In the hot new Cold War drama from FX, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as “The Americans,” only they aren’t American at all — they’re married KGB spies living undercover in 1980s suburbia.
Forced into a fake marriage 15 years ago, Russian secret agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have a multi-layered relationship in which they lead two completely separate lives, Average Joes by day, operatives by night. Their marriage isn’t real — but the feelings they’ve developed for each other are. So are the two children they have together, 13-year-old Paige and 10-year-old Henry, who have no clue what mom and dad actually do for a living. There’s always the danger of the kids walking in their parents holding a gun and that raises the stakes.
“It’s an incredibly difficult relationship and that’s the interesting part with these two,” Matthew Rhys told XfinityTV when I recently interviewed him in Los Angeles. “There’s more twists and turns in it than a roller coaster.”
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Working with the notoriously pleasant Keri Russell is “nightmarish,” Rhys says sarcastically. “She’s awful,” he jokes, “and I’m a martyr on the set, I just put up with it.”
Maybe it’s easy for the Welsh actor to tease his co-star since he wasn’t a member of the Cult of “Felicity.” In fact, he admits he never watched the show that made Keri Russell, and her infamous hair, a star.
“I didn’t,” he whispered to me. “I heard it was wonderful and her hair was wonderful in it,” he smiled.
“We actually met many years ago, and I remember at the time thinking, ‘Oh, that’s that girl from that show’,” said Rhys as he explained the dodgy way he first met the actress.
“We recounted it the other day. We were at a kick ball game — Do you know what kick ball is? — I had no idea. It’s like baseball meets soccer, oh and Jennifer Grey was there too, and we were talking about people we knew, and we suddenly realized, ‘Oh my God, we’ve met before.”
“Isn’t that random?” he laughs.
Years after kicking back at celebrity dodge ball games, Rhys and Russell are teamed together as on-screen couple fighting for The Other Side. Elizabeth is a KGB-diehard whose fierce loyalty to Mother Russia adds another complexity to the couple’s dynamic. On the other hand, Philip has become quite enamoured with America; the Russia he grew up in was a country coming out of World War II and was incredibly bleak. That’s why his character so enjoys a good car and cowboy boots, says Rhys.
In the coming episodes, viewers will see Philip struggle over his loyalties, as he gets closer emotionally (and physically) to his wife, while his political leanings shift.
“He has to figure out a new game plan on how to bring her with him,” Rhys says of his character’s musings about defecting. “This is the warmest she’s been in 15 years” … and he likes it.
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Another complex relationship moves in when co-star Noah Emmerich turns up as the Jennings’ new neighbor next door — one who happens to work for the FBI.
“It’s such a fantastic dramatic device,” Rhys says of his “frenemy” Stan Beeman.
“It’s a total tango, a cat-and-mouse game between the two,” Rhys adds. “And it keeps the audience guessing, who’s playing who?”
Before he took up spying, Rhys was best known on TV for playing Sally Field’s gay lawyer son on the ABC family drama “Brothers & Sisters” for five seasons. Talk about a dramatic departure.
“An action sequence in that [show] was opening a bottle of wine,” Rhys laughed, “so this is very different from that.”
Playing a spy who gets down and dirty in intense action scenes, Rhys is finally getting a chance to show viewers what a bad ass he can be.
“That’s the part I love. That’s like being eight years old again,” Rhys says. “It’s so fun.”
“The Americans” airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.