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Tonight, FX’s ’80s Cold War drama The Americans returns viewers to the world of twisted marriages, shaky allegiances and a soundtrack of Peter Gabriel deep cuts. At the center of the drama is British actor Matthew Rhys, who plays a Soviet spy masquerading as American family man Philip Jennings. Alongside co-star Keri Russell as Philip’s wife Elizabeth, Rhys strikes a balance between cold-blooded killer, undercover lover and concerned parent.
With Season 2 only hours away, Spinoff Online spoke to Rhys as part of an Americans press conference, and the actor opened up about the dangers facing the Jennings family this year, Philips’ second marriage as an undercover operative and why the show works as both historical drama and fantastical espionage story.
The arc of Season 2 will see the Jennings clan hit hard at home. “This season, as opposed to last season where we saw Philip and Elizabeth struggle with each other in the relationship, they’re a much stronger front as a unit, and we see them as a family … in that respect, face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that’s encroaching on the Jennings household,” the actor explained. He noted that his character still hears the call to defect to the United States even as his wife remains loyal. “There’s sort of that threat of, that very close threat to them and their family. It grows and increases, and I think he’s hoping that Elizabeth will come to a place where she says I can’t do this anymore, especially with the end of last season when she was shot. He’s hoping that she will come to a place where she realizes on her own terms organically that this is a lifestyle they can’t sustain, and that’s when I think he’ll go for the get out.”
But the main difference for the pair this season is that for the first time in their nearly 20-year arranged marriage, they’ve begin to have real feelings for each other. “All of sudden these two people that have fulfilled a very specific mandate all these years … suddenly their feelings become real, and the green-eyed monster makes a very rude appearance in their lives, and it’s incredibly difficult for them to deal with,” Rhys said. “[There’s] the more sexual element of their marriage with the honey trapping, the sleeping for information, which we saw a lot of the in the first season. That takes a great toll on their marriage, and plays out in some incredibly the word is probably surprising ways.”
In particular, the fact that Philip’s second American alter ego is now married to Alison Wright’s Martha will bear down hard on the dynamic. “The marriage with Martha, what’s so great is they plant such a beautiful seed of conflict within Elizabeth. Because she’s been this stalwart, this hardline, hard-nosed agent for so long, who’s still incredibly loyal to the cause, she has this great enormous struggle within her where she realizes that she has these feelings for Philip, and what he’s doing when he is honey trapping and gaining information for the cause, for Mother Russia, it makes her feel terrible and she’s caught between that great place of saying I hate the way this makes me feel and I hate that you have to do it, but it’s for the greater cause. So, as a dramatician with a device it’s rather fantastic, but it certainly takes its toll on the relationship.”
But those honest feelings are not a two-way street as far as the duped government secretary is concerned. “I don’t think he does have any feelings for Martha,” Rhys said. “I think from the onset his feelings for Martha have been very clear. You’re absolutely true saying there was an element of escape for Philip, whereby he went to somebody that was sort of nurturing and nice and loving and caring, but I don’t think that they manifested themselves in specific with genuine feelings for her. I just think he found solace in a place like that with someone like that.”
Also returning this year will be fan-favorite character Claudia, the couple’s tough-as-nails KGB handler. “We’re glad to say that Margo Martindale does join us back, albeit it in a slightly limited role, but her impact is none the less,” the actor explained, adding that the series will continue to play up the historical aspects of its Reagan-era setting. “We definitely use current events ’81, ’82 in the second season, and they play very major storylines with us.”
One challenging aspect for the cast and crew is to make the show’s context seem believable even as it often veers into outright spy thriller. “You tell the audience this is all true, you can say that until you’re blue in the face, but to a degree you’re still asking the audience to go on a fantastical journey. It’s an ask of the audience to go with you, to believe this scenario. It’s incredibly heightened reality. And it’s not just a straight spy thriller or a straight domestic drama; it’s a combination of the two.
“And what I find difficult, and still do and was nervous about, is the balance of the two and making the leaps credible, that in one second you can be assassinating or honey trapping or whatever and the next you’re making PB&Js for the kids, and both lives have to be credible and there has to be a credible link between the two that affects the two, and it’s that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does.”
As far as the long game of the show, Americans creator Joe Weisberg and his writing staff will keep the fast pace of story that made the first season an unpredictable hit. “Given the pace of last season the number of large obstacles we overcame then the game is certainly up in the second season, and I think we certainly achieved — well, the writers have certainly achieved that with the writing, but as a show I think we’ve changed in that respect,” Rhys said. “I think the writing is more muscular in the second season; the sort of onset of imminent danger it’s greater, the sort of tempo and beat, the drum to which they walk, is sort of louder and faster, so I think they’re ticking all the boxes.”
For Rhys, the spy game Philip plays will continue with its signature trappings including his frequent wig-based disguises. “The hair and makeup department sort of feel that with each new disguise they have to be different or bigger or better, because the reality is with the CIA they tended to use two or three sorts of disguises and round robin them,” he explained. “But you know its television and we’re a little more heightened and dramatic, so therefore they do need to kind of have a little bit possibly more dramatic impact. But that feeds into what the more general storyline for who the Jennings are. There is this greater feeling of the danger of is a lot more palatable and a lot more present, and I think they take their role of not being recognized and not being caught that much greater now, because the intensity is sort of closer on their doorstep.”
Asked whether he had a favorite makeup combo, the actor joked, “He’s called Fernando! He has longish hair. We actually saw him in the first episode of the first season, when he beat up someone who was being rather lascivious with his daughter at a department store. He has, like, a mustache and long hair and a little goatee, and he feels very Latin to me.”
The Americans returns tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.