Matthew Rhys Interview
Matthew Rhys stars as Soviet sleeper spy, “Philip Jennings” in FX’s The Americans. We were fortunate enough to participate in a press interview with the actor. Below, an edited version of that conversation.
Any special guest stars this season and what’s going to be different this season?
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— Oh, hang on. Let me just— I’m so sorry. One second. Hang on. Sorry, my phone is ringing. Let me turn it off.
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 …, as a unit in that respect, face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that’s encroaching on the “Jennings” household.
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?
Within the season or in general do you mean?
In general when things wrap up can they go off into the sunset together?
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.
In going from a highly successful season one into a new season do you have any special concerns about either the storytelling or—
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.
Could we talk a little bit about all of “Philip’s” disguises? I’ve watched the first three, and it seems like there are way more like right away at the beginning of this season.
Yes, there are. There are. 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.
Do you have a favorite?
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.
What are your thoughts are on America’s current obsession with spy dramas, and also as a follow-up, what you think about us using so many non-Americans playing American spies?
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.
In theory 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?
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.
Was this a hard role for you to undertake? Was this ever a role you were nervous about taking on?
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.
Last season you went from the beginning 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?
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.
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?
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.
Along the lines of sex and jealousy, how do you prepare for those scenes and how does your family handle those scenes?
I’m sorry, the “Jennings” family?
No, your own family.
Oh, oh, I don’t have a family, so it’s not a problem for me. It is tricky. I’m sorry, which scenes, do you mean the sort of honey trapping scenes?
Yes. 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.
You directed several episodes of Brothers and Sisters, do you have any plans to direct for The Americans?
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–
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?
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.”
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?
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.”
Joe Weisberg (series creator and executive producer) 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”?
The Americans. Yes.
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.
Let’s talk about the character of “Martha” 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?
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.
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?
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.
With the further development of your character in season two, have you discovered any new acting challenges, would you say, with the growth of your character in season two?
Yes. It’s a fine line. It’s a good question, though. 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.
What makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?
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.
When you’re not working on The Americans do you watch TV, and if so what do you like to watch?
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.
Now that “Philip” and “Elizabeth” are attempting kind of a “real marriage” what kind of challenges will that create in the work relationship?
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.
So with “Martha” when “Elizabeth” and “Philip” are kind of separated “Philip” kind of he seemed to kind of escape to the relationship with “Martha” a little bit. So now that he and “Elizabeth” are giving it a go will he kind of feel any guilt about maybe having some sort of feelings for “Martha”?
I don’t think he does have any feelings for “Martha.” 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.
When you’re filming these tense scenes, how do you blow off steam in between when you aren’t on set?
I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but one of the worst things for us that there is, and I don’t just speak for myself, our crew is incredibly joyful in that respect, but we do laugh a lot, maybe a little too much, and then it becomes a greater struggle. It’s not that you’re trying to do the scene, it’s that you’re trying not to laugh during these tense scenes. And we don’t help each other in that in many ways; there’s a lot of practical jokes and sort of trying to unnerve or trap the other, and especially when you’re shooting late on a Friday night and everyone’s a little overtired those elements certainly creep in.
And then so with what your character is trying to pull off with his marriage and everything in the show do you think you could ever pull off something like that in your life? I mean it’s a lot.
Definitely not. Definitely not. I get anxiety just playing a part, a fictitious part on a drama series. When I think of those men who actually genuinely lived a duplicitous life and had multiple managers or partners or whatever, secret, not in Utah, I don’t know how they did it–do it.
One of the things I really appreciate and enjoy about the show is the subtleties in the performance; there are a lot of little things, like a sideways glance or a shift in the stance. Is that stuff is that outlined in the scripts or is that stuff that you guys just kind of add in on set?
No, that kind of stuff is the things we bring to it really. But usually it’s twofold; it’s one informs the other. There’s sort of the writing at times it brings out that uncomfortable element I think definitely, and I think that it’s just a manifestation of what’s being said or of what’s being written really.
When “Philip” scolds “Paige” about snooping around and some of the things she does in the third episode is he doing it as a father or more as a spy who’s afraid of getting caught?
One of the things I loved about it is how layered that is. I think primarily for me what was the bigger driving force is that “Philip” has lived a life of lies his entire life, and I think, as a result, it had this reaction or effect on him in that he doesn’t want his daughter to inherit that element to his life, which he kind of loathes now. I think there’s a huge part of him that hates the fact that he has to lie bare-facedly to his children, and has done his entire life. It eats away at him. And lies become a sort of louder thing in his head where he desperately doesn’t want his offspring to follow in what he had to endure.
Are “Philip” and “Elizabeth” sort of more worried about her finding them out or their handlers finding “Paige” out and doing something to her?
I think they’re more concerned with “Paige” finding out, especially finding out not on their terms. They’re not wholly ignorant to the fact that there’s an enormous part that’s the reality of “Paige” finding out and how they deal with it. I think they have said that they never wanted the children to … it; they said that a long time ago. I think what’s happened was the reality.
So I just go back to the first part of your question, I also wanted to say the element of him as a spy not wanting her to find out is incredibly important as well just as a safety, I think, or the safety of their family. And then going back to the other part, I think they made that decision a long time ago rather naively, and now the reality of having a 14-year old, an incredibly inquisitive teenage daughter, the reality has changed their ideals, ideology.
What kind of research were you able to do about the Soviet spy program prior to accepting this role?
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.
Yes. 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.
What is your idea of a perfect day off and how do you celebrate when you book a new acting job?
Well, first of all, I can tell you exactly how I celebrated when I got The Americans. I was doing a play here in New York, and I got offstage and there were a ton of phone messages and texts and e-mails and call, call, call, call, call my agent, call my agent. And I had a matinee the next day, I had a two-day show the next day, so I got back to my apartment, a tiny apartment on the Upper West Side, and he said, “You’ve got it. You got it.” And then there was a phone call from Joe Weisberg; I called him, and Gavin O’Conner, who directed the pilot, and they were kind of into it quickly, they were like, “Congratulations, but, okay, this is what we need to do; we need to get you into training, we’re going to look at these martial arts, blah, blah, blah.”
So I sat down with my computer that night, I opened one bottle of beer, and I researched Russian martial arts, then I went to bed, and that’s how I celebrated getting The Americans.
And your idea of the perfect day off?
I don’t know. I’m having a love affair with New York at the moment, and I have to say every day off is something incredibly different here, and that’s what I sort of love is the variety and the diversity of it. I’ve become a tad amount obsessive where I just sort of pick it up and go, “Oh my God, you can do this.”
I’ll tell you what the next thing I want to do, I found out in Brooklyn there’s a five-hour food tour you go on; it’s part history, obviously part gastronomy, and that’s going to be my next day off. So I’m looking forward to that. But just the range of diversity, like going to the Dutch markets, the …—gosh, I don’t know. There are so many.
Have you been to MOMA?
Yes several times, several times. Every time there’s a new exhibition in there I’ll go in there. And I think do you know that’s sort of about what a great day off is that there’s an element of not planning anything, and like you walk around Chelsea, you get a good coffee, and then you stumble into those galleries you have no idea about and you sort of find the treasuries, and that to me is a great day off.