Yahoo! TV Q&A: 'The Americans' star Matthew Rhys, the KGB spy who loved America
Think it's a tough sell to get viewers to watch a Cold War drama in which we're supposed to not only sympathize with but also root for a pair of undercover KGB spies living in America?
Consider this: the spies are played by beloved "Felicity" alum Keri Russell and another fan favorite, "Brothers & Sisters" star Matthew Rhys. The duo play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, who have been living in the United States for about 15 years, raising two children and posing as a happily married couple living in the burbs of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s.
Ronald Reagan has just been elected president, and the Cold War is escalating, which is half the drama; the other half revolves around the Jennings's KGB-arranged marriage, which is slowly becoming a genuine marriage as the season unfolds.
Rhys talked to Yahoo! TV about playing a Russian-spy daddy and hubby who's ready and willing to pledge his allegiance to America (and to his marriage), about his chemistry with co-star Russell and about how Phillip and Elizabeth's Facebook status (had Facebook existed in the '80s) would definitely be "It's complicated."
What drew you more to the show: the action and the spy side of it, or the complicated relationship and marriage between Elizabeth and Phillip?
[The former] was the greater draw for me. I'd never seen a concept or a premise whereby you have these people who have been following their orders in basically an arranged marriage. When we meet them for the first time in the first episode, those parameters, those boundaries are changing. And then, on top of that, they're coming from two incredibly differing political points of view, which just adds this other layer of conflict on top of it. You have no idea how the relationship will work itself out, how they'll figure it out.
So you've got this complex, conflicted relationship, the action, the disguises, the multiple personalities they play ... it's everything you want. Sort of an actor's dream.
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Did you think it would be fun or challenging to play a character we might not have liked? They're Russian spies, pretending to be Americans, spying on Americans, and helping their country plot against America.
Yes, definitely. You're presented immediately with the premise that, you know, he's the bad guy. But then you find yourself rooting for someone you potentially shouldn't. I think the beauty of the writing comes in here and makes [Phillip and Elizabeth] so human. Their problems are universal, in a way, and that makes you empathize with them.
Phillip also really embraces life in America; he genuinely likes living here. How much does that factor in making him a likable character?
I would say there's an element that will side with Phillip for that reason. He wants to defect early on, not only because he's fallen in love with a more possibly materialistic or capitalistic element of the American way of life, but I think also because he's realized the lifestyle, the life that they're leading as spies, is unsustainable. Now that they have children, if [he and Elizabeth] are caught, their future would be pretty bad. I think his greater motivation is securing his family's safety, really. I think ultimately that's what he wants to do. He wants to secure them and to enjoy the life they've made for themselves.
It's not just the material things, the niceties of his life in America, but it's also his family's future.
Absolutely. I think at his heart, that's his motivation for everything, [wanting to defect] and the fact that he is having real feelings for Elizabeth. He's an old romantic.
You and Keri have great chemistry, which isn't always a given. Was it instant?
It always is in those moments. They have this terrible term in the business called a 'chemistry read,' where you're brought in to see how you get on with whomever you're going to be playing opposite. It's one of those strange, intangible, mercurial things you can never quite define. It either clicks or you don't. Because basically, you know, chemistry ... you're given 20 minutes to try and prove to [everyone] that you have a chemistry. It's impossible to work on. Either it clicks or it doesn't. I was just incredibly lucky that it did with Keri.