FX has done it again! Seems like I’m saying that every season doesn’t it? Well, its true! FX is the channel that brings such cutting edge shows like LEGIT, SONS OF ANARCHY and AMERICAN HORROR STORY along with the hysterical animated series ARCHER.
Now, FX has reached in deep for the new show THE AMERICANS. Set in the cold war era of the 1980’s Rhys plays Phillip Jennings, a Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married to wife Elizabeth played by Keri Russell who is also with the KGB.
Coming to American after Ronald Reagan has become president the couple have to children who have no idea who their parents really are. Tensions only grow when the new neighbor Stan Beeman, an FBI agent in the Counterintelligence force, spends his time looking for those who are posing as Americans.
I had the opportunity to hear what Matthew had to say about playing opposite Keri Russell, his role, and the news that THE AMERICANS gets a second season!
Lets just jump in; tell us about working with your co-star Keri Russell?
I don’t think we have the time. It’s a nightmare. She is everything I imagined that has been reported about her in the past as sort of the consummate professional when she turns up. She is a real dream to work with, to be perfectly honest. I said about her the other day, nothing is a problem for her even when it is. She takes that sort of ethos on the set every day. We do have a lot of fun. There is a lot of sort of poking fun at each other, but we do make each other laugh, which is great. Well, when she turns up, or when she’s sober it’s fine. When she puts that big wig on with all that hair she has everything turns out great. She is a joy. She is an absolute joy. On top of her smoldering looks, she happens to have a very fabulous personality, which is what makes the shooting of the series a lot of fun. She has an incredibly mischievous sense of humor, which drives me insane, but we do have fun making this show.
Last week’s episode was a game changer for Philip, how do you see that affecting the second half of the season?
You hit the nail on the head in saying it is a game changer. So many things changed, in many ways irreparably, to a degree in that you wonder a) how he’ll be able to recover with Elizabeth and indeed the people he worked for. It sort of solidifies and consolidates everything he was beginning to believe, not about her, but certainly about the KGB anyway. It makes for that great pressure, as something now must happen from that. Certainly in the episodes we’re shooting now, I think Philip is in this great transition. It’s like stalemate because he knows he wants to make a move and he wants to do something about it, it’s just he isn’t quite sure how to get out, really.
It’s just like my social life, to be perfectly honest. There is no real change for me coming in. Certainly, this is the most diverse part I’ve ever had for sort of playing different parts within one part. That’s an actor’s dream, I think, to get to have that variety within one part. It’s sort of everything you want. There is no danger of going stale.
You have such intense emotional scenes and at the same time a lot of action, which do you think is more difficult?
That’s very kind of you to say. I actually have a magnificent stunt double. I just wish he could do the same with the emotional stuff. The draw of the part was always the emotional stuff; that sort of incredibly complex relationship you find them at. Sort of steering that emotional voyage has been, for want of a better cliché, for want of a better pretentious cliché, has been this sort of hard element to it all. I look forward to the action stuff because it’s like a welcome break from this sort of slightly heavier emotional stuff. It’s like doing games when you’re at school. You didn’t call it games, you called it P.E. What do you call it here? Sports. Phys Ed.
Your relationship with Keri is so interesting and many want to know where it’s going. Can you give our readers a teaser?
I don’t think the resolution is quite possible given what they’ve been through and the amount of back and forth, you know the chess game they play with each other where revelation after revelation has come out and the amount of betrayal involved. I don’t think will be resolved overnight and I think that’s sort of the glorious element to it, is that it can’t be a quick fix relationship. There has to be some sort of long road of recovery for it to have any longevity.
There are a lot of really intense British spy scandals, did that get your attention before the script came to you?
Absolutely. I think universally the world of espionage has always been of great interest just because of its mystery, but you’re right there are a number of very famous spy scandals that happened in the United Kingdom, one of which we borrowed directly from in The Clock, when Elizabeth uses the umbrella to poison the young man. That actually happened on Waterloo Bridge, was it in the 90s or the 80s, I can’t remember. So, yes, we grew up with the whole Cold War espionage thing on our television screens every day. It was certainly of interest to me.
Stan and Philip have become an intense storyline with Stan almost as an unwitting informant. How can Philip balance that with a friendship?
I think he’s a little torn about Stan, to be perfectly honest. Philip does come from a decent moral place in many ways and he has a love for the lifestyle they’ve created. I think part of that is this sort of white picket idyllic idea of having a best friend in a neighbor. I think he genuinely does like Stan, although he tells Elizabeth it’s good to keep your enemies closer, I think with Stan there is a genuine fondness there. It’s unfortunate that in a way he is manipulating him for information.
Philip is showing signs of a weak commitment to mother Russia so would he put his children before country or the other way around?
I think where you find him in the first episode is exactly that. I think he’s come to a point in his life where he is no longer defined by his job. His job no longer defines him and as you said the priority now in his life in his children. I think he’s realized that their job has a shelf life and that the vice is slowly tightening and it’s something they can’t sustain. I think his real ambition in life is to secure the future for his children and for him and Elizabeth, really. I think that’s his super-objective is to make sure that they’re all safe. The only real way to do that is to get out.
With the strain in other relationships on the show, Philip and Elizabeth have to be strained as well yes?
It certainly is. I think Elizabeth has a great mistrust of Stan and Philip being friends. She regards, obviously, understandably, she regards the fact that he’s an FBI agent as incredibly dangerous and distance is what they should be putting between them. Yes, in the multitude of things that’s already wrong with this marriage that certainly doesn’t help.
Were there any challenges prepping for the show?
When I first read the pilot—and I know I’m sure actors talk about this age-old analogy often, but it really, truly had everything, actually that’s not an analogy, it had everything that you generally want as an actor. It had, at its core, this incredibly complex relationship, which clearly would have a long journey ahead of it as to whether it could or indeed will resolve itself. Then also, you add to that mix 15 years of pretense of domestic marriage with 2 children and then on top of that the extremity of what they do for a living. It really is something that has everything. You then have within that, their work, a sort of multitude of characters they have to play and then as you see, on top of that the whole action element, which is fantastic. We did a few weeks’ martial arts training and Joe Weisberg, the creator, who is an ex-CIA operative himself, did some counter-surveillance work with myself and Keri so we did a little bit, plus all the reading and watching documentaries.
THE AMERICANS is definitely a period piece that has to help tremendously to keep your character?
Absolutely. I think any physical influence like that will inevitably help steer and guide you as a character. I think just the way it obviously aids us as a dramatic piece, we’re not in an age of technology and that you realize that espionage at the time was incredibly based on human intuition and ingenuity, really. It aids it all, really.
Now that’s you’ve sort of experienced the other side, does it change how you look at that era and today?
Certainly, and it’s the one common that keeps coming up time and time again, is that people will say I can’t believe I’m rooting for a KGB agent and I think the reason being is regardless of who they are and what their background is, as soon as you present an audience with a very human or universal themes or problems then they’re instantly relatable. It is that thing, although with the indoctrination they had at an early age and we kind of think that’s the KGB way and that there was this sort of hard core browbeating of their manifesto, as soon as you realize the more human problems they have, you realize exactly that, that they are just humans. Yes, my sympathy or my empathy is always realized once you sort of understand that these people are human like the rest of us.
Do you speak Russian?
I was fluent before I took the part, funnily enough. No, I wasn’t at all. I’m being scoffed at by my publicist because she is actually fluent, born and raised in Russia, funnily enough. No, I wasn’t. You will, in fact, unfortunately hear me butcher the beautiful language of Russian in an upcoming episode. It’s been a little bit of a linguistic struggle for me.
What do you see accomplishing this season?
To be perfectly honest, landing this part and playing out this season has been, and I say this sincerely, an absolute career high for me. It’s a heaven-sent part and production, to be perfectly honest. I hope, as we all do in summing or wrapping up a season, that it will give the audience enough resolve for a taste of satisfaction, but ultimately, that it will leave enough mystery and intrigue to bring an audience back for the next season. That would be my goal.
Is there anything you personally added to the character?
The hair I brought myself. No, not really. It was part of the enormous draw of the first episode that it was so incredibly well written. We’re incredibly lucky with the team of writers, helmed by Joe Weisberg that it’s very rare that there is a need to bring anything because it’s all so much on the page. If you just stick to the script you’re not going to go too far wrong. I just made myself incredibly unimaginative in saying that I didn’t bring anything to the part.
Do you have favorite moments so far this season?
I suppose the scenes for me the most satisfying, the boundaries we push emotionally and psychologically as sort of Philip and Elizabeth further push their own relationship in striving for potential or possible relationship, you realize for two people to spend so long together and who are trained to gather, glean, and gain information, they’re incredibly bad communicators with each other. It’s been a slow creep for the two of them in getting to where they are. There is a lot of push and pull in the relationship that sort of sets them back and pushes them forward and sets them back further. It’s those scenes I find most rewarding as you very slowly, and sometimes painfully, chip away at the veneer of what their relationship is.
I like when he says he will stand up for her.
Yes, it was. That’s a very short scene; I think so much was said in it. Strangely enough, it’s had quite a reaction from a couple of people who’ve stopped me on the street saying it had quite an effect. I think it was very telling and again another frustrating element of him, but there is this half realized position he’s in of being her husband, not being her husband, and being allowed to be protective and not allowed. Those are the gray areas, I think, where the most interest lies.
I have to ask, anything you can sneak to us about the season finale?
I think for the finale would possibly be that— Oh, tease, oh, God no. I don’t know anything about the finale. We’re the last people they tell.
Going to keep us guessing eh?
Yes, yes. Sorry, I thought you said if I could choose anything for the finale, it’s that Philip opens a cake shop.
Elizabeth had Gregory as a confidant for years; do you think a lover will come forward for Philip?
I don’t think so. I think his reaction when he found out about Gregory—it was so hurtful to him that she had lied to him for so long, and that he was genuine in his reaction when he found out that although obviously they live this strange lie of a relationship, it was true when he said he never lied to her about anything. He’d always kept it very open. I honestly don’t think so because his reaction was so sincere. I think he was incredibly hurt by Gregory.
The kids are becoming more aware of their parents actions, do you see the kids evolving as the season goes along?
I don’t know. I think that’s an incredibly interesting sort of element as to how much they will know or when indeed they do know. Joe Weisberg, the creator of the show, actually an operative—he said that there is this time in the CIA when operatives do get together and usually in training and they end up as couples or they end up getting married. Sometimes they’re asked by the CIA to work as couples; they inevitably have children. They have these foreign assignments where they’re posing as families. Then there comes a time in that whole timeframe where there is this sort of special day; this day that is this kind of thing within the CIA that people know about when operatives tell their children. I was asking when does that happen? They said there is no real timeframe, it’s just when they think the child is mature enough to take the information. I said, “Well, how is it received?” He said, “A number of different ways.” Children sometimes feel incredibly relieved because they’ve sensed that there is something odd has been happening their entire lives and they haven’t been able to put their finger on it. Other children are dismayed that their parents have lied to them for so long. Then some children are just ecstatic at the fact that their parents have turned out to be spies. It’s a very real situation whereby this would happen where they would sit the kids down and say this is what we do. I think dramaturgically it opens up an enormous array of directions in which they could take it. Who knows, is my long-winded answer.
How do you want the first season to be remembered?
I think you’ve just done it to be perfectly honest. When I came to the project I remember thinking this is a concept or a premise that I’ve never seen before. I just think I hope it’s remembered for that really, that this is such a unique situation that offers so many platforms for sort of great drama that I just hope that that’s how it’s remembered as an inaugural season.
Do you appreciate all things Russian now?
I do. It’s lucky that my publisher is Russian and speaks Russian so that’s aided me enormously. Yes, with the research that we were doing, obviously, a lot of the research I did for Philip was exactly that, which was just to research the Russia that he would have grown up with so I could better understand maybe why it was he wanted to defect. I’ve certainly found a new passion for Russian male voice choral singing.
After being in the US for so many years, do you see Phillip changing since his arrival?
Absolutely. I think when he first arrived he, like Elizabeth, was as hard-lined as her and they were there for a very specific mandate. I think it’s his time there that’s changed him. I think what’s consolidated that more than anything is the birth of his children.
Keri Russell is associated with FELICITY as the good girl and with THE AMERICANS she gets to be tough!
I thought it was an incredible piece of casting by FX. In the same way there is this sort of slight mirror that to the KGB would have chosen someone who you wouldn’t naturally look at and say, oh, KGB operative, in the same way FX cast, not just, when you look at Keri, you pretend she’s – you don’t go KGB operative, but as you say, she comes with this sort of American tele-visual history of being this sweet person. Then they’ve 180’d that casting on its head. I really appreciate when casting is that original and daring in a way. I thought it was a shrewd piece of casting on their behalf for those two reasons.
You’ve already got season two locked down, anything planned during the break?
I am trying to solidify, at the moment, a horse trip to Mongolia to take in April, which I’m incredibly excited about. So, no work work, but that to me is my idea of heaven. I’m just trying to finalize plans on that at the moment.
Did you always want to act or was there something else you wanted to do?
I’m not sure, that might be a chicken or egg question. When I was growing up and I sort of wanted to be all these sort of classic boyhood things like a soldier and a cowboy and all those other things. I think there must have been a point when I realized if I was an actor I could play all those parts—do all those things and then sort of go home at the end of the day. That’s the glory, in a way, of doing this crazy, maniacal job is that you do get the opportunity to live out boyhood fantasies and at the moment I’m ticking the box on the spy one.
How has your career rewarded you so far?
For me personally, I would have to say it’s the variety of which I’ve experienced. I’ve been incredibly lucky to sort of bridge a number of mediums, be it film, television, and my sort of real love, which is the theater and others as well, such as radio. It’s the variety of it that I’ve enjoyed enormously, I think. I think it keeps you, I’m certainly sorry, I can speak personally; it keeps me fresh in a way when I’m challenged in that way.
Was it fun going back to the 1980s?
They were very formative years for me sort of growing up. There have been elements of the clothes—we sort of go, oh my God, I remember my mom wearing these and things like that. Strangely enough, it was a time where we were watching American television so I have this strange, slightly removed nostalgia when the cars come out and obviously the American crew and cast go oh, I remember this car. I remember those cars watching them on television thinking oh, my God, they’re so exotic, those Mustangs and Buicks, and now I’m sort of being allowed to drive one recklessly, which is fabulous.
Thanks for sharing with us today Matthew and if you have not discovered FX then all I can say is what planet are you on?
The new series THE AMERICANS airs on Wednesdays, at 10 PM Eastern/Pacific. Check out this fantastic series!
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