“To me, what was always exciting was when I first read the first pilot. At its heart, [what was] the most alluring for me was this incredibly complex relationship, and how that would resolve and manifest itself. I think this year, the scene, the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth about Paige, it’s sort of the more extreme version of what so many marriages and relationships go through in the raising of children. It’s the absolute conflict that interests me, like how it will resolve itself and the very rocky journey of getting there”
This type of conflict and rocky journey is all about what makes The Americans, well, The Americans. And according to series star Matthew Rhys, this season surely won’t disappoint. Tonight, Rhys returns to our screens as Phillip Jennings – a seemingly average American family man who is really Mischa, a KGB agent covertly operating in enemy territory. His partner in crime (both on screen and in real life) is Keri Russell who plays his explosive wife Elizabeth/Nadezhda with whom he has an amazing (and tense) onscreen chemistry with. The series, now in its third season, is regarded as one of the top dramas on a network that is already renowned for top dramas. Its cat-and-mouse Cold War storylines and taught family drama has made this series a critical darling and audience favorite.
Prior to tonight’s premiere Rhys spoke to us in an exclusive roundtable conducted by FX. The veteran actor spoke at length about his TV family, the repercussions of his spy life for his family and daughter Paige, love, and how his character Philip really feels about what’s going on this upcoming season.
So for you now being in season three, what has still been the most challenging part? Since you have to play several characters, what has been the most challenging part and which is really maybe the easier part of playing Philip?
I’m still figuring out if there is indeed an easy part to playing him. I suppose the more enjoyable is that he continues to be as layered and rich and complex as he has been from the beginning.
The harder part for me is to land him in a place of reality, somewhere that’s real for me and hopefully real for an audience in that someone who has to juggle, in its reference, and keep as many sort of plates in the air as Philip does, but sort of the pressure that that would bring, it’s landing that in a real place. For me, it’s the sort of hardest balancing act.
At the end of last season we got the big news that the center is going to be trying to recruit Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter, Paige. We see that this is going to set up a conflict between the two parents as Elizabeth seems to be more open to this idea of their daughter becoming a spy than Philip is. Can you talk about how that conflict is going to affect their marriage and affect the family in season three?
Yes, it’s sort of the predominant and overriding arc for Philip and Elizabeth during this season, which is this enormous conflict between them that sets them poles apart, really, as they come from two opposing sides as to what should be done about Paige. Really, the entire season is that grapple and that wrestle between the two as they thrash it out.
In regards to Philip not wanting Paige to go into the life, because she’s at such a young and impressionable age, what do you think it would take to change Philip’s mind? Or do you think that he’s staunch in his belief that Paige should not follow in her parents’ footsteps?
I think he’s absolutely immovable in that respect. There’s nothing on God’s green earth that could make him acquiesce to the fact that she should join the KGB or, indeed, the intelligence world.
We’ve seen a pretty major difference between who Philip is as a spy and also who he wants to be as a person. Do you think it’s possible that the character of Clark is actually closer to who Philip sees himself as outside of the spy world?
That’s a very good question. I would agree. Yes, I think he’s arrived at a place in his life where it’s exactly what he does want. He does want a sort of domestic contentment. He wants a simpler life within a healthy working relationship where there’s sort of mutual respect. And yes, there’s a large element of Clark and Martha that serves that.
We see in the first set of episodes [of this season] where Philip is forced to approach a girl practically the same age as Paige. How do you think thought that affected Philip’s ongoing argument with Elizabeth and the KGB about age?
Well, I think it serves a point. As conflicted as he is, because he’s deeply, deeply upset by the mandates of this particular operation, I think he finds it incredibly disturbing for the simple reason that he does have a child the same age, but it reiterates the fact that this girl is, just purely by association being the daughter of a CIA, she’s put in harm’s way by people like him and I think he hopes it reiterates to Elizabeth the sort of danger she would be placed under if she were to come into this mad world.
We’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth do some pretty excruciating things, some horrible things for their country. At this point do you think that there’s anywhere that they would draw the line, that there’s something that they just wouldn’t do?
I mean, it was pretty tough for Philip to agree to sort of follow-on with the operation and the seduction of this 15-year-old. I think if for some reason there was an order to come through to sort of harm or terminate a minor, then I would imagine that would be something that he probably wouldn’t carry out.
You and Elizabeth have played a lot of different characters, different disguises. What was your favorite one to play?
My favorite one is a guy that I nicknamed Fernando. He has long shoulder-length hair and a mustache and sometimes a little goatee and usually works as a sort of janitor figure or whatever. He’s been my favorite I think just because of the elaborate back story I’ve given him as a flamenco dancing assassin.
Out the two-year run that your series has had, what is your favorite episode you’ve played so far?
I think possibly the favorite was that one where – I can’t remember what it’s called – but it’s where Philip, where Philip erupts in a way at Paige and tears up a Bible. To me, it was one of the most human moments for someone who’s had to deal with all of this throughout his entire life and we watched for two seasons the buildup and the culmination of so, so much. What I loved was the fact that for once, we see it released, we see it come out and we see it have its effect.
For that reason, it is rare because I think in the series we do tend to – emotions do have to be bottled for various reasons and it was just so good to finally air something so deeply entrenched in Philip’s psyche.
What are you most excited about for Season Three? Anything upcoming that you can talk about that you’re really excited about?
To me, what was always exciting was when I first read the first pilot of this, at its heart, the most alluring for me was this incredibly complex relationship, at its heart, and how that would resolve and manifest itself, and that’s what’s always of interest to me. I think this year, the scene, the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth about Paige, it’s sort of the more extreme version of what so many marriages and relationships go through in the raising of children. It’s the absolute conflict that interests me, like how it will resolve itself and the very rocky journey of getting there.
This season Philip and Elizabeth are extremely focused on Paige now that the center has kind of zoned in on her as being a recruit, but do you think that all this attention that they’re focusing on Paige is affecting Henry in some kind of way? There was his breaking and entering last season and this season he’s hoarding bikini photos of his neighbor and there’s no telling what else he’s going to do. Do you think that all this attention on Paige is just going to kind of come back to them with Henry?
I do, I do. There’s this kind of deliberate sort of silent watching and listening from Henry throughout the season, I’m very interested as to how that will manifest itself in him. It’s clearly that kind of absence he feels and the sort of dysfunction and the distance, I’m sure he feels will have to sort of come out in some way, form or another. I look forward to seeing that.
Has that affected the season just yet?
Not yet. It’s still kind of bubbling along.
Could you speak at all on your affinity for this script and kind of what your relationship is like and this new plot going on with Paige and everything?
I’ve always said television is the absolute writers medium and there’s a reason we’re in the golden age of television. It’s because the writing in this day and age is so incredibly good and never more so than in our show, where as I’ve said time and time again, the layering, the complexity of what they give us to play is so enormously interesting and difficult and challenging and dynamic. We thank them a lot as well. Sadly, we didn’t have the platform at the SAG Awards.
Specifically in terms of this plot with Paige, one couldn’t help but think of a series like Homeland where it seems like they kind of falter in focusing too much on the children. What do you think this season does right in kind of giving your children on the series such pests when it comes to the actual part of the show?
There’s sort of the focus of children taken in any family situation or dynamic is enormous and so much of people’s lives are geared towards being good parents and doing the right thing. I think it’s those universal themes that help us and really ground it in a way and make it that much more real, I hope.
When we see the flashback sequences, [we see Philip and Elizabeth’s] lives before they joined the KGB — which they’re not supposed to really acknowledge. But, over the last few seasons we’ve seen that there’s been a shift in that. However, we don’t really get a glimpse of Philip’s early life. Is that something we’re going to see more of or do you personally have a back story as an actor for that?
I do have a back story for it which sort of helps me in the way I kind of create my world for Philip. I don’t think it is, not this season, because this season is very much Elizabeth’s and the relationship with her mother, which you know, obviously parallels and mirrors that with Paige and the way it informs the relationship with Paige. That’s a great focused moment.
God willing, if we do get a fourth season then maybe we’ll see some of Philip’s more miss-spent psychedelic days.
In what ways would you say that Philip is very much like you as a person and in what ways is he just not like – or are you just not like him at all?
I’ve always appraised any character I approach with – basically, the characteristics should be built up of myself. I’m always interested in the truth of the character and the way I bring a truth to the character to make him, I hate to say, but it’s your own make up that you bring to the character. It’s rare that you see anyone play a great extremity in this day and age because actors really haven’t given the opportunity to be – only the big stars get to have the chameleon stretches that they want, but more often than not you’re kind of cast in the way that you are. More often than not, I think with television writing, as the first season unfolds, writers will tend to start writing to your own characteristics.
I think in that respect, when things evolve, naturally they see the family orientation and the rest of it, the more humanity of Philip. I like to think that those are characteristics that I share heavily with him, the same kind of hatred of the deaths that happen. There’s a lot of me in Philip, even though I’m watching now.
Nobody knows where the show’s ultimately going to go, but since in your personal opinion the way things have gone and knowing the character of Philip and Elizabeth, do you think towards the show’s end, which is hopefully many years from now, do you think it’s more likely that they’ll get captured and possibly killed or do you think there’s a chance that they could actually defect?
My hope is that they do defect. Philip mentioned that in the first episode of the first season. I think that’s something that remained with him very closely until now and that’s really the absolute only way he could guarantee the safe future of his children. To me, I would love to see them defect.
Do you think Elizabeth would go for that, though? She seems to be closer to Mother Russia than Philip.
There would have to be sort of unmitigated sets of circumstances whereby it would be a deal that if they didn’t they would go to prison for the rest of their lives, the kids would be put in a foster home, or that they could become double agents. Then it begs the question, does Elizabeth then become a triple agent?
Story-wise dramaturgically, I think it offers an enormous amount.
Matthew Rhys stars in The Americans which premieres tonight at 10pm on FX.
Laura Dengrove is the one of youngest members of the Pop-Break staff and is a critic for television/movies of all types on Pop-Break. She’s in her first year at college where she will be studying to obtain her bachelors degree at Rutgers University for Journalism/Public Relations. She was the editor for the Arts and Entertainment section of her school newspaper, runs her own blog (Pop Culture Darling), and interns for Design New Jersey. She also has an in-depth knowledge about all things True Blood and an avid Eric and Sookie shipper.