You know Keri Russell as the star of the late ‘90s hit “Felicity.” You know she caused an uproar back then – and a rating drop – by cutting her gorgeous hair, then won a Golden Globe. You may know she showed herself a powerful actress in the 2007 indie film “Waitress.” And serious fans may know she’s married and the mother of two children. But even Russell aficionados have not seen her in the complex, provocative, and decidedly adult role she takes as a 1980s Soviet sleeper agent in FX’s dark new drama “The Americans,” premiering tonight at 10/9c.
Executive produced by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, the series stars Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, a deeply patriotic Russian spy living in suburban Washington D.C. with her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys), a fellow KGB operative, and their two American-born children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who know nothing about their parents’ true identities.
Russell’s gritty turn in “Waitress” (she played a small town waitress trapped in an abusive relationship) convinced Weisberg she could handle “The Americans.” “I thought, She’s so moving and powerful. It seems like she could just become Elizabeth so easily,” he explains. Because of both of physical and emotional demands, Russell took more convincing. What ultimately spoke to her, she says, was that the heart of the show is about a relationship between two people who just happen to be spies. It’s that aspect that she hopes resonates with viewers.
On Mom Elizabeth vs. Spy Elizabeth: The pilot episode opens on Elizabeth posing as an escort who is granting sexual favors to a high-ranking official in order to gain intelligence to bring back to the Russians. Russell finds the juxtaposition of sexy spy Elizabeth and regular mom Elizabeth fascinating. “What I think is interesting is that you see this girl…clearly all sexed out, but what’s good is that you see her the next morning making lunches and living in the minutiae of being a mom,” she says. “I know not every mom is a secret KGB spy, but every mom has this whole other life. Every dad, every person…you have no idea what gets them going, how they get off, what secrets they’re hiding, and what’s shameful to them. And that, I think, is what is very universally relatable and what I hope this show does well.”
Go Undercover: “The Americans” First Look:
On Elizabeth and Phillip’s Relationship: Viewers quickly learn that Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage was arranged fifteen years ago before they moved to America. In the beginning, it’s unclear whether Elizabeth actually loves Phillip or if she’s just faking it in order to be a convincing spy. “When I read the script, and I read it multiple times before saying yes, what kept bubbling up to the surface for me was the relationship,” Russell explains. There is a scene in the pilot episode where Phillip begins to question his loyalty to the Russians because he believes the FBI is onto them. He confronts Elizabeth with his concerns and an epic argument erupts. “I feel like that scene in the laundry room where they’re really fighting, and I know they’re fighting about being spies and these huge giant issues between America and Russia, but to me it’s the same fight that every married couple has, like, ‘Why can’t you f–king do it my way for once?’” she says. “And everyone knows what that feels like.” Russell believes the show works because at its core its about Phillip and Elizabeth’s relationship, but because it is couched in a spy story, the stakes are raised. “I remember J.J. Abrams and Matt [Reeves], who created ‘Felicity,’ always saying [that when] they were coming up with story ideas [for the show], they were like, ‘Can’t she just be a spy or something?’ There are only so many tests you can be worried about failing,” she recalls. “This elevates the stakes. But you’re still wondering how they’re gonna survive it together. I mean, that’s what I care about. Is she gonna turn him in because she cares so much about being true to herself? Can she compromise that which is so essential to her core? And can she love him?”
On the Personality Differences Between Elizabeth and Phillip: “I think he is so naturally funny and light and charismatic in a way that she is not,” Russell says. “She’s just heavy-hearted and more closed, and I think it comes up in mean fights where she’ll say, ‘Why do you think you’re right? Because everyone loves talking to you? Because the kids think like you? Because I’m fine too.’ She resents it because she’s not so easy.” Russell relates to Elizabeth’s more reclusive, anti-social behavior, especially when the Jennings family gets new neighbors in the form of FBI Counterintelligence Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his wife. “I understand because I can be more shy in my neighborhood,” she admits. “I see somebody and I’m like, ‘aaah!,’ versus my husband who will talk to anybody. He’s like the mayor of my neighborhood. He’s out doing favors for people and I’m just like watching from the window, so I understand that.”
On the Season-Long Relationship Arc Between Phillip and Elizabeth: Both Phillip and Elizabeth engage in extramarital dalliances. But the line is easily blurred between what is really for work and what may actually be more meaningful. “I think that’s a huge element,” Russell says. “I think that will be the arc for them. In the middle of the season there may even be some separating.” Russell thinks that Elizabeth’s ability to separate her emotions from the marriage makes her a more effective agent. “I think in a way she’s being a better spy because she compartmentalizes things and when you are being a better spy she’s being a better mom because she’s not endangering her kids. If she’s captured then her kids can be taken away from her. I think the arc would be yes, falling in love and being in a relationship. Also in an [upcoming] episode, you find out that Elizabeth does have a sexual life elsewhere in a capacity which she could manage. There are some interesting characters, so she’s not just a cold-hearted frigid lady. Everyone gets it somewhere. And it’s very intriguing.”
On Elizabeth’s Backstory: Russell says she is still finding out more details of Elizabeth’s backstory every day, but there is one specific detail she finds incredibly significant. “I think it’s important that her father died, [which] you find out in the first episode,” she says. “That he died fighting in Stalingrad, I think she had some kind of hero worship you have when a parent is lost early. You don’t know them or their faults or their misgivings. I think that has a very strong influence [on her].”
On Elizabeth’s ’80s Wardrobe: “I’m trying to do less of the shoulder pads and perms and more of the nice silk shirts and gold chains,” Russell says of Elizabeth’s fashions. “And yes, of course the Jordache jeans,” she jokes.
On Her Short Commute to “The Office”: Being a working mother of two kids, Russell says shooting the show in New York City was imperative. “[Working in the city] was essential to get to the kids,” she says. “I have one in kindergarten so I have to be home. And I like being home. In fact our stages are like four blocks from my house so I ride my bike to work!”
On Justifying Elizabeth’s Anti-American Activities to Herself and to the Audience: “I think she’s doing the right thing,” Russell admits. “You have to sort of invert it. You have to say, ‘If I was protecting America from 9/11 happening, if I could have taken those people out because I found out who they were because I was there, I would be doing good. I would be doing my job well, and I’d be helping the cause.’”
On Working with Matthew Rhys: “It’s so boring,” she jokes of her Welsh co-star. “So, so boring. I can’t understand anything he’s saying.”
On the Show’s Death Toll: There’s one death in the pilot episode and Russell says that’s merely a taste of what’s to come. Translation? Don’t get too attached to anyone. “It’s a spy show so everyone’s in danger,” she cautions. “It’s a fantasy. It’s not as based in immediate reality like ‘Homeland’ would be, but there are definitely some killings. And I bet you’ll be surprised by who does most of the killings,” she adds with a grin.
“The Americans” Premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 10/9c on FX.