Matthew Rhys plays a Russian spy on FX’s The Americans (Wednesdays, 10/9C) – a series that manages to persuade its audience to identify with (if not exactly cheer for) a married couple whose ultimate goal is absorption of the United States into communism. To further complicate matters, the two have two children – who very definitely have minds of their own and are as American as apple pie.
Over the show’s two seasons, the stakes have been raised on both the family and espionage fronts and, as the season finale approaches, Matthew Rhys spent some time chatting with a group of journalists/bloggers about his character and where the show is heading.
Such a pleasure to speak with you.
Matthew Rhys: Thank you.
I was wondering if you think that Philip feels guilt over the people he’s killed?
Matthew: Yes, absolutely. I think part of what Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields—well, all the writers really, I think there’s an element that Philip and his feelings and point of view is slightly [indiscernible] the social conscious. Elizabeth has less of a hard time in doing so because her belief in her mandate is so strong whereas, as we saw from the first episode of the first season, Philip is incredibly torn as to where their future lies or where his beliefs and loyalties lie.
So I think the killing of people is now more of a survival instinct for Philip, it’s more [indiscernible] so his family aren’t—the security of his family isn’t breached. That’s his primary goal in life. So I think he has to be the best spy he can be, and if that means killing people, unfortunately—if it means securing his family’s identity and future, then he’ll do that, but that’s where his motivation comes from.
I have to say, congratulations on another great, great season. When you started this, and continue to do the role, do you do a lot of your own research or do you depend on the writing to develop the character for you?
Matthew: It feels, to me, it’s an amalgamation of a number of things. Sometimes writers take from what they see and steer a character in that way. The evolution can be quite natural, I think, in that there’s input from both parties. The more sort of technical-related issues, then yes, I’ll do my own research or talk extensively with Joel, who always has great input obviously because of his CIA background. Yes, it’s an amalgamation of a number of inputs, really, and I always find usually in television, because you have a length of time, does tend to evolve quite naturally from all parties.
I was just wondering, I noticed there was a lot of snow in a lot of these scenes throughout the season. What was it like to shoot in the New York snowmageddon?
Matthew: It was pretty vast in the way that you can slightly shoot yourself in the foot in a TV series where you’ve accepted a particular time of year, and then you have an adverse snow flooding or whatever, which doesn’t help your continuity; the costume fitting you’ve had for that episode happened a week ago when you accepted the continuity in a house wearing a thin polyester jacket, and now you can’t be putting on a big puffer. It definitely has its challenges.
I know on the day of arctic—what was the term they used? I can’t remember. We were meant to be outside, and that was changed and we were all of a sudden inside. New York is its own animal, and brings its own challenges be it weather, or its vibrant, colorful residents.
I wanted to ask you; the show gets good ratings, but not as high as you would expect from the incredible quality of the show, and do you think that’s because Americans maybe have a hard time sympathizing with Russian spies, even as fictional characters? With the recent tensions with Russia, do you think that might spark more interest, or be more of an obstacle to people being able to sympathize with your characters?
Matthew: I’m not sure. I know certainly there are those—I’ve spoken with those people who didn’t watch, or couldn’t get into the show because they didn’t want to sympathize with Russian characters. I don’t know if that tends to be with a person of a certain age, but I think there’s a great success story in what the writer’s done in making the two main protagonists antiheroes in way in that you are obsessively rooting for the bad guy. But I think what they’ve successfully done is made them fully fleshed and fully drawn out very human characters.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether the troubles in the Ukraine would spark more or less interest in the show. But yes, I would agree that making your two main characters the enemies would certainly come with its challenges, but then I enjoy the elements in the show; the way they do sort of turn things on its head and ask an audience to question a little more.
Have you started filming the next season yet?
Matthew: We haven’t, we just set [indiscernible] October. I know the writers soon will probably [indiscernible] dark room in Brooklyn [indiscernible] going out what the third season will be about.
This season has the dynamic in that the family has changed so much, and that’s another thing that Philip has to deal with, with Paige. How has that been to play?
Matthew: Fantastic, and it’s another element to an incredibly layered [indiscernible] relationship and family and work setting, as well. To give another element, which is added for [intermittent loss of signal].
Yes, sorry where was I? What was the last part that was heard?
Yes. We couldn’t hear your answer to that question, so it is possible for you to give us a recap of how you think this has changed with Philip dealing with Paige this year?
Matthew: Yes, of course. I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show, and not just one that’s been added for good measure, but with real reason that you have two young children who’ve been lied to their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’re coming of age and the parents’ suspicious behavior and the long absences, the phenomenal amount of laundry that they have to do; questions are going to be raised. It seems to be a very natural progression, and it raises questions in Philip, certainly with Paige that—I think he’s desperate for her not to take over a life that he didn’t have his entire life which is the life of just duplicity, deceit and lies; he’s desperate for her to avoid that. It pulls on him emotionally in an enormous way. That just makes it that much more interesting. It’s another great conflict within the family that lends itself.
I was wondering what it’s like being an Englishman or a Welshman playing a Russian, who’s masquerading as an American, who’s been masquerading as all these other people. When you’re doing all of that, how much of that layering are you having to process, and how much do you just focus on the character you’re playing at the moment?
Matthew: The simple answer is, it’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me. At first, I kind of went at it from that point of view thinking, oh I’m a Welsh Russian playing an American, and it just makes for a great amount of confusion. In its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American, which is what I was doing on Brothers and Sisters, and now I’m legitimately doing it on The Americans. It helps my cause enormously that you’re—and I’ve been through it in doing Brothers and Sisters. What I was genuinely doing was trying to be a foreigner assimilating to American point of view, so I know exactly what it is.
It’s strange with all the accent work I was doing on Brothers and Sisters more often than not, the dialect coaches say, you accomplish sound right, you sound right, but you don’t sound like an American if that makes sense. It’s more about an inner template, you just have to be in the country for long enough to get the right rhythm and right cadence, and that took a long time. Something I’ve been familiar with.
I wanted to ask you a question about my personal favorite episode of this season; Martial Eagle. You gave a phenomenal performance. Can you tell us a little bit about what went into creating the scene where Philip screams at Paige?
Matthew: Yes. The training I received many, many years ago when I was at college in London; a very strong [indiscernible] philosophy based training where your real emotion, your true emotion is used, and there’s a term they used called emotional memory or emotional callback. I just used something from my own past that was similar that would elicit the same feeling, and then you kind of go through an emotional trigger that gets you to that base so you kind of access a [indiscernible] that comes quite easily. That was the primary focus for that scene.
I think Philip realizes that it’s a number of things. Obviously the pressure on him is enormous, and he realizes there’s an element with his daughter that she’s slipping out of his reach, and in that way that so many of us do, you lash out because you feel helpless. That’s how I went about it.
Matthew, your performances are so effortless, apparently, as we watch it, but I assume that there are pretty difficult parts from the accent to the costume changes to all these different personas. What do you find has been the most challenging part of doing this series?
Matthew: The accent is always a tricky part for me because I think such a large part of your brain is working towards that, so you have to sort of stay on it as much as possible. I think just the physical filming of this series is incredibly difficult for the simple reason, the scene count we have, the amount of days we have to shoot, the jumping from disguises; it’s a big juggling act, this series, and the pace at which we shoot. In a day you’re in the chair, a wig is going on your head and you don’t even know if you’re doing a pickup shot or whatever, you can’t remember what episode it was from. It’s kind of an [indiscernible] say, keeping your head sane in the madness, and keeping a focus on where you are in the arc of the season and just trying to keep level headed with the madness of it all.
I also wanted to ask, you directed a few episodes of Brothers and Sisters, any chance that you might direct an episode of The Americans?
Matthew: Foolishly or arrogantly or ignorantly, before starting shooting this series, I thought, oh I’d love it if there was a possibility that I could shoot—direct an episode. Having seen the pace at which we shoot, and the hours which we shoot is incredibly indulged on Brothers and Sisters whereby they wouldn’t write me late in the episode before I would direct so that I could prep, and all the rest, and they’d also run me light in the episode I was directing, so I was incredibly looked after on that series. In this series, there’s absolutely no way I could do both jobs without either: a) killing myself or b) the use of incredibly heavy drugs.
I wanted to ask about how the Jennings are really separated from the resident [indiscernible]. Are you in the process of getting your scripts—do you actually get to know what goes on on that side, or do you guys like to keep yourselves in the dark and almost play out what it’s like to get orders through other forms of communication rather than being able to interact with that cast?
Matthew: Just purely from reading the script I do enjoy what’s going on because I think there’s so much juice in their storylines, the [indiscernible] one especially. But purely just because the way we shoot, we never see those guys, I very rarely have a scene with Noah [Emmerich], and that’s really my only communication, but we never see—we rarely cross paths in the make-up [indiscernible]. We don’t get to see them; we don’t go on their set. It is like, in that way, you’re sort of separate entities working toward the same goal.
I was wondering; you wear all these different disguises and different wigs and everything, which one is your favorite character, outside of Philip, to play on this show?
Matthew: My favorite character is one of them that has shoulder-length hair, and a mustache and a little goatee and he’s usually a workman, a phone electrician or caretaker, he usually wears the blue jumpsuit and it has a tool belt. I enjoy him just purely because I’ve given him such an elaborate and detailed backstory. As all of us do, we sort of give them alter egos and give them these fantastic biographies. Mine is a flamenco dancer from Seville.
I was wondering, can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect in these final two episodes? (note: this interview took place before last week’s episode, but the transcript didn’t arrive until after it.)
Matthew: Yes. I [indiscernible] a little while ago. There is an enormous about-turn in the last episode that I think keys up the third season beautifully in a finding way, in a way that’ll bring in a greater conflict of Philip and Elizabeth. Having seen them separated for the majority of the first season because of what they were going through, and then reunited for the second season which great to see what happens at the end of the finale is, I think, going to bring such division to the two of them and will be very interesting to see how they play out.
I think what’s so great about this season is the sort of continuity of a storyline within every episode, and the great danger off of a rogue force that they [indiscernible] uncontrollable, and I think it plays beautifully to their paranoia as a lifestyle that they can’t sustain, because they realize how dangerous their lives are becoming. They’re shooting at the end of Season One giving way to this—the killing of the family, beginning of the second season; they realize that they’re very fallible, they’re not untouchable and that’s going to be a great set to them.
A few episodes back Philip decided to use Annalise as the honey trap rather than Elizabeth, so I’m wondering what you think that means in terms of where Philip’s at in that relationship?
Matthew: I think it shows quite clearly that he doesn’t fit well with the honey trapping now. Season One was seeing how the two of them—as they developed these real feelings—hang on one sec. As they were developing these real feelings, how that changes the game for them in Season Two is very apparent. These real emotions have developed for the pair of them, and now certainly, the conflicts between that and their mission statement, their mandate, it makes for very difficult, although interesting dramaturgically, difficult situations whereby the thought of Elizabeth honey trapping, it preys on him enormously, and that’s why he chose to use Annalise because his feelings have evolved and grown so much, and are now very real.
We’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth on opposing views on Paige’s newfound religion. Why do you think it is that Philip is so much more lenient and some might even say forgiving, than Elizabeth, both in parenting and on the job?
Matthew: I think for a number of reasons really. His assimilation to the United States has been easier than Elizabeth’s because—and this was my own personal backstory that I gave to him, growing up in post-World War [indiscernible] Soviet Union would have been incredibly difficult and incredibly—great hardships and [indiscernible] poverty. Though they were indoctrinated at a very earlier age, he’s come of age, Philip, and he’s realized he has a family that he loves and wants to secure their future, and that’s threatened. However, he’s accepted the United States as a newfound freedom. There’s a number of trappings that he enjoys enormously.
I think he’s easier on his children because he knows—I’m sure there’s guilt about the lives they’re leading, the deceit they’re feeding them, and also in a way where he wasn’t allowed to be the person that he wanted to be. They were, to a degree, sort of brainwashed. I think he wants his child, even if they are in opposition to him, he wants his child to have those choices to form who she is independently, to be whoever she wants to be and to live the life she wants to live, which is something he certainly wasn’t allowed. So I think he allows them a greater freedom, and is that little bit more forgiving.
I wanted to ask you about developing the relationship between one of your aliases and Martha, and really try to make that a believable effort for Philip to try to manage. We only see so many instances where Philip and Elizabeth get to work on their marriage, but here he is working with a whole other different marriage even though it’s live.
Could you maybe explain the exploration of that in this season versus the first?
Matthew: Yes, it’s bizarre because obviously there’s an ulterior motive. The other thing I struggle with is, I find myself in these situations doing these scenes with Martha, and you kind of think, oh my gosh this is so bizarre, but the bizarre element is that this was an incredibly successful operation for the KGB and something they advocated enormously, which was the partnerships and managers of low lever security cleared staff that they could infiltrate. This is something very real and very true.
However, the pitching of where indeed to pitch this relationship is very difficult because ultimately you want to make it as believable as possible, but ultimately you have to make [indiscernible] so that’s where I begin. But the motivation is different, it’s two-fold in a way, I think. One is obviously to gain intelligence, but also if this relationship goes awry then his whole identity is compromised as is his family, therefore the stakes are incredibly high. It’s a real tightrope walk for him in that he either has to be real, because it inevitably will and has turned into a real relationship, but he also has to remember what he needs to succeed in doing is: a) getting information; and b) not blowing his cover. It’s a knife’s edge for him, something I’d imagine [indiscernible] a number of ulcers.
Photos by Frank Ockenfels and Craig Blankenhorn/Courtesy of Fox