‘The Americans’ Star Matthew Rhys Talks Espionage, Disguises, The ’80s & More

By February 26, 2014

The Winter Olympics are officially over, but if you find yourself jonesing for more Russian entertainment in your life, you’re in luck! FX Network’s hit ’80s espionage thriller “The Americans” premieres its second season tonight, and we had a chance to sit in on a conference call with actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip Jennings on the show. The conversation touched on everything from the popularity of spy dramas, the acting challenges he’s confronted in the show, all those disguises he gets to wear, and more. Read on to hear what he had to say.


On why audiences end up rooting for Philip, who is technically a villain: 

He does have romantic ideals, as well as materialistic ideals, because he came from a very harsh, fiscally challenged place. But I think he longs for the sort of a wife to love and to have those things reciprocated. His main priority is his children, their future and their safety. And I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for the sort of white picket fence life and have those nice things and live out a nice life. I think those are sort of very real, palpable, and obtainable dreams and aspirations of so many people that we’re sort of raised to think that in a way, and Philip has come from an extremity of that – a very harsh place, very difficult place and there’s a real opportunity to live out a real dream. It’s in front of him, it’s obtainable; he just has to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle.

On the relationship dynamic between Philip and Elizabeth and how it’s changed in season 2:

I think you meet Philip especially at a time in his life where he’s becoming of age and realizing this isn’t the life he chose, this isn’t the life he wants; his priorities are his children, he wants survival for them. And the sort of adverse reaction he had from Elizabeth when he mentioned defection I think he realized it’s going to be a far longer game before she can come around to that way of thinking.

What does happen throughout last season and this season is, as I keep banging on about, but there’s sort of that threat of, that very close threat to them and their family. It grows and increases, and I think he’s hoping that Elizabeth will come to a place where she says I can’t do this anymore, especially with the end of last season when she was shot. He’s hoping that she will come to a place where she realizes on her own terms organically that this is a lifestyle they can’t sustain, and that’s when I think he’ll go for the get out.


He further elaborates the emotional shift in the Jennings’ relationship into season 2:

All of sudden these two people that have fulfilled a very specific mandate all these years about sleeping with people for information suddenly their feelings become real, and the green-eyed monster makes a very rude appearance in their lives and it’s incredibly difficult for them to deal with. It continues and they struggle. It’s magnified by a million because of what they have to do. So there’s no resolve; it’s certainly an ongoing problem for them, but it’s certainly a very present theme for them this season.

On the Americanization of the Jennings children and how it affects them:

It presents itself in this season. Elizabeth’s still being very much the hardliner in that she was indoctrinated with a very firm belief system that she doesn’t waiver from, and they begin to separate on that specific level, which makes for a great element of conflict. You sort of see it so many times in marriages and relationships.

I think in many ways what I loved what Joe did with their relationship is he kind of flipped obvious clichés on their heads where Philip, the male, was slightly closer to the children, possibly the better parent figure, and Elizabeth seemed to be the harder, colder, more hardline, aggressive one. And in that respect where sometimes the archetypal clichéd version is that maybe the wife or the girlfriend spends too much money or enjoys the fine things, and this time it’s the male of the relationship who kind of says, “No, I want to buy a good cashmere, and why not?” So I love those particular dynamics that come to the relationship.


He elaborates further on Philip’s relationship with Paige:

One of the things I loved about it is how layered that is. I think primarily for me what was the bigger driving force is that Philip has lived a life of lies his entire life, and I think, as a result, it had this reaction or effect on him in that he doesn’t want his daughter to inherit that element to his life, which he kind of loathes now. I think there’s a huge part of him that hates the fact that he has to lie bare-facedly to his children, and has done his entire life. It eats away at him. And lies become a sort of louder thing in his head where he desperately doesn’t want his offspring to follow in what he had to endure.

I also wanted to say the element of him as a spy not wanting her to find out is incredibly important as well just as a safety, I think, or the safety of their family. I think they made that decision a long time ago rather naively, and now the reality of having a 14-year old, an incredibly inquisitive teenage daughter, the reality has changed their ideology.

I think they’re more concerned with Paige finding out, especially finding out not on their terms. They’re not wholly ignorant to the fact that there’s an enormous part that’s the reality of Paige finding out and how they deal with it. I think they have said that they never wanted the children to and they said that a long time ago. I think what’s happened was the reality.


On the show’s casting choices and the challenges he finds working on the series: 

I like the fact that FX was bold in their casting. I think the part for Elizabeth was written for Keri Russell, and I love the fact that they really turned that on its head, the sort of female anti-hero. They kind of reversed a lot of the characters, and they didn’t go for clichéd casting of a sort of tough, big, seemingly physical Russian person. And the thing for me, I’m not the big, macho, butt kicking person, but I think as a cover we work well in that we blend into Americana suburbia, and therefore there’s a sort of twist to it. So that element I was nervous about as to sort of being credible in that role with someone who does all those things.

Then the other thing that I continue to find difficult, it’s a very strange series in that an incredible amount of it is based on absolute truth; not just the storylines, the setting, what these people did, etc. etc. So, that being said, you tell the audience this is all true. You can say that until you’re blue in the face, but to a degree you’re still asking the audience to go on a fantastical journey. It’s an ask of the audience to go with you, to believe this scenario. It’s an incredibly heightened reality. And it’s not just a straight spy thriller or a straight domestic drama; it’s a combination of the two.

And what I find difficult is the balance of the two and making the leaps credible – that in one second you can be assassinating or “honey trapping” or whatever and the next you’re making PB&Js for the kids. Both lives have to be credible and there has to be a credible link between the two that affects the two. It’s that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does.


On the variety of disguises Philip wears throughout the series:

I don’t envy the task of the hair and make-up department that sort of feel that with each new disguise they have to be different or bigger or better. The reality is with the CIA, they tended to use two or three sort of disguises and round robin them. But you know its television and we’re a little more heightened and dramatic, so therefore they do need to kind of have a little bit more dramatic impact. But that feeds into what the more general storyline for the Jennings’ is. That there is this greater feeling of the danger that is a lot more palatable and a lot more present. I think they take their role of not being recognized and not being caught that much greater now, because the intensity is sort of closer to their doorstep.

On the acting challenges he finds in the scenes between Clark and Martha:

The challenge to me in Martha and Clark is that I always think back to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day whereby if you see an actor who’s lying, but showing the audience he’s lying, often he’s showing the other actor in front of him that he’s lying, so we all know that you’re lying. So you need to trust that the script will tell the audience that he’s lying, and you don’t have to do it in that moment. Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day has these scenes with Emma Thompson where he tells the entire audience exactly how he feels and moves you to tears, but you are utterly assured that there’s no way Emma Thompson will know.

So in those moments with Martha and Clark where I’m lying to Martha and the audience knows I’m lying, and I should trust that a lot more, there’s a part of you that goes I kind of need to show both; I need to play the moment to Martha but I also need to kind of show the audience that I’m lying, which you don’t. It’s not much showing that you’re lying, it’s the struggle that you’re having in that moment that’s kind of interesting, and those are the moments that I struggle as to how to pitch properly.

He further discusses how the characters’ marriage affects their working relationship dynamic: 

The marriage with Martha, what’s so great is they plant such a beautiful seed of conflict within Elizabeth. Because she’s been this stalwart, this hardline, hard nosed agent for so long, who’s still incredibly loyal to the cause, she has this great enormous struggle within her where she realizes that she has these feelings for Philip and what he’s doing when he is honey trapping and gaining information for the cause, for Mother Russia. It makes her feel terrible and she’s caught between that great place of saying ‘I hate the way this makes me feel’ and ‘I hate that you have to do it, but it’s for the greater cause.’ So, as a dramatician with a device it’s rather fantastic, but it certainly takes its toll on the relationship.


On America’s obsession with spy dramas and the frequency of casting non-American actors to play American spy roles:

To be honest, I’m equal parts baffled and grateful as to why so many Brits, and also Australians, are used in American television. I think we’re just cheap and we work…generally. But I generally don’t know—and I do ask a number of producers, and they don’t really have an answer either. I think maybe someone set a trend and others joined, which I’m incredibly thankful and grateful for.

I think espionage as a whole has always been incredibly mysterious and intriguing to the public, and continues to be so. And it’s strange, our show is during the Cold War where there was a very definable front, and although it’s based on truth, there were their sleeper cells working, I think people in this day and age are far more aware of that sort of enemy within and the world of espionage and how personable it is and how on your doorstep it’s now become. I think people are aware of that and have a great intrigue as to how that reveals itself.

I think the espionage drama is a great vehicle for the film and television industry, because it is exactly that as they’re evolving as a sort of, but still remaining, a very mysterious world. So it will be this sort of font that keeps on giving really. I’m not a huge spy fan, but I have certainly become more so in the learning of their world and how insane it is.


On the amount of research on the Russian spy program he did to prepare for the role:

There’s an incredible book about the KGB archivist who was archiving everything for the KGB. He was sort of charged with this job of documenting everything for the KGB, and he did two copies; he did one for the KGB and one for himself. And then eventually walked into the U.S. Embassy and said, “I am the official KGB archivist and I have all this stuff.” The U.S. thought it was a sting and said, “Get out.” He went to the Swiss Embassy, and so everything he documented is available, which is amazing really.

And the more disturbing stuff I found was like when the wall fell and in East Germany all their files became public knowledge, and all these sort of people found out who had been informing on them all their lives. So husbands found out their wives had, and wives found out that husbands had, and it’s sort of incredibly disturbing, I thought, what that knowledge becomes once it’s available.

If you are not caught up yet on “The Americans”, do not fret: Amazon Prime Instant Video is now streaming the entirety of Season 1. So get on that, pronto, since Season 2 premieres tonight at 10pm only on FX.

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.
  • Before writing this, I had no idea Matthew Rhys was British. His American accent is fantastic.