Alison Wright in ‘The Americans’ (Patrick Harbron/FX)
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Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Season 4 of The Americans.
The just-completed fourth season of The Americans was the FX drama’s best season yet, and that is in no small part due to the continuing excellence of Alison Wright, the British actress who portrays — or is that portrayed? — FBI secretary-turned-KGB agent wife and spy Martha Hanson.
For four seasons, viewers watched as meek Martha — at least, that’s what her co-workers thought of her most of that time — provided insider information to “Clark,” a man she thought was working on behalf of the American government. But when her relationship with Clark turned into a mostly secret marriage, and even when she learned the truth that he’s a KGB agent with a whole separate life (and motives), the sweet, loving, trusting woman chose to stand by her man… by fleeing to Russia, on the KGB’s orders.
Wright, who’s Emmy-nomination worthy for her standout work in a cast packed with nomination-worthy performers, talked to Yahoo TV about how she sees Martha as hopeful and optimistic (even as she gets on that plane that takes her away from Clark), the show’s famous fans, her favorite Martha moments of the season, and whether or not she thinks we’ve seen the last of Ms. Hanson.
I just noticed that there is a Twitter account for the FBI mail robot from The Americans, and it tweeted that it misses Martha and you. Have you been surprised at how strongly fans (and machines) have reacted to Martha?
I’ve been more surprised by how strongly they’ve reacted to a mail robot. But it’s been a great season for me and for Martha, of course. So it’s been really exciting. It’s really nice that people are along for the ride of her story and are invested in it.
You have some famous fans, too. Dax Shepard tweeted to you that he and his wife Kristen Bell are big fans. I understand that you got a very warm welcome from Ben Affleck on the set of the upcoming movie The Accountant.
Yeah, the show is very popular among people in the business, so who knows what other Americans fans are out there. I know that David Bowie was a fan. I mean, that’s just bonkers, right?
What percentage of those fans who react so strongly to Martha react to her from the “poor Martha” point of view? There’s a sizable fan base who don’t see her as a victim, right?
Whether they see her as a victim or not, I’m not sure, but they do seem to all agree she’s been badly done, that she got a really bad hand, and, not that she’s a victim or that she’s responsible, but there just seems to be a real sadness about her situation and what she’s had to go through. Her being duped in this romantic sense seems to strike a chord with a lot of people. They really seem to have a lot of empathy for her.
Wright with Matthew Rhys (Eric Liebowitz/FX)
Have you ever seen her that way?
I can’t judge her like that. I don’t think she thinks she’s a victim. She’s not trying to avoid taking responsibility for what she’s done. She’s never tried to deny what she’s done, or talk about it with Clark at all, in the sense that she’s in denial about what she’s doing. You know, I think she accepts what she’s done and realizes she’s a grownup and made her own decisions. Nobody had a knife at her throat. I don’t think you can be a victim if you have your head screwed on like that. I do think she has a very good sense of morals and civic responsibility. That’s just the type of family that she came from, with this Lutheran Church background, good, solid Midwestern stock. She knows what she did, yeah. She’s not blaming anybody else.
It would be perfectly understandable if her reaction to Clark was, “How could you do this? How could you put me in this situation?” But those words never came out of her mouth to him.
Yeah, even at the very end, when she’s at her lowest moment, she’s still putting him first. That’s what love’s supposed to be, isn’t it? The other person is always coming first. It’s a real love that she has for him… unconditional.
It’s the best example of her toughness, too, that she doesn’t get hysterical and refuse to go along with the plan, even when he tells her he won’t be joining her.
Yeah, what a resilient core, that strength of character that she has. It’s really nice to give a character like her those qualities. To not just write her off as being silly or not important or weak. She’s gotten stronger and stronger as she’s gone on. I think that’s a real testament to the storytelling. To be honest, it was a surprising end for me, when I read the script, that she was getting on the plane and she wasn’t having a tantrum. She was still putting [Clark] first and still concerned with his well-being. I was quite surprised, so even I had possibly underestimated her a little bit, you know? She’s obviously a better person than I am, is the point.
Martha is one of the best examples of how many lives have been altered by this whole situation. Philip certainly feels something for her. He isn’t naïve about what he has done to Martha, what he has dragged her into, and she’s just one of many whose life is so dramatically impacted by what they do as a job.
It’s interesting what you said there about Philip, because in the real-life cases that we had to look at [for research], there were times when the male agents’ feelings became confused. Separating the job and the person did become cloudy for some people. It’s complicated, lots of shades of gray if you’re spending so much time with people and having a family with them, having a marriage for years and years. It can morph into many different things, I think. It is a relationship; whatever you want to call what kind it is or what class it falls into, they had a real relationship.
And Martha never doubts that he had real feelings for her, does she?
That was often the tipping point as well for these [real-life] women. When they would be brought into the authorities eventually, and the authorities would explain to them what had happened, they were fine with the idea of possibly going to jail, or being caught for the documents they had stolen, all of the information that they had passed. When they told them that their marriage was never real, that the guys were marrying them on the orders of the KGB and it was all pretend, that was the tipping point that made three out of four of those women kill themselves, like within 24 hours. So I do think that Martha thinks that their love was real, yes, absolutely.
Do you get a sense in Martha that there was any thought of that kind of reaction?
You mean commit suicide? It was certainly that at moments in episode 7. There was a moment when they had her go to the bridge, and she made a couple of phone calls that could be considered goodbye phone calls. If she had found out, or if she had been told that he never loved her, that [his feelings] were untrue, I think maybe it would have been a possibility. But she still has some semblance of her marriage when she’s getting on the plane, even though he’s not coming.
One of my favorite Martha scenes of the season is her dinner with Agent Aderholt. It was so tense, but there was also this sort of glee for her, because, in a covert way, she’s finally telling someone about her life with Clark. She’s also taking delight in shocking her co-worker, letting him know she’s by no means the wallflower he and the other agents thought she was.
Absolutely. The fun for me doing that scene as well was knowing that after that, she loses it. She thinks she’s having a heart attack. She wants to go to the emergency room. So that informs what she’s doing at the dinner, as well. It was many things; I got to decide when she was just spinning a yarn, and when she was saying what Clark told her to say — when she was flipping her own secret mask for Aderholt or just for herself to [hear her secrets] out loud. And of course, they put that scene together with that outrageously gorgeous song [Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue”], which was just amazing.
Wright with Brandon Dirden (FX)
Was it cathartic for you as a performer, as well as for Martha?
Yeah, it was really nice. It was really nice to work with Brandon Dirden, as well. I think they had written a couple of different versions of that scene. We had fun, we worked on it a little bit outside, away from set, which is very unusual, not something I usually do. Brandon’s a real theater guy, so we thought we’d get in there and have fun while we could. It was a different version of the scene when we first started. We did all of our rehearsal, and then they changed the thing completely. We worked on some improvisation for all the moments of the dinner that weren’t on the screen. So we had improv for the imagined conversations that we don’t see in that scene, and when they were both trying to get a read on each other. The moment when the power would shift, because she’s worried that he’s poking around and he’s concerned that she may know that he’s poking around. We filled in all of those moments between ourselves for fun.
What was your favorite moment of Season 4?
That’s tough, but I’d have to say episodes 6 and 7, in general, both episodes. There was one scene in particular, it was episode 5, I think. It was Noah Emmerich’s episode, which could have something to do with why I like it so much. It’s a scene after [she had] the dinner with Aderholt, and she’s in a different state of mind. Clark comes in, and she hasn’t been able to get in touch with him for a couple of days. She’s beyond pissed about it. She’s had to go to that dinner on her own, and try and say the things that she’s remembering that he told her to say, trying to say them convincingly, and then she thinks she’s having a heart attack and has to go to the doctor, still alone, still without her husband, and get medication. Doing all this alone, in secret, and she is just beyond exhausted, emotionally spent at that point, and then he comes and she tells him about it. That was probably one of my favorite scenes because Martha was in charge in that scene, and she’s not usually. She’s usually on the receiving end of what anybody else wants, or thinks, or feels. But she was driving that, and that was a new thing for me, for her.
And then we saw her take charge of her situation a few more times after that.
Yeah, and it’s nice that she got to take out a lot of her fears and frustration and anger and all of those things on Gabriel and Elizabeth, because she doesn’t want to direct them at Clark. So to have her be able to use all those different parts of her personality with Gabriel and Elizabeth is great. To see different colors of her.
Do you see Martha ultimately, even after Clark tells her he isn’t going to be joining her in Russia, as hopeful?
I do. I do. I think that’s the type of person that she is. Yeah, I think she’s ultimately a hopeful, optimistic person. She’s just come to the end of the line for this moment. She can’t outmaneuver the KGB or the FBI; it’s not happening. So she’s accepting where she’s at and making the very best of it, I think.
People often described her wardrobe as dowdy, but I saw her wardrobe as a sign of that hope and optimism. She is someone who takes the time to put herself together, her hair always nicely done, she’s always fully made up, she wears a full lineup of jewelry, necklace and earrings and bracelet. Even the way she moves is deliberately graceful. That seems hopeful; even at the worst times, even when we know she’s very upset or depressed, she always makes that effort.
She still pulls it together. She even pulls it together to get on that plane. She takes the time. She looks different: she has this look, a ponytail that’s almost schoolgirl-ish, with this little ribbon that she’s taken the time to put in her hair, to try to make herself look presentable for whatever she’s walking into, which could be execution, or anything. Anything is possible at this stage. Clark can only do so much. He’s going to do everything he can to help her, yes, but everything else is out of his control. The fact that she still faces the day with dignity… absolutely, I agree with you.
As Season 4 ended, we didn’t see Martha again or get an update on her. What did you think about that?
Well, I just kind of assumed that that was the end of her story. You know? Her story is over now. Yeah, that’s really all I thought about it.
If we don’t ever get to see her again, or get an update on her, what do you want to believe in your mind has happened after she left?
I would like to think that she’s thriving, not just surviving. I would imagine that she would go [to Russia] and she would find some sort of church to throw herself into. I imagine she would be hibernating and repairing her heart, but then she would step out to face the world again and make the very best out of what she has. I can imagine her going and working at some foster home or something, being in the hospital with babies, just something to get her through and make the best of the hand she’s been dealt.
Is there anything you wanted Martha to do, or you wanted her to have the chance to do, that she didn’t get to do before she got on that plane?
Like a big gunfight, I guess. Because everybody was going on and on about [her] gun. I suppose it would have been nice maybe to get to use it, but I feel like this has been an absolute gift, this character. Her story from beginning to end has been more than I could have ever hoped for or asked for. So I think I’m more than happy with everything exactly as it is.
If we don’t see Martha again, what would your dream role be for your next character?
Some real hard-ass villain. When you finish one thing, you always want to do the opposite. Somebody who really has the opposite thing, like, I don’t know, self-awareness. It would be interesting to have that.
Catch up on Season 4 of The Americans via FXNow or iTunes.
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