think keys up the third season beautifully in a finding way, in a way that’ll bring in a greater conflict of “Philip” and “Elizabeth.” Having seen them separated for the majority of the first season because of what they were going through, and then reunited for the second season which great to see what happens at the end of the finale is, I think, going to bring such division to the two of them and will be very interesting to see how they play out. I think what’s so great about this season is the sort of continuity of a storyline within every episode, and the great danger off of a rogue force that they [indiscernible] uncontrollable, and I think it plays beautifully to their paranoia as a lifestyle that they can’t sustain, because they realize how dangerous their lives are becoming. They’re shooting at the end of Season One giving way to this—the killing of the family, beginning of the second season; they realize that they’re very fallible, they’re not untouchable and that’s going to be a great set to them.
Philip used Annalise instead of Elizabeth in the trap, what does that mean for Philip?
I think it shows quite clearly that he doesn’t fit well with the honey trapping now. Season One was seeing how the two of them—as they developed these real feelings—hang on one sec. As they were developing these real feelings, how that changes the game for them in Season Two is very apparent. These real emotions have developed for the pair of them, and now certainly, the conflicts between that and their mission statement, their mandate, it makes for very difficult, although interesting dramaturgically, difficult situations whereby the thought of “Elizabeth” honey trapping, it preys on him enormously, and that’s why he chose to use “Annalise” because his feelings have evolved and grown so much, and are now very real.
Why do you think Philip is easier on Paige than Elizabeth is?
I think for a number of reasons really. His assimilation to the United States has been easier than “Elizabeth’s” because—and this was my own personal backstory that I gave to him, growing up in post-World War [indiscernible] Soviet Union would have been incredibly difficult and incredibly—great hardships and [indiscernible] poverty. Though they were indoctrinated at a very earlier age, he’s come of age, “Philip,” and he’s realized he has a family that he loves and wants to secure their future, and that’s threatened. However, he’s accepted the United States as a newfound freedom. There’s a number of ex-trappings that he enjoys enormously. I think he’s easier on his children because he knows—I’m sure there’s guilt about the lives they’re leading, the deceit they’re feeding them, and also in a way where he wasn’t allowed to be the person that he wanted to be. They were, to a degree, sort of brainwashed. I think he wants his child, even if they are in opposition to him, he wants his child to have those choices to form who she is independently, to be whoever she wants to be and to live the life she wants to live, which is something he certainly wasn’t allowed. So I think he allows them a greater freedom, and is that little bit more forgiving.
Can you talk a little about Philip and Elizabeth working on their marriage and Philip and Martha?
Yes, it’s bizarre because obviously there’s an ulterior motive. The other thing I struggle with is, I find myself in these situations doing these scenes with “Martha,” and you kind of think, oh my gosh this is so bizarre, but the bizarre element is that this was an incredibly successful operation for the KGB and something they advocated enormously, which was the partnerships and managers of low lever security cleared staff that they could infiltrate. This is something very real and very true. However, the pitching of where indeed to pitch this relationship is very difficult because ultimately you want to make it as believable as possible, but ultimately you have to make [indiscernible] so that’s where I begin. But the motivation is different, it’s two-fold in a way, I think. One is obviously to gain intelligence, but also if this relationship goes awry then his whole identity is compromised as is his family, therefore the stakes are incredibly high. It’s a real tightrope walk for him in that he either has to be real, because it inevitably will and has turned into a real relationship, but he also has to remember what he needs to succeed in doing is: a) getting information; and b) not blowing his cover. It’s a knife’s edge for him, something I’d imagine [indiscernible] a number of ulcers.
The Americans airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific only on FX and with two episodes left, lets hope we get some answers and tons of cliff hangers for the next season! Thanks Matthew!