Warning: There are not big spoilers, but rather hints ahead about Wednesday’s new episode of The Americans, the one that features the directorial debut of series star Noah Emmerich.
Emmerich’s Stan experiences some big emotional moments in “Walter Taffet,” as do married spies Elizabeth and Philip when he becomes aware of what she’s been up to with daughter Paige. There’s also a huge action sequence featuring the Elizabeth and Philip undercover characters Yahoo TV documented in a set visit earlier this year, while a discovery at the FBI offices sends Martha on an intense ride that will leave her questioning… everything.
Emmerich talked to Yahoo TV about how he prepared to direct his co-stars, the scene that made him most nervous, and the scene he calls the most gorgeous in the episode.
How long have you wanted to direct an episode of The Americans?
Since we started, really. Obviously I’ve noticed that other actors have had chances to direct a show that they’re on for long enough, and I thought that was a really interesting opportunity. Then I went to the producers with the idea in the first season, and I expressed my interest and said, “I’d love to do this. What do I need to do to make this happen?” and they were quite receptive. They said, “Well, you could start shadowing directors. You can take your days off and come on in and go to production meetings. You can go to post-production meetings. Come to the sound mix. Get an education and really get your feet wet in terms of everything that goes into that job.” Which I did. I spent the second half of the first season and all of the second season shadowing directors, and any time I was off as an actor, I would just hang around. I would observe and participate as much as I could with the other steps of the show. At the end of the second season, they said, “OK, we think you’re ready, we’re going to give you a shot next year.” I was ecstatically grateful.
And “Walter Taffet” is an especially meaty episode.
The funny thing about television is they assign the directing slots based upon the calendar, and we know our production schedule, but the actual content of the episode is not known. It hasn’t even been written yet when they tell you, “[You’re] doing Episode 7,” so you don’t know what the script is going to be until about a month before you shoot it. I kept asking, “Is it ready, is it ready? Can I read it, can I read it?” And finally one day, they said, “Oh, yeah, we got your script.” When I read it, I was so happy. I think it’s a phenomenal script. It’s a great episode, so many wonderful things happen. There’s great emotional, intimate scenes. There’s great action scenes. There’s some really big payoffs to some plot lines that we’ve been nurturing since Season 1. So it’s a really fantastic episode, both as an actor and as a director.
What are the challenges of directing yourself, especially since this is a pretty intense Stan episode?
The hardest part is directing Noah Emmerich. He’s just a nightmare, just an impossible actor to work with, a real diva. No, the hardest thing about directing myself was not really directing myself; it was more that I’m going to be in scenes with other actors, and they deserve a director who’s giving them his full attention as the director. Obviously if I’m acting in a scene with them, I was slightly apologetic for being distracted that I had to do other things as well. One of the advantages of directing a show you’re on is that you also spend a lot of time with [your co-stars] outside of the actual scenes that you’re shooting on that day. I had lots of lead-time to have conversations with them, sort of as the director, long before we’re actually shooting the scene. Pros and cons sort of balance out in the end, and it was pretty seamless to direct myself. I was a little bit anxious about it, but it became apparent early on that it was all going to work. It’s our third year together, so it’s a very supportive, nurturing, embracing environment. We’re all actually friends, which makes it a lot easier.
The episode really does have a little bit of everything that makes the show great: the confrontation with Philip and Elizabeth about her plans for Paige, big moments between Stan and Sandra and Stan and his son, a huge Martha storyline, the big action sequence at the end. What was the most challenging scene as the director?
There are so many different types of challenges for directors, and that’s one of the things about the job that’s really exciting. I guess I had the most anxiety about the action sequence at the end, mostly because I’m not super experienced in directing action. I have directed before — little short films or theater — so the emotional, intimate stuff I felt more confident about. The action stuff… it was just, as everything is when you do it the first time, the most scary in a way. On top of that, we have a very tight production schedule, so we had so little time, and [action scenes] can be a real time suck, a real black hole, because there are so many little pieces that you need to get right, and so many moving parts, and physical stuff and fighting and stunt work. You just have to be really prepared, have a really strong game plan going into it, which we did, and hope that not too many things go wrong, which fortunately they didn’t.
What is your favorite moment in the episode, story-wise?
What I was most emotionally excited about was the Philip/Elizabeth scene in the bedroom, where they sort of try to make peace with each other, try to sort of bridge the enormous distance that lived in between them. Elizabeth actually apologizes to Philip… I don’t think it’s ever happened in our story, and it was a beautifully written scene, and a beautiful opportunity for these characters, who, in some ways are so lonely, to try to connect with each other. I thought that was a gorgeous scene, and obviously, with two great actors to work with, I was really excited.
Then the Martha stuff I thought was incredibly fun, too. I love Allison Wright. She’s such a great actor, and to get her character in such a great episode. So much happens for her. Something that big, that we’ve all been waiting for since she married Clark… It was fun to be able to work with Allison so much. I was really happy to have so much of her in my episode.
Do you have the directing bug now? Is this something you know you want to do more of?
Yes, I had a great time doing it, and hopefully there’s more of this in my future.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.