Espionage and Soviet agents in a Reagan-era Washington, D.C. is the backdrop of the FX hit show The American’s. Star Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings) took some time to chat about what might transpire in Season 3 between Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) complicated relationship as a married couple who happen to be KGB agents living in Washington, D.C.
Will they follow orders revealing their true identities to their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) in order to one day mold her into an agent? How does guest star Frank Langella factor into the Jennings future? You’ll have to watch to find out! Season 3 of The American’s premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on FX.
Full interview after the jump!
So for you now being in season three, what has still been the most challenging part? Since you have to play several characters, actually, being the spy, what has been the most challenging part and which is really maybe the easier part of playing him?
Matthew Rhys: I’m still figuring out if there is indeed an easy part to playing him. I suppose the more enjoyable is that he continues to be as layered and rich and complex as he has been from the beginning.
The harder part for me is to land him in a place of reality, somewhere that’s real for me and hopefully real for an audience in that someone who has to juggle, in its reference, and keep as many sort of plates in the air as Philip does, but sort of the pressure that that would bring, it’s landing that in a real place. For me, it’s the sort of hardest balancing act.
At the end of last season we got the big news that the center is going to be trying to recruit Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter Paige and we see that this is going to set up a conflict between the two parents as Elizabeth seems to be more open to this idea of their daughter becoming a spy than Philip is. Can you talk about how that conflict is going to affect their marriage and affect the family in season three?
Matthew Rhys: Yes, it’s sort of the predominant and overriding arc for Philip and Elizabeth during this season, which is this enormous conflict between them that sets them poles apart, really, as they come from two opposing sides as to what should be done about Paige. Really, the entire season is that grapple and that wrestle between the two as they thrash it out.
What do you think is Philip’s sort of driving, what’s driving his belief that he really wants to keep his daughter out of this business?
Matthew Rhys: I think a number of things. I think, ultimately, as we’ve seen a flashback in one and two, Philip and Elizabeth were children when they were picked, you know? They were in late teenage years and I think heavily indoctrinated. Really, you look back at your own age, you’re not very sure who you are at that time. He’s found himself in a vocation that he really didn’t choose in a way; I think it was kind of chosen for him in a way, thrust upon him, and he’s evolving at a time and bursting out at a time when he realized it probably isn’t the life that he would have chosen nor is it the life he wants, and the same applies heavily for his daughter.
He doesn’t want her pushed into something at such a young, vulnerable, impressionable age whereby in a few years she’s in up over her head because it’s not something you just – it’s not a job you can quit overnight or walk away from and he doesn’t want her to have to do the many awful things that he has to do in order to stay alive and, therefore, keep the family alive.
We meet Gabriel in the season three premiere. Can you talk a little bit about working with Frank Langella and what’s coming up with him?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. It’s sort of like having a silverback gorilla come onto the set in the best way possible. He’s this dominant, physical, mental, emotional, presence that kind of stiffens and straightens everyone’s back and lifts everyone’s game, certainly. He comes with this – the premise in which they set him, him being influential and instrumental in the training of Philip and Elizabeth is sort of great because it gives you instant history that he just does effortlessly. He has this commanding presence that builds a great conflict between them all.
Working with him has been fantastic as he turned up with this natural presence and he is ready to listen, he’s ready to play, and he plays at a very high standard, which makes it exciting for us.
Can you talk a little bit about what’s coming up with him this season?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. In the same way I think Philip feels a little isolated in the fact that Frank and Elizabeth, Gabriel and Elizabeth are obviously the more staunch diehards of the party and the mission and the party come before anything else, and he’s very onboard for bringing Paige into the fold whereas Philip isn’t and feels a great sense of betrayal. I think Philip – well, I don’t think, what happens is Philip is isolated from the two of them and feels betrayed, and that is sort of the bigger arc for him and Gabriel, that sort of sense of betrayal and conflict in the fact that he doesn’t want his daughter to follow his footsteps.
What do you think it would take to change Philip’s mind, or do you think that he’s staunch in his belief that Paige should not follow in her parents’ footsteps?
Matthew Rhys: I think he’s absolutely immovable in that respect. There’s nothing on God’s green earth that could make him acquiesce to the fact that she should join the KGB or, indeed, the intelligence world.
What do you think changed Philip’s mind about being an officer and how it would affect – I mean, you say you don’t want her, you say Paige is young and impressionable, but she’s going into the church and she’s becoming, she’s following that religious life and how that’s her at a young and impressionable age. What do you think makes the difference for Philip in between those two lives?
Matthew Rhys: Well, if you look at the lives, really, when they’re killing people and having sex with them for intelligence as opposed to a sort of – yes, it’s secular in one way, but ultimately it’s a communal, supportive group that has a strong belief, which is the same, but there’s no risk of being killed or hurt or imprisoned as a direct result of your job. I think there’s great responsibility, there’s great guilt, I think, on Philip and Elizabeth’s part as she joined the church group because if you notice – well you don’t even notice – is blatantly obvious. They’ve been absent parents in their children’s lives up until this point, and it’s a very real reason why she’s sort of sought that support and that comfort from a group elsewhere. I think children tend to find the rebellion of the opposition of what their parents want. For them, it was the church.
Given the choice, this could be anything like any teenage had. In a couple years’ time she might say, “That wasn’t for me,” and then you know, no harm done whereas I’m sure to join the KGB or anything related in that sense, that’s it. Once you’re in, that’s it. There’s no turning back.
We’ve seen a pretty major difference between who Philip is as a spy and also who he wants to be as a person. Do you think it’s possible that the character of Clark is actually closer to who Philip sees himself as outside of the spy world?
Matthew Rhys: That’s a very good question. I would agree. Yes, I think he’s arrived at a place in his life where it’s exactly what he does want. He does want a sort of domestic contentment. He wants a simpler life within a healthy working relationship where there’s sort of mutual respect. And yes, there’s a large element of Clark and Martha that serves that.
We see in the first set of episodes here where Philip is forced to approach a girl practically the same age as Paige. I wanted to know how you thought that affected his ongoing argument with Elizabeth and the KGB about age.
Matthew Rhys: Well, I think it serves a point [indiscernible]. As conflicted as he is, because he’s deeply, deeply upset by the mandates of this particular operation, I think he finds it incredibly disturbing for the simple reason that he does have a child the same age, but it reiterates the fact that this girl is, just purely by association being the daughter of a CIA, she’s put in harm’s way by people like him and I think he hopes it reiterates to Elizabeth the sort of danger she would be placed under if she were to come into this mad world.
We’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth do some pretty excruciating things, some horrible things for their country. At this point do you think that there’s anywhere that they would draw the line, that there’s something that they just wouldn’t do?
Matthew Rhys: I mean, it was pretty tough for Philip to agree to sort of follow-on with the operation and the seduction of this 15-year-old and I think that would have got [indiscernible]. I think if for some reason there was an order to come through to sort of harm or terminate a minor, then I would imagine that would be something that he probably wouldn’t carry out.
In the first episode this season we see that Philip actually has a more pragmatic approach to the deaths that are around him. Last season we saw how he sort of derailed emotionally because of that, so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that shift.
Matthew Rhys: I think it was a combination of things that came to a head last year with a number of – you know, Philip has kind of sat on so many enormous emotions for so long that it basically built and built and built and it erupted in that moment with Paige. Paige has been on the receiving end of it. It’s all about Paige but nothing to do with Paige, you know what I mean, but she received the wrath of it.
I think in a sense, in some ways it was a minor breakdown on Philip’s behalf that he’s now recovered from and he has some distance and some perspective on it and realizes that it’s just now something he has to accept. It affected him enormously up until that point. Since then, he’s begun to kind of, you know, he viciously disagrees with it but he accepts it now as a part, as a bigger picture. It’s basically to keep himself, his wife and his family alive and then it’s a necessary, an enormous necessary evil in that greater picture.
You and Keri have played a lot of different characters, different disguises. What was your favorite one to play?
Matthew Rhys: My favorite one is a guy that I nicknamed Fernando. He has long shoulder-length hair and a moustache and sometimes a little goatee and usually works as a sort of janitor figure or whatever, whatever’s needed. He was my sort of, he’s been my favorite I think just because of the elaborate backstory I’ve given him as a flamenco dancing assassin.
Also, Paige was joining that church and Philip and Elizabeth weren’t crazy about it and ultimately it was a bit of a sham, but do you think Philip saw any connection between what he went through with the KGB and could see the similarities in this church, which is why they were so against it?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. I think Philip and Elizabeth both suffered from absent parents in one respect or the other and Russia being what it was at that time and they’re sort of having doctrination of what communism was and it being the only way and the right way at a very young, impressionable age, then yes, all those types [ph] align and make for a sort of perfect party member. I think the same has happened for Paige. She’s suffered enormously from two very absent parents and has sought the sort of comfort and light and guidance from elsewhere.
Out of either a two series – the two-year run that your series has had, what is your favorite episode you’ve played so far?
Matthew Rhys: I think possibly the favorite was that one where – I can’t remember what it’s called – but it’s where Philip, where you referenced earlier, kind of erupts in a way at Paige and tears up a Bible. To me, it was one of the most human moments for someone who’s had to deal with all of this throughout his entire life and we watched for two seasons the buildup and the culmination of so, so much. What I loved was the fact that for once, we see it released, we see it come out and we see it have its effect.
For that reason, it is rare because I think in the series we do tend to – emotions do have to be bottled for various reasons and it was just so good to finally air something so deeply entrenched in Philip’s psyche.
What are you most excited about for season three? Anything upcoming that you can kind of talk about that you’re really excited about?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. To me, what was always exciting was when I first read the first pilot of this, at its heart, the most alluring for me was this incredibly complex relationship, at its heart, and how that would resolve and manifest itself, and that’s what’s always of interest to me. I think this year, the scene, the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth about Paige, it’s sort of the more extreme version of what so many marriages and relationships go through in the raising of children. It’s the absolute conflict that interests me, like how it will resolve itself and the very rocky journey of getting there.
Now that Annelise is out of the picture, you seem to very quickly go with the flow and use that to your advantage. I was just wondering what’s going to happen with your storyline with Yousaf this season.
Matthew Rhys: To be perfectly honest, I don’t know where it’s going because it’s resolved in the last three episodes, which we haven’t received yet. It’s as much of a surprise – you know he kind of gets in and out of the season but nothing of substance in kind of – he checks in with Philip and Philip keeps pushing him for information.
The true resolve of what will happen, is to happen is in the last three, which we haven’t received yet, so time will tell. I’m sorry I can’t be any more specific than that.
How does your character deal with her death and how do we see that kind of play out over the next few episodes?
Matthew Rhys: I’m afraid to say. There’s so much other stuff going on that the resolve isn’t on camera. I mean, it’s like all deaths and it affects him deeply and you like, the eruption of – leading to it, it kind of tends to seed and plant itself deeply with Philip and then usually the effect takes hold much later.
This season Philip and Elizabeth are extremely focused on Paige now that the center has kind of zoned in on her as being a recruit, but do you think that all this attention that they’re focusing on Paige is affecting Henry in some kind of way? Like, there was his breaking and entering last season and this season he’s hoarding bikini photos of his neighbor and there’s no telling what else he’s going to do. Do you think that all this attention on Paige is just going to kind of come back to them with Henry?
Matthew Rhys: I do, I do. There’s this kind of deliberate sort of silent watching and listening from Henry throughout the season, I’m very interested as to how that will manifest itself in him. It’s clearly that kind of absence he feels and the sort of dysfunction and the distance, I’m sure he feels will have to sort of come out in some way, form or another. I look forward to seeing that.
Has that affected the season just yet?
Matthew Rhys: Not yet. It’s still kind of bubbling along.
I was watching the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night and something that I couldn’t help but notice is that each time the television actors got up to accept an award and started speaking, they thank the writers of the show. Just listening to you speaking this afternoon, it’s obvious that you are passionate about this character, passionate about this series. Could you speak at all on your affinity for this script and kind of what your relationship is like and this new plot going on with Paige and everything?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. You know, I’ve always said television is the absolute writers medium and there’s a reason we’re in the golden age of television. It’s because the writing in this day and age is so incredibly good and never more so than in our show, where as I’ve said time and time again, the layering, the complexity of what they give us to play is so enormously interesting and difficult and challenging and dynamic. We thank them a lot as well. Sadly, we didn’t have the platform at the SAG Awards.
Specifically in terms of this plot with Paige, I couldn’t help but think of a series like Homeland where it seems like they kind of falter in focusing too much on the children, so what do you think this season does right in kind of giving your children on the series such pests when it comes to the actual part of the show?
Matthew Rhys: I think there’s sort of the focus of children taken in any family situation or dynamic is enormous and so much of people’s lives are geared towards being good parents and doing the right thing. I think it’s those universal themes that help us and really ground it in a way and make it that much more real, I hope.
I was wondering, when we see the flashback sequences, their lives before they joined the KGB, which they’re not supposed to really acknowledge, but over the last few seasons we’ve seen that there’s been a shift in that. We don’t really get a glimpse of Philip’s early life. He’s touched on it a bit and I was just wondering, is that something we’re going to see more of or do you personally have a backstory as an actor for that?
Matthew Rhys: I do have a backstory for it which sort of helps me in the way I kind of create my world for Philip. I don’t think it is, not this season, because this season is very much Elizabeth’s and the relationship with her mother, which you know, obviously parallels and mirrors that with Paige and the way it informs the relationship with Paige. That’s a great focused moment.
God willing, if we do get a fourth season then maybe we’ll see some of Philip’s more mis-spent psychedelic days.
In what ways would you say that Philip is very much like you as a person and in what ways is he just not like – or are you just not like him at all? I mean, do you embody some of the same things?
Matthew Rhys: Absolutely, absolutely. I’ve always appraised any character I approach with – basically, the characteristics should be built up of myself. I’m always interested in the truth of the character and the way I bring a truth to the character to make him, I hate to say, but it’s your own make up that you bring to the character. It’s rare that you see anyone play a great extremity [ph] in this day and age because actors really haven’t given the opportunity to be – only the big stars get to have the chameleon stretches that they want, but more often than not you’re kind of cast in the way that you are. More often than not, I think with television writing, as the first season unfolds, writers will tend to start writing to your own characteristics.
I think in that respect, when things evolve, naturally they see the family orientation and the rest of it, the more humanity of Philip. I like to think that those are characteristics that I share heavily with him, the same kind of hatred of the deaths that happen. There’s a lot of me in Philip, even though I’m watching now.
I have to say, Philip gets laid more than any television character I’ve ever seen.
Matthew Rhys: That’s based on my life as well.
As an actor, though, does it get any easier doing sex scenes or those types of scenes?
Matthew Rhys: No. It never gets comfortable. It never gets to a point where – no – you go, “Oh, this is normal, this is natural,” you’re simulating sex with 40 of your closest friends. It’s bizarre, the random bizarreness of it. Then it’s magnified when you have to do the gymnastics of the Kama Sutra as well.
It’s never – I’d answer with never. It’s not close to a place where I can go, “Oh, great, another sex scene. That will be normal.” It’s the opposite for me.
The Kama Sutra thing was pretty good, though. Did you have to practice a lot for it?
Matthew Rhys: Well, we didn’t. We didn’t. However, we did suffer for it. There was a lot of pulled tendons and cramping because you’re on one foot trying to balance basically.
The character of Martha is determined to have a future with Clark despite all the warning signs of him not being available and they’re keeping their marriage a secret and they don’t live together. He’s obviously pumping her for information. Do you think that – how much longer do you think that this ruse can last, this fake marriage with Martha constantly questioning their future together, wanting to foster a child and eventually have one of their own?
Matthew Rhys: I think Philip is very aware that it can’t sustain itself. He can’t keep at arm’s length and fobbing [ph] her off and leading her down a certain garden path about having children and the rest of it when really, I think it affects him enormously, the sort of playing with her emotions, but I think he knows full well that it’s like his life in a way. It can’t sustain itself and ultimately, something will have to give, and more often than not, undoubtedly, it will be with relatively disastrous consequences.
That’s unfortunate. I like Martha.
Matthew Rhys: I know. I think I, as has Philip, have enormous compassion and empathy for Martha. It manifests itself in the great guilt as to the puppeting of someone’s feelings and journey in life.
Nobody knows where the show’s ultimately going to go, but since in your personal opinion the way things have gone and knowing the character of Philip and Elizabeth, do you think towards the show’s end, which is hopefully many years from now, do you think it’s more likely that they’ll get captured and possibly killed or do you think there’s a chance that they could actually defect?
Matthew Rhys: My hope is that they do defect. Philip mentioned that in the first episode of the first season. I think that’s something that remained with him very closely until now and that’s really the absolute only way he could guarantee the safe future of his children. To me, I would love to see them defect.
Do you think Elizabeth would go for that, though? She seems to be closer to Mother Russia than Philip.
Matthew Rhys: There would have to be sort of unmitigated sets of circumstances whereby it would be a deal that if they didn’t they would go to prison for the rest of their lives, the kids would be put in a foster home, or that they could become double agents. Then it begs the question, does Elizabeth then become a triple agent?
Story-wise dramaturgically, I think it offers an enormous amount.
Excuse my ignorance, but do you sometimes Twitter during television, during the show sometimes, live Twitter?
Matthew Rhys: I don’t, never. I never have done it. I’m not a big Twitterer.
Not a big social media guy?
Matthew Rhys: I’m not. I’m a little bit of a Luddite. I still use pen and paper as often as possible.
What do you think of that phenomenon, though? A lot of shows do it.
Matthew Rhys: They do, and I understand it and can see the beast it’s become. It’s now the beast no one can do without. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of it. I don’t, it doesn’t push my buttons, but it’s a necessary evil in this day and age.
I think it takes away from the show while you’re watching the show. I can’t do it because I’m trying to watch the show and see what’s going on.
Matthew Rhys: Yes. No, the live tweeting I totally disagree with because I think in that sense the way sometimes they ask actors to do TV spots with it kind of not being the character and it more being themselves, I think it’s a sort of ludicrous notion to me because I think especially with our show, you ask the audience to go on quite a fantastical journey. It’s a big ask of them, of their imaginations to go with you. I think things like live Tweeting and things like that, what you’re doing is you’re sort of popping yourself out of that fantasy back into reality and telling the audience that you’re an actor playing a part. The suspension of that belief I think becomes harder or the chasm becomes a greater jump. I don’t think it aids you in any way.
Also, I’m just a bit more old school. I just want to watch it uninterrupted.
Did you work on anything else during your hiatus? Do you have anything else coming out this year?
Matthew Rhys: I did. I did a movie in France with a great director called Christian Carion. It was a Second World War movie. He was Oscar nominated for a First World War movie he did, and that’s being scored by [indiscernible] as we speak. It’ll be out in the summer.
Then I did a little movie for Harvey – not a little movie. I’m sorry, I played a small part in a Harvey Weinstein movie with Bradley Cooper where we play rival chefs.
What’s the name of that?
Matthew Rhys: It has a working title at the moment of Adam Jones, which is the main character, but I’m not sure if it’s going to be the final title.
I always felt from the first season when it shows Philip initially ripping the picture in two of the young girl right before he meets Elizabeth, I always felt that there was something about that that connected him to her emotionally from the very beginning. Would you say that Philip fell in love with her from the moment he saw her or was he just more open to it because he was obviously more open to it being real than she was?
Matthew Rhys: No, I’m a romantic in that sense. I do think that he fell in love with her in the beginning. Yes, so yes is the short answer.
I think he is emotionally a lot more available and open, and that doesn’t serve him well in this business at times.
Is it harder for him to shut that down than when he has to go into the field?
Matthew Rhys: It is, it is. I think it takes its toll sort of deep down with Philip. I think it does affect him and as we’ve seen, it’s a problem that comes back. It’s sort of the return of the repressed. It comes back to haunt him.
Because you get to play so many variety of character roles and you do so many different sort of choice in this job would you consider this your dream role?
Matthew Rhys: No, I’d say this was my dream role. As a sort of box ticker for actors, I don’t think you could get better than this. It’s been a real dream. As I said, the layering, the complexity of it keeps getting deeper and more varied. There’s no danger at all of it ever becoming dull or repetitive. It’s incredibly challenging and dynamic. It’s everything you want or ever wanted to do in one part.
We know how pivotal a role Paige has now and working with Holly (Holly Taylor), can you talk a little bit about that?
Matthew Rhys: First off, and I always hate it when actors do this, but with regard to her I can say with absolute sincerity she’s one of the sweetest, nicest, most sincere people I’ve ever had the fortune to meet, but it’s true. I think it serves her incredibly well because what it brings to her part, and especially with these storylines, is an incredible sense of truth.
She has sort of enormous sincerity and truth and virtue in her performances and that was sort of influenced by who she is as a person. I think it lends itself amazingly well to her performances and she’s incredible all around. There isn’t anything she really can’t do in many [indiscernible] of this crazy business. If you have the opportunity to talk to her you should ask her to rap for you.
Matthew Rhys: Yes.
Is she good at that?
Matthew Rhys: Incredible.
That’s good to know. We’ll have to ask her to do that. I heard a story that she had a little trouble in one scene where she had to use a 1980s telephone and she was using both thumbs, so that was one of the only ways in which she needed some instruction as to how to dial an old-time telephone.
Matthew Rhys: The one element of this show that depresses the hell out of me is when the kids sometimes will bring something up and go, “What is this?” and you go, “Oh, my god.” I was a child of the ‘80s and you know, they ask what the VCR or the telephone is. They go, “My god, these things – look at this remote control, it’s like, oh, gosh.” And you’re like, “Oh, shut up, kid.”
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the complexity between Philip and Elizabeth? It seems that they have so far this season, early on, are really interesting because there’s a lot of, there’s an antagonistic element to it, but then episode three about there’s a way that it kind of comes to the surface, this sensuality, within a very gruesome scene. I don’t want to give anything away, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about playing that.
Matthew Rhys: In a gruesome – yes, yes, of course. Yes. It’s this dance that they have perennially. Their relationship and life together is so complex that it’s gymnastic in a way that it can leap from something incredibly domestic as to do with the kids’ school and then to do with a mission and then the killing or disposing of a body. They jump these huge caverns, these leaps, varied and often and that’s true of their emotional life. Also, they only have each other in this situation. There’s no one else they could turn to. There’s no one else who can empathize or sympathize like the other one can. Therefore, in that respect, they’re sort of beholden and dependent on each other.
It makes for this amazing relationship whereby they need each other, but they antagonize each other enormously and they fight and they’re poles apart at times, but ultimately, knowing that they absolutely will always need each other, so it makes for incredibly interesting play. What happens in those moments whereby their life is so extreme, whereby they have to do these things like the scene you’ve referenced, it’s only, I think in their relationship, and only their relationship that can happen when it becomes something else. It almost becomes this gruesome thing, becomes almost an act of love, and therefore, something incredibly sensual to the two of them, if that makes sense.
Why should people watch The Americans? What sets it apart besides the actual story line?
Matthew Rhys: To me, I think it’s just an extreme version of life and I think whenever you watch something, that you’re reassured that other people are as fallible as you. I think we take comfort in it and I think that’s why we kind of sustained ourselves for three seasons. That we’re universal. It’s an extreme version of human life, which makes it dramaturgically more interesting I think to watch. That’s why I’d watch it. I know I appreciate that’s not much of a sound bite. It can be very difficult to put as a sub-heading, but that’s my take.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.