Week in and week out, The Americans mined history to bring to life a nail-biting espionage saga. But underneath all the spy-vs-spy shenanigans lied the beating heart of FX's daring Cold War drama: Elizabeth & Phillip's rocky relationship. Plagued by more than your average marital woes, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys created TV's most hypnotically complicated coupling. Rhys reveals to ETonline that this spousal sparring was what initially attracted him to the project, but as the season evolved, it also proved to be his biggest acting challenge.
ETonline caught up with Rhys, a front-runner for a Best Actor in a Drama Emmy nomination, to talk about this complex creation, discover how he navigated Phillip's lies while maintaining the character's truth and find out his second season hopes for The Jennings Family!
ETonline: Looking back on season one, how do you feel the promise of the series lived up to what made it to the screen?
Matthew Rhys: I was very proud of the season and that can be rare for me to say. I've said this a lot, but the greatest attraction for me was the relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth and the arc played out the way I hoped it would. I think that took a number of lovely, rollercoaster-istic twists and turns as they navigated the mire that is this complicated relationship. They tended to miss each other at those key moments and that push/pull keeps it interesting for both the audience and the actor.
ETonline: Obviously Elizabeth & Phillip's marriage is the core, but I found his relationship with Martha equal parts exhilarating and devastating. Clearly she loved him deeply, but, from your point of view, was any of that real for Phillip?
Rhys: In my mind it was a ruse the entire time. He's so invested in what's happening with Elizabeth, so when he voices that defection desire in the first episode and sees how much vehemence it's met with, he's forced to start playing an incredibly long game if she's his ultimate goal. And so he backs off everything and kind of lets their own life dictate what will happen in hopes it becomes what he wants it to. And you saw that by the end of the season Phillip could say, "Look at how the net is tightening around us!" The missions almost started to do the talking for him.
ETonline: We saw Elizabeth vocally question his dedication to the cause, but then we also saw some cracks in her devotion as well. Do you consider those wins for Phillip?
Rhys: I do. They've been tried and tested by the KGB, so he's constantly hoping there will come a moment -- after being pushed too hard or tested too much -- where she will say, "Enough!" She had a very unexpected reaction to being tortured by the KGB and has also said that too much has been asked of them, so there are enough hints for Phillip to think she's wavering. I love that our show really lets those character decisions dangle.
ETonline: The characters are all living lie upon lie upon lie -- as the actor, how do you sort through that to find the truth of your character?
Rhys: That's a fantastic question and I'm not sure I can cohesively answer because there were times when I thought, "What should I be playing in this moment?" [laughs] I tried to allow the moments with Elizabeth be Phillip at his most vulnerable -- as close to the real man as we're ever going to see. It was interesting talking to Joseph Weisberg [creator] about his time in the CIA. He said that when it came to lying, the way they train you is that all the lies are supposed to be as close to the truth as possible so they're rooted in as much truth as possible. So, in those moments, where he's being duplicitous to other people, you have to make it as sincere and real and truthful as possible so everyone believes him. It makes for an interesting scene because you have to wonder when it's real and when it's not -- even for us, at times, that got blurred.
ETonline: How much do the show's elaborate prosthetics and wigs help you inhabit those lies?
Rhys: Enormously so. I am one of those actors who does feel a change when a wig and fake nose are put on. Even the weird little things, like glasses -- it's almost like having a mask on.
ETonline: The private moments between Phillip and Elizabeth were painfully real at times; how much freedom did you and Keri have to make those your own?
Rhys: There wasn't much in the stage directions, which is a testament to the writing. They are so open to collaboration and there were key moments of setting up that teamwork in the beginning, before we started actually filming. For them, this facade has been the norm for so long that when we meet Phillip for the first time in the pilot, he's at a turning point in his life where he's no longer defined by his job. And a number of things are changing for him so something has to give. But he also realizes his feelings, however slowly they've developed, are deep and real for Elizabeth. And the journey then becomes about how he'll work them out.
ETonline: What proved to be the toughest episode for you in season one?
Rhys: The challenging moments are in the juggle of those tough relationship moments -- I remember one scene, where Phillip is staying at a motel, and Elizabeth comes by with some beers. In drama school, we always had lessons about what your character wants and what's preventing them from getting it and those were never more in conflict than in that moment -- he wants her so much, but there's an element in him that wants to punish her also, so it's finding those balances that I see as the most challenging.
ETonline: Looking ahead to season two, what's your big wish for Phillip?
Rhys: He's been good about ever so lightly voicing opinion and emotion. I'd like to see the pressures of this ticking time bomb start to get to him, and then have that play into the shortness of his fuse. I'd like him to be more assertive next season with Elizabeth. To confront her in an attempt to find out what she wants from him and what she's not getting from him. I'd like to see him reach more of a melting point.