Matthew Rhys discusses his role as Philip Jennings on The Americans. The Americans premieres its second season on Wednesday, February 26th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific only on FX. If you enjoyed the first season, you are not going to want to miss the second season. This show builds quickly and perfectly. I’ve been hooked since the first episode. Matthew sheds some light on the show and his character. Don’t miss the season premiere tonight on FX.
Press Conference Call Interview Highlights:
Q: Any special guest stars this season and what’s going to be different this season?
Matthew Rhys: This season, well, 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. 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, as a unit in that respect, face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that’s encroaching on the “Jennings” household.
Q: Even though we’re just starting season two, and hopefully there will be many more seasons, given the historical context and the insurmountable odds that keep stacking up against “Philip” and “Elizabeth” do you foresee a happy ending is possible for them?
Matthew Rhys: I think they can. I think that was laid down by “Philip” in the first episode the first season where he presented the defection packages basically saying they could go into witness protection, they could work for the U.S. government, they could be put into hiding, make a lot of money, and live out their days. And I think there’s an element of “Philip” that still hangs onto that dream, because I think the realization of how sustainable their lives are and how unsafe it’s becoming for the children sort of grows day-by-day. So I think that, in the back of his mind, the happy ever after for “Philip” is louder than ever.
Q: I was wondering if going from a highly successful season one into a new season you had any special concerns about either the storytelling or—
Matthew Rhys: To be perfectly honest, and I know this is a monumental buck pass, but I think it’s the writers that feel that a lot more in a second season. They feel the pressure to deliver sort of more muscular, punchier scripts that have more bang for their buck and more pizzazz, power, and punch, and really, I hate to say it, but it’s their storytelling that will be the compelling magnet to draw an audience back. So I think they certainly have achieved that. 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.
Q: Could we talk a little bit about all of “Philip’s” disguises?
Matthew Rhys: The disguises, I don’t envy the unenviable task of the hair and make-up department that 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 sort of disguises and round robin them. 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 the “Jennings” is, or are, it that 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.
Q: Do you have a favorite?
Matthew Rhys: I do, I do. I’ve named him; 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.
Q: What are your thoughts are on America’s current obsession with spy dramas? What you think about us using so many non-Americans playing American spies?
Matthew Rhys: I’ll start with the second part of the question, if you don’t mind, because, to be honest, I’m equal parts baffled and grateful as to why so many Brits, and also Australians, are used in American television. I think we’re just cheap and we work … generally. But I generally don’t know—and I do ask a number of producers, and they don’t really have an answer either. I think maybe someone set a trend and others joined, which I’m incredibly thankful and grateful for. I know the tide is turning somewhat, and a lot of American actors … a bit more ….With regard to the first part of your questions, I think espionage as a whole has always been incredibly mysterious and intriguing to the public, and continues to be so. And it’s strange, our show in the Cold War where there was a very definable front and, although it’s based on truth, there were their sleeper cells working, I think people in this day and age are far more aware of that sort of enemy within and the world of espionage and how personable it is and how on your doorstep it’s now become. I think people are aware of that and have a great intrigue as to how that reveals itself.
Q: In theory and on paper your character should be the villain, after all you’re playing a Russian spy. What is it about him that makes the audience root for him? What do you find sympathetic about him?
Matthew Rhys: A number of things really, and I think you find this sort of characteristic in those men that you do root for, men and women, it’s the sort of every man. He does have romantic ideals, and as well as materialistic ideals, because he came from very harsh, fiscally challenged place. But I think he longs for the sort of a wife to love and to have those things reciprocated. His main priority is his children, their future and their safety. And I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for the sort of white picket fence life and have those nice things and live out a nice life. I think those are sort of very real, palpable, and obtainable dreams and aspirations of so many people that we’re sort of raised to think that in a way, and “Philip” has come from an extremity of that, a very harsh place, very difficult place, and there’s a real opportunity to live out a real dream. It’s in front of him, it’s obtainable; he just has to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle.
Q: Was this a harder role for you to undertake? Was this ever a role you were nervous about taking on?
Matthew Rhys: Yes, there were certain elements of it that I was nervous about. I like the fact that FX was bold in their casting. I think the part for “Elizabeth” I think was written for Keri [Russell], and I love the fact that they really turned that on its head, the sort of female anti-hero. They kind of reversed a lot of the characters, and they didn’t go for clichéd casting of a sort of tough, big, seemingly physical Russian person. And the thing for me, I think, I’m not the big, macho, butt kicking person, but I think as a cover we work well in that we blend into Americana suburbia, and therefore there’s a sort of twist to it. So that element I was nervous about as to sort of being credible in that role with someone who does all those things. Then the other thing that I continue to find difficult, it’s a very strange series in that an incredible amount of it is based on absolute truth; not just the storylines, the setting, what these people did, etc. etc. So, that being said, 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.
Q: [Last season] You went from being a loyal super spy, completely loyal to the cause, to kind of questioning the system towards the end. Are we going to see a build-up on that and how is that going to affect the dynamic within the family?
Matthew Rhys: You don’t see a build-up to that. I think in that first episode that first season I think it had taken an incredibly long time for “Philip” to broach that with “Elizabeth.” He had gotten to this point—I would go back to the fact that these two were sort of children that were plucked by the party to become these people, and they were indoctrinated and, therefore, had very little choice in what they did. I think you meet “Philip” especially at a time in his life where he’s becoming of age and realizing this isn’t the life he chose, this isn’t the life he wants; his priorities are his children, he wants survival for them. And the sort of adverse reaction he had from “Elizabeth” when he mentioned defection I think he realized it’s going to be a far longer game before she can come around to that way of thinking. What does happen throughout last season and this season is, as I keep banging on about, but 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.
Q: Last season it was very apparent that “Philip” loved “Elizabeth” more than she loved him, and, as I understand, in season two we see a shift in “Elizabeth’s” feelings. How is that going to play out as far as jealousy is concerned?
Matthew Rhys: You’ve hit the nail on the head of quite a punchy theme for the “Jennings” this season, which is, I think, dramaturgically fantastic, this other element you bring to the relationship as this new relationship evolves and etc. etc. All of sudden these two people that have fulfilled a very specific mandate all these years about sleeping with people for information 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. It continues and they struggle, and in that way that in a minor way that relationships, I think, struggle with partners who flirt or there’s insecurity in a relationship. It’s magnified by a million because of what they have to do. So there’s no resolve; it’s certainly an ongoing problem for them, but it’s certainly a very present theme for them this season.
Q: How do you prepare for those scenes?
Matthew Rhys: Do you mean the sort of honey trapping scenes? I mean we’ve all done a million of them in this crazy life we sign up for. The first one is always the hardest, and then you do realize there’s a very perfunctory element to it where cameramen shout, “Put your hand up more, down with your elbow, or lift your leg up higher,” and the clinical element of it kicks in, which so it takes away from that embarrassment in a way. You realize there is something that you have to accomplish in a technical way, and that, I think, takes the onus off the sort of embarrassment of it. But I think by now I have to say I’ve sort of done it so many times with men, women, and varying animals, in show biz related terms, that it’s not really a problem anymore.
Q: You directed several episodes of Brothers and Sisters. Do you have any plans to direct for The Americans?
Matthew Rhys: I had about five minutes of madness when I thought I could possibly so it. But I was incredibly lucky with Brothers and Sisters, in that they would write me, like for the prep episodes they would write me like for the episodes I was in or that I was directing and then again for the edit, and sadly I don’t think it’s an option for The Americans, because there just isn’t the time. There wouldn’t be a week to prep and shoot it; it’s too much of a heavy show. But I stick my oar in where other directors I’m sure don’t need me to, so I still–
Q: Before this job came up for you did you dig spy dramas, either as a movie lover or as a reader of fiction, and if so what are some of your favorites?
Matthew Rhys: John McCauley was a favorite. I had always had a Richard Burton fixation, so The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was my first, and that’s when I kind of discovered him. I’m also classically a James Bond fan. But another thing earlier, the sort of the evolution of the espionage drama, I think it’s a great vehicle for the film and television industry, because it is exactly that as they’re evolving as a sort of, but still remaining, a very mysterious world. So it will be this sort of font that keeps on giving really. I’m not a huge spy fan, but I have certainly become more so in the learning of their world and how insane it is. The other element of our show is so many times, at times, I go to Joe Weisberg, the creator, going, “This seems a little farfetched to me,” and he’ll usually turn around and say, “This is absolute truth.”
Q: Was there a pivotal moment for you in life that compelled you to become an actor; was it something you always wanted to do, was it almost like an accident that you discovered it, or what?
Matthew Rhys: It was a slow burn, to be perfectly honest. In Wales especially they’re big on performing arts, so you’re always in some drama club or singing/dancing club or something like that, and then chapel had the same kind of effect. We had these sort of competitions with poetry recital and singing and all the rest of it, so you’re always kicked onto a stage from an early age. And I think everyone does it up until 18, and then they go to university and get a real job. I think I was always aware that that’s what I was going to do, and then about 17 I just thought, “Oh, well, there’s a possibility you can actually do this for a living.” And at that point parents and friends go, “No, no, no, no; you’re meant to doing it as a pastime, it’s not as a career.” But I just thought, “Yes, if I can get away without working for the rest of my life I’ll give it a go.”
Q: Joe Weisberg has mentioned that he sees the show in a lot of ways as a story of a marriage, but it also seems to be a bit of an immigrant story, and certainly we see that “Elizabeth” is sometimes alarmed by how American her children, especially “Paige,” are turning out. I was wondering if that was a theme that we’d see throughout the second season and if you can maybe speak to the difference in attitudes towards that between “Elizabeth” and “Phil”?
Matthew Rhys: Yes, it’s still a bone of contention between “Philip” and “Elizabeth” in this season, and something that’s been laid out. It was something that I researched. It was a sort of way in for me for “Philip.” The research to post Second World War where “Philip” grew up was an incredibly depressed and challenging environment to grow up in, and I think that’s why there’s an appreciation of what he has and what can be achieved and the more materialistic things he does enjoy, and he becomes a little more unashamed about it, especially in this season, where he’s like we don’t have to live in misery, A, to do our jobs or, B, because we think we should. It presents itself in this season. “Elizabeth’s” still being very much the hardliner in that she was indoctrinated with a very firm belief system that she doesn’t waiver from, and “Philip” certainly begins—they begin to separate on that specific level, which makes for a great element of conflict. You sort of see it so many times in marriages and relationships. I think in many ways what I loved what Joe did with their relationship is he kind of flipped obvious clichés on their heads where “Philip,” the male, was slightly closer to the children, possibly the better parent figure, and “Elizabeth” seemed to be the harder, colder, more hardline, aggressive one. And in that respect where sometimes the archetypal clichéd version is that maybe the wife or the girlfriend spends too much money or enjoys the fine things, and this time it’s the male of the relationship who kind of says, “No, I want to buy a good cashmere, and why not?” So I love those particular dynamics that come to the relationship.
Q: With Alison Wright as a regular this season. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s going to be happening in that relationship since it seems particularly difficult to sustain?
Matthew Rhys: Yes that continues to spiral. Again, it’s so beautifully laid and it’s so problematic in that “Philip” has a real conscious about things, and as they evolve in the way that they do he becomes very aware of what’s he’s doing in the manipulation of “Martha” and how it’s spiraling ever downwards. It pricks his conscience definitely. He has a heart and he is sensitive, and he finds it increasingly harder the level of lies and level of betrayal. As she wants to evolve in the marriage he’s trying to stall at every level. And also because of how things are evolving with “Elizabeth” that presents itself as a difficult riddle for him to overcome, in that it becomes a greater thought inside. So he’s certainly torn in that respect enormously between these two situations.
Q: Obviously this is a historical drama or a period piece if you want to say, even though it’s a period most of us remember, but as time moves forward in the 1980s is that something that’s going to come to continue to have an impact on the show, the change in the political atmosphere, the change in the country at that time?
Matthew Rhys: I would imagine so. What we’ve done in the second season is kept it very close on the time scale to the first season. There are definitely elements that are period specific that play into our season, and that certainly happens. Dependent on how many seasons we go as to how far into the ‘80s we get I’m not sure, but we definitely use current events ’81, ’82 in the second season, and they play very major storylines with us.
Q: With the further development of your character in season two, have you discovered any new acting challenges with the growth of your character?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. It’s a fine line. Those moments between “Martha” and “Clark,” those, to me, I do find a great awareness and a challenge. The thing between “Philip” and “Elizabeth,” the more relationship-based moments between them, I find incredibly difficult and challenging, but great to get your teeth into. So the challenge to me in “Martha” and “Clark” is that I always think back to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day whereby if you see an actor who’s lying, but showing the audience he’s lying, often he’s showing the other actor in front of him that he’s lying, so he … we all know that you’re lying. So you need to trust the script that the script will tell the audience that he’s lying, and you don’t have to do it in that moment. Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day has these scenes with Emma Thompson where he tells the entire audience exactly how he feels and moves you to tears, but you are utterly assured that there’s no way Emma Thompson will know. So in those moments with “Martha” and “Clark” where I’m lying to “Martha,” and the audience knows I’m lying, and I should trust that a lot more, there’s a part of you that goes I kind of need to show both; I need to play the moment to “Martha,” but I also need to kind of show the audience that I’m lying, which you don’t. It’s not much showing that you’re lying, it’s the struggle that you’re having in that moment that’s kind of interesting, and those are the moments that I struggle as to how to pitch properly.
Q: What would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?
Matthew Rhys: For me, personally, and I’ve always said this, it’s the balance that I’ve had in the kinds of projects I’ve done and the varying mediums that I’ve played in. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do theater, film, and television in a relatively circular career, whereby I’m never getting bored because I’m always doing something different relatively soon. So it’s the variation that, to me, is the real luxury in a profession like this.
Q: When you’re not working on The Americans do you watch TV, and if so what do you like to watch?
Matthew Rhys: To be honest, I’m so behind on my TV watching, because inevitably sort of you come in everyday, you learn your lines, and go to bed. So I am behind. I’m ashamed to say I’ve only done the first season of Homeland so far; I’m behind in that. I do tend to be more of a documentary man in that it’s kind of a medium that still has magic for me in a way. I don’t want to be too much of a cynic, but I am, unfortunately, of that mind where you watch a film or television and I’m just like, “Oh, I wonder how they shot that,” or, “I wonder what was going on there in that moment,” or do you know what I mean or, “Oh, that was technically very clever,” or, “They must have used a crane in that.” So documentaries are still a mystery to me and usually, obviously, it’s based in real life, therefore it holds that kind of magic where I can follow a story or just go with it 100%. So it tends to be documentaries I watch more than anything else.
Q: Now that “Philip” and “Elizabeth” are attempting kind of a “real marriage” what challenges will that create in the work relationship?
Matthew Rhys: The greatest one we touched on earlier is 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. 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, hardnosed 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.
Q: What kind of research were you able to do about the Soviet spy program prior to accepting this role?
Matthew Rhys: An incredible amount, actually. Research to me now as an actor is always slightly amazing. When I first left drama college many moons ago I remember research as going to a library and taking out books, or if you had to have an accent you’d, if you were someone in the British Isles, like it was for me, you’d get on a train with a tape recorder and tape those people. And now you type in YouTube on your browser and off you go, and the amount of information I found, not just on the Internet, but on YouTube was staggering really, and it was all done on the sofa with a laptop. But it is sort of amazing. There’s an incredible book about the KGB archivist who was archiving everything for the KGB. He was sort of charged with this job of documenting everything for the KGB, and he did two copies; he did one for the KGB and one for himself, this over decades. And then eventually walked into the U.S. Embassy and said, “I am the official KGB archivist and I have all this stuff.” The U.S. thought it was a sting and said, “Get out.” He went to the Swiss Embassy, and so everything he documented is available, which is amazing really. And the more disturbing stuff I found was like when the wall fell and the … in East Germany all their files became public knowledge, and all these sort of people found out who had been informing on them all their lives. So husbands found out their wives had, and wives found out that husbands had, and it’s sort of incredibly disturbing, I thought, what that knowledge becomes once it’s available.
The Americans airs Wednesday nights at 10 on FX.