The Americans’ Matthew Rhys on playing a deeply emotional KGB operative

The Americans’ Matthew Rhys on playing a deeply emotional KGB operative

Welshman Matthew Rhys has done a large amount of TV, film, and theater work in his native United Kingdom, but in the States, he was probably best known for his work on five seasons of the ABC family soap Brothers & Sisters, in which he played Kevin, the gay brother whose storyline—including one of TV’s earliest same-sex weddings—proved surprisingly momentous. His new big series role is Philip Jennings on The Americans, FX’s new spy drama that’s won critical acclaim for its twisty plotting and its deeply emotional portrayal of an arranged marriage that’s become very real in many ways. Rhys’ soulful portrayal of Philip—a KGB operative who’s more than a little enticed by the American dream—is one of the strongest things about the show, and he shows new facets of his character and his work with every episode. Rhys recently spoke with The A.V. Club about being a Welsh man pretending to be a Russian man pretending to be an American man, the genius of Keri Russell’s casting as his wife, and what he really thinks of those wigs he has to wear.

The A.V. Club: You’re a Welsh man doing an American accent. Do you at any time stop and think about this being a Russian guy doing an American accent, or does that just not cross your mind?

Matthew Rhys: No, at first it did, and I thought about—well, first of all, they’ve been in the country 15 years, so from a Russian standpoint, where there would be an accent slip, I thought about putting it in, but then the whole… I don’t know. A number of things crossed my mind, but the whole point is that they have a foolproof cover and they haven’t been discovered, so I didn’t want to flag anything up so the audience is going, “Well, we can hear a trace of Russian, so why wouldn’t they?” 

AVC: This is really a show about two people who pretend to be something so long that they start to question whether they really are that. What can you bring to that as someone who pretends to be other people for a living?

MR: [Laughs.] God, a number of things. I think as a piece it poses a good question as to whether they become what they do, or at which point does what take over. And I think when we first joined them, it was an interesting point, because Philip is at the point where he realizes he isn’t the sum total of his mandate, or whatever, as opposed to, I think, Elizabeth is. I think over the years as an actor, as I become older, what’s become easier is the on/off switch. Whereas I think growing up wanting to be Robert De Niro and following in the footsteps of all the great method actors, you kind of think you have to live it somewhat. I’ve come to a point where you don’t. That’s completely personal, personally. So for me, the older I get, the stronger my on/off switch. In that respect, they’re two elements I’m moving further apart from.

AVC: This show has a lot of physical stunt work for you and Keri Russell. How much of that are you performing yourselves?

MR: We’re doing most of it ourselves, other than the big stuff that insurance-wise we’re not allowed to do. In all honesty, as the series has worn on, the more physical aspects have become less and less, as the shooting schedule’s become a little tougher. In that respect, it’s certainly scaled down a lot, so it isn’t what it was immediately at the beginning. It’s a lot easier these days.

AVC: Most of the episodes end with an intimate conversation between Philip and Elizabeth, really getting into their emotions and the depths of who they are as people. Is that stuff difficult, projecting that vulnerability in a spy show?

MR: It is and it isn’t. I think at its heart, it’s what this series is about, the evolution or non-evolution of this couple. They’re trying to find who they are, who they are as a couple, and where they fit in in this ever-increasing mess. I think that his backstory is that he’s been pretty solid up until now, but he’s realizing where his priorities lie and where that is, is with his family. 

There is a vulnerability coming through because he’s becoming a little more desperate, in that he wants his wife to come with him, he wants to secure the safety of his children through defection, and I think he isn’t defined by what he does. He isn’t this cold KGB killer; he’s finding his way in life, really, and sort of evolving in a way for the first time, and those sorts of emotions are coming through. It seems a natural place for me. 

AVC: Speaking of his backstory, we’ve really delved into what Elizabeth’s life was like in Russia, but gotten very little of Philip. Is that something we get more of as the season goes on?

MR: I don’t know, to be honest. I think they know very little about his shady backstory. I mean, the flashbacks are sort of to serve the storytelling, and there hasn’t been anything as of yet that’s required that for Philip. I’m sure there will be at some point. 

AVC: Have the writers told you anything about his history beyond what’s been on the page?

MR: No, nothing, so I kind of made one up myself.

AVC: Have you gone in and researched that period of the Cold War?

MR: I did, yes, the period itself. And I think what’s interesting—well, what I was interested in was, especially in the pilot, we see Philip enjoys the more capitalist, more materialist elements that the U.S. offers, and what I researched was, Russia post-second World War, the Russia he would have grown up in, was incredibly sparse and stark. Understanding that might justify why he’s happy to opt for an easier life.

AVC: You’ve mentioned Philip’s interest in America a couple of times now, and in the pilot whether he’s going to defect or not is a big conflict, and then it sort of recedes in further episodes. How prominent do you think that question is in his mind?

MR: Here’s the dichotomy, in that to me as playing him, it’s absolutely in the forefront of his mind, because I think ultimately the larger scale, super-objective is that he wants to secure his children’s safety, and I think the only way to do that is by defecting. Because there’s no plans of taking them back [to the USSR]. So to me, I think it’s a waiting game with Elizabeth. He realized when he offered it up, the vehement reaction that came from her, he realized that it was going to be a long waiting game until he can bring it up again, and the fact that he feels incredibly betrayed by Elizabeth that he discovered she’d been informing on him to this day. It’s shaken his trust of her to his core. So I think it’s still incredibly at the forefront of his mind, but I think he finds himself at a stalemate as to how he can proceed with it.

AVC: You’ve had some great scenes with Noah Emmerich’s character, Stan. At the end of the pilot, he invades your house, and you’re there and don’t shoot him. How much have you guys talked about if he’s still suspicious of you?

MR: Yeah, the writers have these guys to the level of which there’s that cat-and-mouse thing going on between them, how much he does know, how much he’s playing, and I suppose in a way it’s a device to keep the audience guessing as well. So I think that element is kept purposely and relatively ambiguous for that reason.

AVC: You usually expect the male character to be the hardened one, and yet the female character is here. It’s a kind of gender-flipping. What’s that been like to play with Keri Russell?

MR: I’ve loved what the creatives have done in the entirety of the show, not just that the two main protagonists are KGB, and they’re already asking the audience to root for the bad guys. They cast—in the same way the KGB would have chosen someone physically like Keri—FX cast Keri Russell, who has this heritage and history as America’s Sweetheart, or certainly perceived in a specific way, and then they turn her into a more ardent KGB cold operative. I think they’ve flipped a number of things on their head in order to push the audience a little bit. I find that very refreshing. It’s something you don’t see very often, being bold in their casting and their creation. 

AVC: In what ways is Philip different from the usual roles that you’re up for in for casting?

MR: I’ve found it’s a part [where] you have to bridge a number of roles. It’s sort of an actor’s dream in a way: You tick all the boxes you want in that you have multiple and different characters within the character you’re playing. You’re a character playing other characters. The duplicity of who you are, in the moment, at any one time. Add to that the action element, the romance element, the faux-romance stuff when they’re honey-trapping for information, the real feelings he feels for his wife, which is incredibly conflicted with the way he feels about what they do for a living. It’s so layered that you kind of have to bestride many pillars.

AVC: You’ve done some directing in the past, particularly on your old series job, Brothers & Sisters. Is that something you’re interested in doing again in the future?

MR: I would absolutely love to direct on this. I think the reality of it is near impossible for the simple reason that they were so accommodating on Brothers & Sisters, when I did want to direct, they could write me light for the episode before so I could prep, they could then write me light in the episode I was in, and then write me light in the episode after to edit, because the cast was a lot of ensemble. But for this I’m in too much in order to justify three very light episodes. 

AVC: Do you see similarities between your Brothers & Sisters character and Philip?

MR: I haven’t given it much thought, really. I suppose there’s a kind of more open vulnerability to them both, emotionally. But they come from that in very different ways. 

AVC: You wear a lot of really ridiculous wigs on this show. Have you ever seen one of them and said, “I don’t know about that”? 

MR: Oh, when you’re in studio and it’s hot, they’re a disaster, because you just sweat a lot and the lace bubbles, and you want to scratch your head all the time. Or you’re out in the cold, and you’re thankful for it, because it’s like having a hat. It adds a layer of character to you, especially the wigs that are real hair that have a lot of movement in it, you find you develop these little head flicks or the wig dictates a movement to your head that you ordinarily wouldn’t do. In that respect, they can help you, but on the hot days, they’re just a pain.

AVC: As you’ve been exploring this character this season, what have you been most surprised by, as you’ve delved into him?

MR: Maybe this harkens back to your question about my character in Brothers & Sisters, but in starting, I knew there was a sensitive element. That was clear in the pilot where he was reaching out to his wife. I think I’ve been surprised as to how sensitive or emotional—or maybe I’ve pushed it, you know what I mean? Considering he is a KGB operative, I think I’ve kind of pushed those boundaries a bit, because I think in accordance to the reality of what their situation was, they would have been recruited about 17 or 18, before they even know who they were. And as I said, I think you meet them at a time where they are, Philip especially, questioning who he is as a person, that he’s not defined by his job. And he gives in to the feelings that he’s feeling, and those happen to be a little more emotional than his wife.