"The Americans" star Noah Emmerich on Stan's troubles, the heart behind the spycraft and directing tonight's pivotal episode

Emmerich makes his directorial debut with tonight's episode of FX's acclaimed spy drama

Published March 11, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (FX/Michael Parmelee)
(FX/Michael Parmelee)

Noah Emmerich has received unanimously glowing reviews for his performance as troubled FBI agent Stan Beeman on FX's hit espionage drama "The Americans," with New York Magazine's Matt Zoller Seitz naming him the best dramatic performer of 2013. As Seitz wrote, Emmerich is one of those supporting actors who "project[s] so much intelligence, sensitivity, and inspiration that a secondary character seems to acquire the same weight and importance as the show's ostensible leads." And his performance has only deepened over the course of the third season, as Stan has been forced to grapple with some of his darkest times yet, including the loss of both his wife and his mistress, his continued hunt for the Russian spies terrorizing his department (hidden in plain sight in the house next door), and the continued resurfacing of his traumatic past spent undercover.

Tonight's episode is a crucial one, setting the stage for major developments that will unfold over the second half of the season. It also marks Emmerich's directorial debut, and he proves just as capable behind the camera as he is in front of it. We talked to Emmerich today about his arc on the show, what it's like being a director and whether Stan will ever get to wear a wig. (He really hopes so.)

Tonight's episode was your directorial debut. Can you tell us a little bit about how that all came about?

That was something that I was very interested in and had my eye on from the very beginning, hoping that that would be a possibility. I approached the producers during our first season and said this is something I would love to do if you’re open to that and what can I do to help make that happen? They were incredibly receptive and supportive and sort of guiding me through the process of shadowing other directors. Learning about pre-production and post-production and including me in their meetings and work. I spent a good bit of the first season and all of the second season trailing and shadowing directors. At the end of the second season they said "I think you’re ready" and "you can have a crack at it next year." I was very grateful and excited.

Are you pleased with how it turned out?

I am. There’s always more you wish you could do. There’s always things you see and wish you could do differently, but all in all I feel proud of the work and I think it’s a good episode.

I feel the same way. I feel like it really sets things in motion for what’s going to happen over the rest of the season, and there’s some really nice quieter and more reflective moments. Did you pick this episode in particular?

No. You know, it’s funny — the way television works is you have to schedule your directors on the calendar long before you actually know what the content of the episode is going to be. I knew I was going to be directing episode 7 which shot January 5th through January 12th, but the episode had yet to be written. In fact, none of the season had been written when they determined that schedule because you have to hook your directors before you actually have your script, so there is sort of a potluck element to episodic directing. You know when you’re going to be doing the show but you don’t know what the actual show is going to be until about a month before when they give you the script and say, "this is your episode."

I felt really fortunate. It’s a great script. One of my favorites of the season. A lot of things happen. There’s some payoffs. There’s some thought devices that have been gestating for a long time and there’s some real payoffs and, as you say, transitional moments for many characters in the show that begin in this episode. It was a really rich and powerful episode to get and that was just the luck of the draw.

Did you find that being in the director’s chair had any impact on your acting?

That’s an interesting question. Not really. If any, I would say it just made me more cognizant of how precious time is. One of the things that I’ve learned -- one of the multiple skills of the director is making the actors feel relaxed. Making it appear that there’s plenty of time to get the scene right. No rush. No pressure. We can do it again, but don’t worry. We got it. When, in fact, you hear every second ticking by because of schedule being so tight. It’s really scheduled down to the wire, for each day is almost un-makeable, and yet somehow we manage to make them.

So as an actor, thinking of myself coming onto the set and thinking there’d be plenty of time to get the scene, I now realize how much pressure there is on everyone to get it as quickly as possible. That sort of seeped into my cognizance of what’s happening on the set. Actors can be happily delirious to all the logistics and time constraints and just worry about the material that they’re working with. That wall was broken down quite heavily by taking on the director’s responsibilities.

In terms of the content of this episode — I don’t want to give any spoilers —

It’s okay. I know what happens.

I’m interested in the relationship between Stan and Phillip, and there is a really nice bit of neighborly bonding in this episode. I feel like Stan genuinely sees a friendship with Philip, but do you think that there are still reservations there? Do you think that he still has any distrust for him and vice versa?

Right. The vice versa is pretty clear. Phillip knows everything. Stan doesn’t. Although you ask about how much residual distrust there is, or suspicion, but I think if you live in this world of counter-intelligence and spycraft, there’s never a clean slate as there are for civilians, though I do think Stan’s suspicion of Philip, which is at a peak at the very first episode of the show, when he’s back breaking into his garage to look through his car, I think have been somewhat assuaged since then. There is an authentic friendship between the two of them, at least from Stan’s point of view. It’s evolving. Phillip is one of his — they have been each other’s only friends since we’ve been on the show. They’re in a new city. He’s left his life in the midwest behind and he doesn’t know that many people other than through work or through the neighborhood.

I love the scene in this episode because it’s one of the most authentic and relaxed scenes that they’ve had in our show. Phillip ends up going over there because he has a beach chair to get rid of. I don’t think he’s going over with an agenda or on a mission or looking for any particular information from Stan. He’s going there because he wants to. It’s one of the more authentic, friendly scenes between these two characters that we’ve had. Of course, it presents itself with some opportunities because Stan starts to talk about work and Phillip is able to garner some information, but it’s not really the motivation or the intention of the scene.

I guess that’s what I meant about vice versa. It’s interesting because Phillip is sort of using Stan but you also seem him developing a fondness and a real relationship that fits in with the show's larger themes of how you balance being a spy and being human.

I think there’s an authentic connection between these two characters. They are, to some degree, mirrors of each other. Stan is the American Philip. They have struggles of this world that they inhabit, of counter-intelligence and spy-craft, so there’s a simpatico resonance for the two of them. I think there’s an understanding that may not even be conscious from Stan’s point of view. But there is a connection and an affection between the two of them.

There’s also a scene in this episode with Stan and his son, and this season has been a lot about the second generation and how the traumas of the parents are sort of passed on to their kids. What was it like shooting this scene?

I’ve been waiting for that as an actor for a few seasons now. You never really get to see Stan with his son, and they’re very estranged and very aloof and have never really had a real scene together, other than a few passing words in the night, so I was really excited for this scene. It was great to see Stan open up more to his son and share more of his story which, oddly, his son didn’t know about really. That’s sort of brought upon by the death of one of his old partners and it’s an opening for Stan to be able to explain to Matthew what his life was like when he was away from the family for those years undercover. So hopefully that will continue.

I think it does have, as you say, an echoed sensibility. Not just in this episode but sort of the arc of the season, which is the relationship you pass to children and how you have yourself known to your children. How much of the truest self do you present to them or do you protect them from your darker side? What does it mean to be a good parent? What does it mean in terms of how you share the realities of adult life and your own identity and your own self? Obviously there’s a divergence with Philip and Elizabeth in terms of their approach to Paige and I think it’s understandable and empathetic from both points of view. Is it better to tell your children who you really are or is it better to protect them from your darker side? That’s a tough question to answer because there are understandable motivations from both points of view.

The show is so great at dealing with these really complicated themes in such an interesting way. In terms of Stan’s backstory, do you think we'll get some flashbacks like we’ve had with Philip and Elizabeth, in terms of seeing more explicitly what being undercover did to him?

I think it would be great to get more of that insight and to see some of that. I think that would be really fun. Maybe Stan will finally get to wear a wig, which I’ve been waiting for for two and half years. At least I have.

It’s not really fair that Stan hasn’t.

It’s not really fair! I do think there’s power to be held in the unknown as well, so everyone is aware that there’s been some dramatic result from Stan’s work undercover and not knowing what it was or why -- there’s a lot of tension in that question. It’s intriguing and you want to know more, and as soon as you know more, it becomes less intriguing as you understand it more thoroughly. It’s almost like a magic trick. Once you know the trick, it’s less interesting, so there’s some element that I’m grateful they’re teasing it out so slowly because tension is a valuable dynamic in a drama and there is certainly a lot of tension and mystery around what happened to Stan in his previous life. So as much as I want to see what happens, I’m grateful that we’re not seeing it too quickly and too clearly because I think that’s an interesting hook.

The character’s arc of the season has been a very sort of downbeat one — losing his wife, losing Nina. As an actor, how do you feel when you realize that your narrative over a season is going to be this heavy?

It’s both. You know, it’s interesting material to play. Weirdly, there’s some conflation between yourself and your character and you hope for the character to get a break. To get some uplift and success and to not be so punished and tortured. So I’m really hoping this is the nadir for Stan. That this is the bottom and that somehow he’ll bounce back even more strongly and healthily. It is painful and it’s also interesting to play.

I don’t know the actual arc of the character. They never really tell us exactly where we’re going to go. We find out as the audience does on an episode to episode basis. We get the next script and we go -- I think there’s a cross a little bit. Stan’s going to have success or Stan’s going to repair some relationship in his life and find some solace somehow. This season, as you mentioned, and actually continuing through last season as well, it’s been a slow decline for Stan and ever more painful and ever more isolate. Ever more lonely. But there’s really beautiful things to play there and there’s a great journey there and hopefully there will be an upswing as well.

The show sort of dances between these really human emotional moments that flesh out character and then you’ve got the gun-play and the cold-blooded murders and pulling people’s teeth out. Are the action sequences something you enjoy doing?

I don’t have a particular preference for the type of sequence as long as there’s emotional life underneath it, which they happen to do incredibly well here. It’s an interesting dynamic. Action on its own sake is not particularly interesting unless you understand the motivations, reasons, and resonance for the character that they’re going through. I like doing all of it. As you sort of touched upon, the heart of our show and the center of it really is not about the action as much as it’s about the humanity underneath that action. It’s a sexy dynamic backdrop in which to place these characters. But the issues of which they struggle and the journey they’re taking are really relatable on a very deep and human level. Stories about these individuals. Not about the actions that they’re doing but as much about the struggles in their lives with their relationships and with themselves. With their families and their professional responsibilities. I think it’s relatable for anyone in a marriage or as a parent or as a child. It makes it sexy and it makes the plots fun and the facts that it’s spycraft, the issues that are explored are actually pretty universal.

Definitely. In the TV community and the critical community the show is so beloved and your performance has been really heralded, but the show has some trouble finding perhaps as big an audience as it deserves. Is that something that frustrates the members of the cast and crew?

We feel incredibly well-received and a lot of love from people who watch the show from the critical audience, and the actual tracking of the numbers is not something that I personally, or people in the case that I relate to, really track too much. That’s a black hole you can go down. Looking at the numbers every week and trying to track who’s watching what. I know that there are many of hundreds and thousands and millions of people watching the show is a lot of people comparatively to, say, a Broadway show. It lives forever, on Amazon Prime and iTunes. The audience can grow over time.

It feels odd as you say that. Are there really not a lot of people watching? I don’t really know that. It feels like a lot of people are watching. It feels like there’s a lot of conversations about the show. It feels like it’s really part of the zeitgeist right now, at least in the world that I travel in. So it feels great. It feels pretty great.

I’m just a huge fan of the show and wish that everyone else was watching it.

And I’d like the whole world to watch. That would be my first choice.

Maybe once you get your wig episode.

When you tell them that Stan’s going to be wearing a wig, they will tune in. You can talk to my writers.

By Anna Silman

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