One thing that makes FX’s lauded Cold War drama “The Americans” so compelling is the chemistry between Keri Russell, who starred in four seasons of “Felicity” in her early 20s, and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys. As Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Russian spies living as Americans in 1980s suburbia, they make their kids’ lunches and then slip away to don disguises, seduce sources and break necks for the Motherland.
But Russell and Rhys’ electricity on the show, created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg and just having finished its fifth season before a 10-episode sprint to a series finale, is nothing compared to the sparks they throw off in real life.
Settling into the series’ writers room in gritty Gowanus in New York’s Brooklyn, surrounded by whiteboards with scribbled plot points and grainy show stills, the couple, who have an infant son (Russell also has two children from a previous relationship), are clearly simpatico — finishing each other’s thoughts and cracking each other up.
What drew you to these roles?
Russell: I was interested in the relationship — this arranged marriage, but they fall in love. There’s deceit, then trust.
Rhys: Plus the backdrop of the intelligence world and playing different personalities. It’s the perfect part.
Do you discuss the show at home?
Russell: It’s usually two minutes of bitching and then you’re like, “Can we stop?”
Rhys: The material is intense, so when I come home I just want to watch reality shows about Alaska.
Russell: Tough-guy stuff.
You met years before the show, right?
Rhys: At a kickball party. I had no idea what kickball was. Afterwards, we were in a parking lot sharing a beer.
Then you didn’t see each other for more than a decade, until the show?
Rhys: Yeah, on the first day of fight training, I said, “We’ve met before.”
Russell: I was like, “No, we haven’t.”
Rhys: [Laughs] What a lasting impression I made.
Russell: But as soon as you said the kickball party and beer, I remembered.
Rhys: You said, “You were that Welsh fool.”
Russell: I didn’t.
Rhys: No, you said “drunk fool.”
Keri, this role is a departure.
Russell: I have John Landgraf, who runs FX, to thank. They were casting this cold Russian spy. All I could think of was the Russian guy’s wife from that “Rocky” movie.
Rhys: Brigitte Nielsen?
Russell: That’s who I pictured. I was like, Why would they want Felicity? But they kept calling. It’s been a fun twist. Hard to go back to playing, like, a nice mom.
How has your role challenged you, Matthew?
Rhys: It’s hard to land it in a credible place. It can read like a bad skit. We’re Russian spies! The characters’ fallible nature is more interesting — where the cracks are. You want to see someone struggling.
We have to talk about the wigs.
Rhys: I will never wear another wig in my life.
Russell: But they are fun sometimes. You become another person. We’re constantly sending ridiculous pictures to each other. “Want to take this person out?” I was Clark’s [a disguise that Philip frequently uses] sister for so long, with the bad gray wig, glasses and terrible sweaters. And I was pregnant.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Russell: One was when I beat up Granny. Going from “Felicity” and making Hallmark movies, and then walking down the street and having construction workers yell, “Yo! You really kicked that lady’s ass!” It’s like, “Yes, thank you!”
It’s remarkable how likable your characters are given the things they do.
Rhys: Because the violence is justified [in their eyes], not gratuitous. In this country, we don’t have that fervent belief. Our smartphones are our true passion. If someone took away your smartphone —”
Russell: “I’m gonna kill you!”
Do you use stunt doubles or do your own ass-kicking?
Rhys: I haven’t ass-kicked since Season 1. She does it all. I have a crying double. He does the emotional stuff when it’s too taxing for me.
Russell: You do the wide [shots] and then someone else comes in —
Rhys: — for the tears.
So America’s relationship with Russia has evolved …
Rhys: When we started, the press said, “Is Russia relevant?” We were like, “Uh, I guess not. We’ll be canceled after one season.” Little did we know.
I assume that hasn’t affected the story line.
Russell: No, they have it thoroughly plotted. What I think is, “I hope people don’t hate us because we’re playing Russians.” But if you’re one of the three people who watch our show, hopefully you’re watching more for the characters and story than the politics.
That’s the line, right, “The best show you’re not watching”?
Russell: I love that. It’s a sweet spot.
Rhys: If something is huge, there’s pressure, expectancy for a fall, whereas we can keep chugging along under the radar.
Is it uncomfortable to watch each other do the sex scenes?
Russell: We don’t watch. It’s like —
Rhys: [puts hands over eyes] Ah-la-la-la! You think you’ll get used to it. You never do.
Russell: It’s difficult. But he’s very good at those scenes.
Rhys: I don’t get tense about them. It’s clinical. You just do them.
Russell: But you’re a very good seducer. You like watching tough-guy stuff, but you’re good at the romance stuff.
Rhys: I think you should stop talking now.
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.