“The Americans” stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are so convincing as KGB spies embedded as spouses in 1980s America that in disguise they can fool even the show’s creators. “We’ll walk on the set and pass by a stranger, they’ll nod at us and a second later it’s like, ‘That was Keri!’” says executive producer Joseph Weisberg. Now in its second season and recently picked up for a third, the show is well-established as one of TV’s smartest dramas, both about spy capers and the nature of marriage itself.
Why do TV viewers love watching spies?
Rhys: There’s an area of fascination that men especially have with Special Forces books or movies: Who are these people? What makes them tick? How could I possibly do that?
Russell: And in the movies they’re all handsome and competent and [sleeping with] all these great people.
Rhys: It intrigues as much as possible. It’s a very interesting question about patriotism and adrenaline junkies. And it can be incredibly egotistical.
One of the show’s more subversive elements is that so many stories about the Cold War have us believe that if the Russians could just experience American life, that would be enough to convince them we were on the side of the angels. But Phillip and Elizabeth remain loyal to the cause.
Rhys: I love that fact about [Keri’s] character; she sees the fast-food world and thinks, “This place is disgusting.” Whereas with Phillip, he’s like, “Look at these boots! Look at this car!” If you look at how he was formed, it’s hard at home, it’s hard. So why wouldn’t he like it?
What have been the toughest scenes for you two to film together?
Russell: The relationship stuff. When I did “Felicity,” [creator] J.J. Abrams would say there’s nothing exciting or dangerous about going to college, and we would joke we should make her a spy. That’s how “Alias” was born. In this show, the stakes are so high it puts so much pressure on the relationship. This season has had a really weird and uncomfortable sexual aspect, and I love it.
You mean the pseudo-rape scene, where Elizabeth coaxes Phillip into being his alter ego Clark, who is apparently rough in bed?
Russell: I didn’t see it like a rape. I loved the relatable part of it, like hearing your husband is a certain way with someone at work. “He’s so funny at work!” So why isn’t he funny at home? So asking for this weird, aggressive sexual thing — and once you get it, not necessarily wanting it — it’s so complicated and interesting. It’s weird, uncomfortable and true.
Would you like to do more flashbacks to Elizabeth and Phillip’s early days?
Rhys: Speaking Russian is a nightmare. My publicist, she’s a Russian woman, and as we’re filming, I’ll say, “Am I saying this right?” And she’ll say, “You’re saying it perfectly.” So I’ll say, “Do I sound like a Russian?” And she says, “Oh, God, no.” So, great.
There’s a secret that got uncovered in the tabloid press recently, that you two are dating. Is that a secret?
Rhys: That was the initial publicity smoke screen.
Russell: He’s really dating Noah [Emmerich, costar].
Rhys: Not dating. We just fancy each other.
Russell: You’re sort of in love.
So the official comment is you’re not commenting.
Russell: Correct. [Bursts into laughter.]
So what’s the best attribute you’ve found in each other?
Rhys: She can burp like a man.
Russell: I can’t think of a single thing. [Laughs.] No, what I enjoy is he makes it so easy. You feel you’re in safe hands, and it’s enjoyable to work like that because you’re sort of like, let him do all the hard stuff.
Rhys: She brings a lot to the game. You can’t sit back on your laurels. There’s no slacking off.