Q&A: ‘The Americans’: Keri Russell talks toothaches, bone breaks, motherhood

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in FX's "The Americans."
(Michael Parmelee / FX)

Viewers of “The Americans” know that it’s best not to get in Elizabeth Jennings’ way or she may give you a trip to the dentist.

But in Wednesday’s episode of the FX drama, it was Elizabeth (played by Keri Russell) who needed an appointment.

As if being a KGB spy wasn’t fraught enough, Elizabeth has had some other matters to tend to this season. Her parenting views have been a point of contention with her husband Phillip [Matthew Rhys]; she’s just become aware of her mother’s failing health. And she’s been insanely close to being captured by authorities -- leading to some toothache and an incredibly tense and intimate scene void of any anesthesia.

We talked to Russell recently when she was in Los Angeles. Here’s what she had to say about her views on raising a child, the stomach-churning moment of fitting limbs into a suitcase, and what TV shows she suspects Elizabeth secretly enjoys.


Let’s talk about the Paige situation. In your character’s mind, it’s more about Paige [Holly Taylor] learning about who she is, and not so much following in their footsteps.

Yeah, I think to portray to a cause or to portray a certain way of thinking is a hard thing to do. I try to approach it as much more human. I come at it from the aspect of: I’m raising a child, and she doesn’t know the core of who I am and all these important things about how we were raised and who she is. I feel like it’s important to know who you are. And I feel like that’s a really human feeling to want to know who you are so you can go out into the world and know how to view the world. I think Elizabeth feels it’s an incredible injustice to not let Paige know who she is. And I think she sees her seeking it, through church -- which is so far from how Elizabeth wants her to think. From my point of view, she deserves to know who she is and then decide what she wants to do with that.

Do you think Elizabeth has fully thought out how Paige will react to learning who her parents really are?

I think Elizabeth is conflicted about it all. I think the reason it’s not said right away in the third season is because she is conflicted. She doesn’t know how Paige will take it. She knows Paige isn’t tough. She knows she’s raised these kids in a way that was very different than she was raised. Obviously, in every argument, there are moments where you get what the other is saying. She does get that Phillip wants to protect Paige. It’s just that things are bubbling too big. It’s in her subconscious. And now with that mortality of Elizabeth’s mother -- when a parent is dying, you think through all of the things that they were and what that legacy will be and what’s important in life. I think all of that stuff is coming to the surface and it’s just coming through in Paige.

We saw a flashback of Elizabeth thinking back on her childhood, as it relates to her mother. Are we going to see more of that and how it relates to how she’s viewing the Paige situation?

There are a few more flashbacks. I think the mother figure for her is very important, in terms of how she was raised. You do get a little more insight into what makes her tick. But there’s also this huge discussion of -- I mean, you take the KGB out of it. Let’s say Elizabeth was a man, and Paige was her teenage son. If you think of a military family, where the great-grandfather was a military pilot, and then the grandfather and father was. For a teenage son, to be saying, I’m interested in what you did and I want to go into the military. The knee-jerk reaction would be, “Oh, yeah, because you’ll be a hero.” But I wonder if the fact that Elizabeth is a woman and she’s a teenage daughter that is driving this reaction.

What were your thoughts at the end of last season when you saw what they were eyeing for Paige?

It scared me because I thought, “Oh my God! Everyone is going to hate me!” And then I really started thinking. I mean, that’s the good juice about Elizabeth. She is so staunch in what she believes. But I just keep coming back to what I love most about the show. To me, it’s not about spies or KGBs. It’s about these metaphors about life; it’s about complicated marriages; it’s about being seen and trusting the other person and really feeling loved -- which is what I think is at the core of Phillip and Elizabeth. And with the kids -- I think even in the Stan [Noah Emmerich] story line this year -- is this idea of the relationship between parent and child and what version of yourself do you present to them? An idealized version of yourself or the reality or the mix in between? I think that’s more what’s on the table.

Do you think Elizabeth views herself as a spy first or a mom first?

That’s where I think -- I mean, I think she is fiercely protective and loving of her children. Fiercely. And I think just because Phillip is kind of the more emotional, nurturing [one] doesn’t mean she’s not. In fact, in seasons past I would argue, that Elizabeth is a better parent because she does her job better. Her doing her job better protects her kids more. But I also feel that from Elizabeth’s point of view, I think she is watching her daughter who is searching for something. And she’s thinking, “Oh my God, she’s going to go and be indoctrinated by this thing that is dangerous to me” -- I love that she thinks Christian camp is dangerous. That’s amazing to me. Like, she’s undone by it! She’s like, “Arrgghhh! Little cute boys singing about church!!!”

I think her point of view with Phillip is like, “Your head is in the sand. You do not see that she is ready for this. She wants this. It’s going to happen somewhere. And it’s going to happen like that. Then you’re going to have that for the rest of your life.” If that’s where she’s going and she’s like 35, and we do want to tell her who we really are, we’ve lost her. So, in this pivotal moment in her life where she’s searching for meaning, why can’t we at least tell her the truth and what’s important and good and real, and not this fantasy religion.

The problem comes in how do you just tell her and not Henry [Keidrich Sellati]?

Yes, therein lies the issue. But who knows what they’re going to do. It is complicated. I mean, as parents, you do have dark truths about yourself. Parents have addiction problems or a dark past. What do you tell them? And I think that’s more the issue on the table.

Do you even think Elizabeth and Phillip truly know who the other is yet? Do you as the actress playing her feel like you have a handle on who she is?

I think they are closer than they ever have been. And I think the main driving force is she wants to stay close to him. Whereas, in Season 1, she obviously didn’t care so much. I think she is desperately trying to stay close to him. Some of my favorite moments are her trying to stay close to him. Like when Phillip is like, “OK, now I’m going to go sleep at Martha’s,” you see Elizabeth getting jealous. Like, “blech, why?” I like that. It’s very human and less about the cause. We’re working on Episode 9, and I’m just starting to see little chinks in the Gabriel [Frank Langella] character, who she loves and admires. He protects her. There’s something that comes up where she basically pushes back with him a bit in protection of Phillip. And she’s like, “This is what I’m asking you to do for Phillip.” And he was like, “I didn’t know you knew about that.” And Elizabeth is like, “Yeah, he told me.” There are these little moments were you see how they really are a team away from their cause. And I think that’s a step, so who knows what’s going to happen.

As far as me knowing her fully, I mean, [executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] are creating her, I’m just having fun playing her.

This season has some intense, edge-of-your-seat moments. And then there was the one that had me literally cancel my dentist appointment. I’m talking about the teeth scene.

Oh my Godddd. Yes. Yes. Yes. Vomit central.

Tommy Schlamme directed that. It’s written as this scene as someone pulling someone’s tooth, which is pretty gnarly and intense. But then it becomes this whole other scene that was fun to do. The precursor to that scene is harrowing and it’s one of the closest moments to Elizabeth being caught and it’s incredibly draining and emotional. And you come home and it’s such a relief to be home and with this person that you love. Then we go down to the basement and Tommy was like, “This is basically my sex scene in this episode. It should be that intimate. I’m going to trust you to do this.” And it became that. It was so damn fun. That’s what I love about this show. It’s always about something else. But I can understand how you may have lost your dinner, or patted your teeth to make everything was OK.

But when Matthew is that close to you, are you breaking? Is it hard not to laugh? I’d have loaded up on my consumption of Funyuns just to make things interesting.

Oh my God, I need to remember that. We were just sweating and growling and it went pretty fast.

That sounds interesting too.

I feel like that about the sex scenes. They’re never about, “Oh, let me be romantic and beautiful.” They are about anger or I’m going to get something from you or fear of intimacy. I don’t know, I find it very interesting.

Wait. I’m not done with the crazy moments. There was the bone breaking. Felicity would be FedEx-ing panic tapes to Sally over all this.

That bones scene was pretty crazy. There were a lot of naked girls involved in that. Beautiful actress girl, naked. And beautiful contortionist girl, naked. It was so bizarre. My hands all over their bum, squishing them in odd places. Many men around watching.

And probably Instagramming.

Oh God, probably.

Favorite stunt so far this season?

There was something in a pool that I thought was cool. I got to swim with a bathing cap on. That was cool.

I hope you’re loving every minute of being on a show where people are obsessed with your hair changes and not critical of them.

HELL YEAH! It’s my way of giving the finger.

The glasses are sometimes way more fun than the wigs.

Oh, gosh, I’m always worried that it looks like they’re sliding down my face because my nose is so small. I’m always worried a fly is just gonna splat right on them because they are all huge.

What have you enjoyed most in exploring Elizabeth this season?

For me it’s just those little reveals -- being jealous with Martha [Alison Wright] or that thing I brought up about whether he fakes it with her. There’s also this weird moment of acceptance between the two of them. They’re the only people who know what it’s like to be them. So as hurtful as you are to each other, and you break trust over and over, they are still bound together. And I like the chinks in her armor.

I know show-wise, we need to see the drama and the intensity. But do you ever wonder who Elizabeth is those few moments in the day when she’s not looking over her shoulder? Like, does she ever sit in front of the TV and watch “Dallas” or something?

Oh my God, I was just joking about this with someone. We were just saying we think she should have a guilty pleasure. There should be a scene of her on the couch and she comes across “The A-Team” while channel surfing and is like “Oh, ‘The A-Team.’” Or we catch her watching“Dallas” and she says -- ”Hmm, Linda’s hair looks good like that.” I know, I know, I know. I wonder what she would watch. I’m going to tell them someone else thinks we need that scene. Let’s see what happens.

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy