Keri Russell returns to TV with new spy drama The Americans
Craig Blankenhorn-2012 Craig Blankenhorn
When it comes to moral ambiguity, films and TV shows are pretty nuanced these days. Watch Zero Dark Thirty or the Showtime hit Homeland, for instance, and it’s not always easy to know which characters you are meant to cheer and which you are meant to boo.
Not so the pop culture of the early ‘80s, as The Americans star Keri Russell, 36, recalls.
“Growing up you knew who the bad guy was in the movies because he had a Russian accent,” she says. “That’s across the board: ‘Oh, he’s the bad guy. He’s Russian.’ So I think that was interesting, that there was such a clear, defined enemy.”
Set in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, FX’s The Americans stars Russell (Felicity) and Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) as Elizabeth and Phil, a seemingly normal American couple raising their two normal children in Washington, DC. But Elizabeth and Phil are far from a normal American couple – they are, in fact, KGB agents who are deep undercover in a bid to gather intelligence for Mother Russia.
But the Jensens’ mission is complicated by several factors: their decision never to tell their kids about their true identities, Phil’s growing admiration of American culture and his potential desire to defect, and their new neighbour Matthew Beeman (Noah Emmerich, Super 8), who just happens to be a counter intelligence officer for the FBI.
Russell, who rose to fame on the WB's TV show Felicity (1998-2002) says she was not necessarily looking to do another TV series but admits that she could not stop thinking about the show while the “drove around Brooklyn” and washed her dishes.
“It just has many compelling components to me, and they’re all unsolved and interesting. It’s so far from the standard network procedural that I thought, ‘If nothing else, this is going to be interesting.’ And cable right now is such an interesting place to work and create.”
As to her character Elizabeth, Russell says: “I like that she’s sort of cold in some ways and that she’s not the best mom. I think she will grow into being a better mom, but I think that is compelling to me and not something I normally get to do.”
The Americans is executive produced by Justified creator Graham Yost but was created by former CIA officer Joseph Weisberg. Russell recalls that she spent the entirety of their first meeting grilling him “detail by detail” on the CIA’s vetting process.
“I was just fascinated: how he got involved, what they asked him, what the process was like. And my most favourite part of the story is that he was kind of in between jobs and he was like ‘what am I going to do? I think I want to work for the CIA.’ He looked ‘CIA’ up in the phonebook and called them!”
Russell says Weisberg is a valuable source when it comes to explaining the way the CIA operates, although she admits that the show is a “fantasy, fictionalized” idea of the US-Soviet Cold War.
“He draws on it certainly from his training. He knows a lot of the lingo and the mechanics of the organization. We are able to ask him about certain things and the way that you’re handling certain assets that you’re recruiting. There’s all different ways of handling people in the spy world.”
While The Americans is action-packed (Russell went through extensive martial arts training in order for her character to convincingly take down a male KGB agent), she sees her character’s unusual marriage as the show’s dramatic focus.
“The biggest interest point to me was the idea of this complicated marriage within the context of the spy world,” Russell says. “To me it’s really a show about a marriage in a very extreme situation. The spy stuff allows it to be very high stakes, but the marriage itself is fascinating. To be chosen for each other through this arranged marriage and then have this whole life together and years later maybe just now really starting to choose each other interests me.”
Russell also hopes that The Americans explores its potential to be a metaphor for marriage, although “I know we’re talking about very large, dramatic, political fights.
“Like in the pilot episode, for instance, there’s a scene in the laundry room where the husband is bringing up defection, and it’s so betraying to my character, and we’re really having it out. To me I just try to make those scenes as much about a real couple and fighting about your individuality in a marriage, in a relationship. I think everyone relates to that.
“To me that scene is really just saying ‘Why can’t you see my side? I will not [take] your side. You have to see it my way.’ And everyone can see that, and I think that’s the show when it’s most interesting.”
The Americans premieres Wednesday, Jan. 30 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX Canada
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