When fans approach Alison Wright, who earned her first Emmy nomination this year for Best Guest Actress in a Drama on FX’s The Americans, it’s generally with a look of extreme worry. “It’s as if they’re a parent and they’re watching their child that just fell over or something,” the English-born actress tells ET over the phone. “Their faces all change into this sort of caring, concerned expression as they approach me. People are very protective of her.”
Wright means Martha, of course, affectionately known to fans as “Poor Martha,” the role that gave the actress her big break when creator Joseph Weisberg’s FX Cold War drama premiered to critical acclaim in 2013. As the ingenuous FBI secretary found herself falling for a mysterious everyman named Clark (an identity of Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings, a Soviet spy living outside D.C.), Wright was upped to series regular for season 2 and swiftly achieved fan favorite status.
“I got the sense that this was a show where characters were bumped off pretty easily and pretty swiftly, so every script I expected that Martha was going to meet her maker,” Wright says of her character’s tremendous story arc, in which she eventually discovers Clark’s true identity -- after the two are married -- and is extradited to Russia, where audiences find her adjusting to life in season five. Fans surely shared Wright’s assumption that Martha would be dispatched, as tends to be the fate of even central characters who know too much. “It’s a testament to her strength that she’s still alive, that she hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. It’s pretty impressive, I think she’s made of stronger stuff than we all might have originally thought.”
When Martha was spirited away by plane in the middle of the night in season four, many fans assumed she’d never be seen again. But the character made a surprise return in a few brief yet arresting scenes set in Moscow throughout the fifth season, often alone and hardly speaking a word. “I think she’s a very different person than she was before; something important and fundamental to her personality has been taken from her,” Wright says. “Even in the scenes of silence or in the scenes where she wasn’t even speaking English, there was a lot of space to explore what that does to a person like her -- to take away someone’s belief in the goodness of people, essentially.”
Astute viewers caught their first glimpse of Martha wandering the sparsely stocked aisles of a Russian grocery store, and later stepped inside her modest apartment, where Frank Langella’s Gabriel, the mastermind of her fate, paid an unexpected visit. But it is a riveting two-minute scene in the season finale that earned Wright a nomination for the role that put her on the map. She speaks only briefly, in Russian, while conveying a sweeping range of emotion simply watching children play from a park bench. The kids are orphans, and a KGB officer seems to imply that Martha might adopt one of them. “Children are something Martha has always wanted, which they know. It’s her weak spot,” she says.
Filmed on a frigid winter day in the Bronx, Wright says Martha’s trying to understand: “Are they offering me a child? Is that really what he’s saying?Will this mean that I don’t have to be alone anymore, and that I can give somebody love, and that somebody maybe can love me as well?” Her voice breaks as she describes Martha coming to imagine a reason to go on.
“For season five, at least, [Martha] has a happy ending,” says Wright, who’s enjoying a breakout year thanks to a recurring role on FX’s Feud: Bette and Joanand her turn on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, all of which has been capped off by the Emmy nomination. (She’ll next be seen alongside Jennifer Connelly in TNT’s TV adaptation of Snowpiercer.)
"I’ve been very lucky this year, I can only hope to be as lucky going forward from here,” she says before recalling a message she received from FX president John Landgraf. “He sent me an email the other day, and said he was so happy that both me and Martha were getting a happy ending. And I couldn’t agree more; it’s always nice to have a happy ending. She deserves it.”
While Martha’s fate -- or whether the actress will appear in the sixth and final season -- is still unknown, The Americans fans know they’re never off the hook. “She could still be executed, there’s one more season,” Wright teases. “You never know!”