Matthew Rhys: “I still blink hard when the young PAs say, ‘We’re doing this period drama’”

"The Americans" star lived in Wales during the Cold War. Now he is seeing the Red Scare through his TV kids' eyes

Topics: TV, Television, Interviews, matthew rhys, the americans, FX, Russians, Reagan, kgb, Communism, spies, Brooklyn, DC, 1980s, keri russell,

Matthew Rhys: "I still blink hard when the young PAs say, 'We’re doing this period drama'"Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings on "The Americans" (Credit: FX/Craig Blankenhorn)

The Cold War-era espionage thriller “The Americans,” which is halfway through its first season on FX (and airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET), is not the first series to challenge the audience to identify with unsympathetic characters. But this early 1980s drama pushes American views a little harder, asking us to root for KGB sleeper cells living in suburban northern Virginia as Americans — and see CIA and FBI agents as the enemy. Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who last appeared on U.S. television in ABC’s  family drama “Brothers & Sisters” as a gay lawyer (and whose TV brood included Rachel Griffiths, Calista Flockhart and Sally Field), returns to the small screen to play Philip Jennings, a Russian spy, who takes all of his roles very seriously, no matter which identity he’s assumed. He is an effective strategist when it comes to collecting intelligence — and a scrappy thug when he needs to be. But equally interesting is the domestic drama within “The Americans”: Philip is devoted to his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) — despite the fact that theirs is an arranged, sham marriage — and an extremely protective father to their daughter and son, who know nothing of their parents’ secret and past lives. And part of Philip wonders if it would just be better for the family to defect, to buy into the American way of life — which would, of course, mean betraying his country and abandoning his life’s work.

Rhys spoke with Salon while on a break from filming Season 1′s final episodes in downtown Brooklyn (where the show is shot) about what it’s like to revisit the final years of the Cold War in his role as a KGB sleeper cell, as an adult, and as someone on American soil (the 38-year-old grew up in Wales), and describes, with affectionate bemusement, the way the young people on the set — from the young production assistants to the child actors who play his kids — perceive the drama as some long-ago chapter in history.

“The Americans” begins in 1981 — I was 10, and I remember that time so well, but it’s fascinating to see the era anew through adult eyes. I think so many of us forget how acutely Americans felt the Russian paranoia.

Yeah, it’s something I remember vividly.

What did it look like as you were growing up in Wales.



Well, in a way it was kind of worse. The Cold War was as prevalent for us as well, but we were in striking distance of Russian nuclear weapons. So I think Britain always felt like slightly caught in the middle of it all. I remember this front where the USSR was and that was sort of the front line of it all, and East Berlin was incredibly close.

Your Welsh accent — now that’s an act of ventriloquism, being a Welsh man playing a Russian pretending to be American.

Ha, my fake, phony accent. It’s sort of glorious. If, at any time, the accent slips, you can go, “Oh, you know, I’m not American.”

Philip is such an interesting character, because he takes all of his personas very much to heart — not least of which, as a husband and as a father. We’ve seen so many shows with cognitive dissonance, like “The Sopranos,” where you see a mobster devoted to his family — admittedly, a serial philanderer — and so it makes it easy to sympathize with them. But this is a fantastic conceit, asking Americans to sympathize with KGB spies. And it’s impossible not to. We watch this very loving father and husband who’s trying to make a sham marriage work. There’s so much more asked of you as an actor, playing a role in which your character is playing any number of roles, getting into a series of different characters.

Absolutely. It’s one of the most layered characters I’ve read in so many years, because they’re sort of – there’s duplicity in every moment that you play. If you’re pretending to be someone else, if you’re in your fake marriage, trying to make it real, second-guessing this other person – you know, you have enormous trust issues in a marriage bad enough, anyway. But I think add to that the possibility that she might be informing on him, they are pulled apart when it comes to where their future lies or what their beliefs are. I think you join the two of them when they’re figuring out – they  come to a point in their lives where they’re trying to figure out what it is that defines them. I think Philip’s at a point where he realizes he’s not defined by his job – his job isn’t what he is. To me, it was always the children. You find him in the first episode at a point when he realizes that it’s an unsustainable lifestyle, and that he has no interest in going back to Russia. He doesn’t want to take his children back to Russia – that seems unfeasible, unrealistic. And he realizes the only way to secure it all is to defect, the only way to secure their future and to make money out of it. And the woman he’s falling for, after being 15 years in a safe relationship, is, as I say, a polar opposite in his beliefs. But almost everything you do has this incredibly heightened conflict to it all, so it’s this mess we’re trying to figure out, really.

You feel his frustration; in a way, it would be easier if he defected. But we haven’t gotten to know his story yetWe’ve gotten to know Elizabeth’s back story a bit. 

No, no, and I think that’s just been part of the way the series arc has gone. And I don’t know whether we will, or whether next season we will. You know, we’re coming soon to the end of the season.

The second season very well could focus on Philip. The previews for tonight’s episode — Episode 6 — shows a real threat of exposure for him. Obviously, there’s a limit to how exposed he’ll be or the series would end, and we know it’s been renewed. But I was thinking, just as with Tony Soprano, you want Philip and Elizabeth to elude capture, and that’s what the whole point of the series is, to get the viewer to get absorbed by the tension and to cheer for the complicated antihero. Except this is based on actual historical events, these two are KGB, Americans’ former mortal enemies, with whom we were constantly worried we’d be engaged in World War III. Now we’re being asked — and it is very easy here to do so — to want the Jennings to get away with stealing secrets and kill people who get in their way and cheer against the FBI and the CIA. 

It was a very clever conceit of the creators, to have the two main protagonists out of the KGB. As soon as you imbue them with these obviously very human problems, they become human, and those barriers end up getting broken down. And yes, you invite the audience to sort of root for them, and I think they’ve done so successfully. I don’t know if rethinking history is – you’re kind of rethinking the sort of indoctrination of Philip. You know? Our own country and our own governments or what have you, you can understand, and also, what I’ve thought a lot about is, you kind of think of these hard-liners as being very strongly opinionated young people who wanted to fight for the cause and they went. The reality was they were kids when they were recruited. When they were recruited, they were 18 years old, and you have no idea who you are at that age. And I think they were sort of forced into it, in a way, and it’s only now that – certainly, that’s certainly how I view it when we first meet Philip. He’s come to a tipping point in his life where he realizes it’s not for him, it’s not the definition of who he is or what he’s done or what he believes in. In a very primal way, his instinct at the forefront for him, is parenting, is securing his children’s future.

He’s also a very protective husband, defending or trying to defend Elizabeth’s honor, any time anyone has laid a hand on her, as in last week’s episode, when the businessman has beaten her during sex. This role has got to be so physically demanding: So many fight scenes. There are times you get absorbed in the domestic drama between Philip and Elizabeth that you forget what they do for a living, and it’s in those moments you’re reminded — suddenly you and Keri are wearing wigs and duking it out with somebody.

That’s what I love about it, is that it sort of describes so many different subject matters – subject’s not a theatrical device, but this show’s got a little bit of everything. Actors often harp on, “Oh, this show’s got a little bit of everything,” but this one time I can say sincerely that this one really does.

What a trip this must be for the kids: Everything about the show must seem so foreign to them. The technology, the décor, even the story itself. It must feel like one big world history lesson for them. What has it been like to watch this through their eyes?

Sort of afraid, really. I mean, it’s a lot of fun seeing them just mouths agog at the primitive level of technology at that time. You know, like, the VCR player, we have the TVs, the old telephones. They think it’s just hilarious and archaic and, rightly so, from another time. Because I remember all those – I remember Betamax and VHS and all of that.

It was an event when somebody got a new piece of technology. I remember the first family on our block to get a Betamax.

The same! And the first time you saw a movie in your own home, and the decision was yours for when you want to watch it. You didn’t have to go to a movie theater at a set time. It was this incredible luxury, and now the kids today, with the iPhones, watching movies on them whenever they want. So you realize the distance we’ve traveled.

For you and Keri, this can feel like a trip down memory lane, because you remember, but for them, this feels like “period drama.”

Well, it is. And even some of the younger PAs on the set who are 18, 19 – I still blink hard when they say, “Well, we’re doing this period drama.” I say, “Well, what drama are you working on?” [Laughs.]

When I think period drama, I think “Downton Abbey.” 

Same! Hundreds of years, the Victorian Age. But there it is.

Is there something about Philip that especially resonates with you?

I love that his instincts, his reactions, his emotions are all very real and present. He’s not scared of showing when he gets upset. When his wife is hurt, although they’re still trying to define what their marriage is after all this time of pretending, but he’s incredibly protective of her and his children, and in the first episode when he goes and beats up the guy [who is leering at his young daughter] – those elements of him I relate to, I find easy to be that sort of – the quick trigger response that he has to things. I think he feels things deeply and quickly and isn’t afraid to show them at times. I don’t know if that’s him or me [laughs].

Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonik

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>