FX's The Americans has been charging along all season long, and tonight the Cold War spy drama is poised to go out with a bang. Before the finale, we sat down for a second time (after our season-opening chat) with series star Matthew Rhys to look back on season two and maybe even a little ahead to season three.
How has he continued to brilliantly add layer after layer to the character of Philip Jennings in season two? Matthew told us it's a team effort. "It feels, to me, it’s an amalgamation of a number of things," he said. "Sometimes writers take from what they see and steer a character in that way. The evolution can be quite natural, I think, in that there’s input from both parties. The more sort of technical-related issues, I’ll do my own research or talk extensively with [writer-producer] Joel [Fields], who always has great input, obviously, because of his CIA background. It’s an amalgamation of a number of inputs, really, and I always find usually in television, because you have a length of time, [it] does tend to evolve quite naturally from all parties."
Matthew deserves a lot of credit for playing a role that you might need to wrap your brain around: he's a Welsh actor playing a Russian pretending to be an American. But that actually serves his purpose. "It’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me," he explained. "At first, I kind of went at it from that point of view, thinking I’m a Welsh Russian playing an American, and it just makes for a great amount of confusion.
"[But] in its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American, which is what I was doing on [his previous TV series] Brothers and Sisters, and now I’m legitimately doing it on The Americans," he continued. "It helps my cause enormously that I’ve been through it in doing Brothers and Sisters. What I was genuinely doing was trying to be a foreigner assimilating to American point of view, so I know exactly what it is.
"It’s strange," he added. "With all the accent work I was doing on Brothers and Sisters, more often than not the dialect coaches say, you sound right, but you don’t sound like an American, if that makes sense. It’s more about an inner temple; you just have to be in the country for long enough to get the right rhythm and right cadence, and that took a long time. Something I’ve been familiar with."
One of the early concerns we had with The Americans was struggling to sympathize with Russian spies. Now that the show has found its deserved critical acclaim, we asked Matthew if he thought that contributed to the series being somewhat of a sleeper hit. "I’m not sure," he said. "I’ve spoken with those people who didn’t watch, or couldn’t get into the show, because they didn’t want to sympathize with Russian characters. I don’t know if that tends to be with a person of a certain age, but I think there’s a great success story in what the writers have done in making the two main protagonists antiheroes in way in that you are obsessively rooting for the bad guy. I think what they’ve successfully done is made them fully fleshed and fully drawn out very human characters.
"I would agree that making your two main characters the enemies would certainly come with its challenges, but then I enjoy the elements in the show; the way they do sort of turn things on its head and ask an audience to question a little more."
Speaking of questioning, one thing Philip's been asking a lot of questions about is the increasingly bothersome behavior of daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who found religion over the course of season two. It's that domestic drama that separates The Americans from being just a simple action-adventure series. Looking back on that arc, "I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show," Matthew reflected, "and not just one that’s been added for good measure, but with real reason - that you have two young children who’ve been lied to their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’re coming of age and [with] the parents’ suspicious behavior and the long absences, the phenomenal amount of laundry that they have to do, questions are going to be raised.
"It seems to be a very natural progression, and it raises questions in Philip, certainly with Paige," he continued. "I think he’s desperate for her not to take over...the life of just duplicity, deceit and lies; he’s desperate for her to avoid that. It pulls on him emotionally in an enormous way. That just makes it that much more interesting. It’s another great conflict within the family."
What you won't see in season three is Matthew stepping behind the camera; he directed several episodes of Brothers and Sisters, but The Americans is too big of a challenge. "Foolishly or arrogantly or ignorantly, before starting shooting this series, I thought, oh I’d love it if there was a possibility that I could direct an episode," he commented. "On Brothers and Sisters, they wouldn’t write me late in the episode before [the one] I would direct so that I could prep, and all the rest, and they’d also run me light in the episode I was directing, so I was incredibly looked after on that series.
"In this series," he quipped, "there’s absolutely no way I could do both jobs without either killing myself or the use of incredibly heavy drugs."
So what can he say about season three? That it really starts with something you'll see tonight. "There is an enormous about-turn in the last episode that I think keys up the third season beautifully in a way that’ll bring in a greater conflict of Philip and Elizabeth," Matthew teased. "Having seen them separated for the majority of the first season because of what they were going through, and then reunited for the second season, which is great to see...What happens at the end of the finale is, I think, going to bring such division to the two of them and will be very interesting to see how they play out.
"I think what’s so great about this season is the sort of continuity of a storyline within every episode, and the great danger of a rogue force that they [find] uncontrollable," he told us. "I think it plays beautifully to their paranoia as a lifestyle that they can’t sustain, because they realize how dangerous their lives are becoming. Their shooting at the end of season one giving way to the killing of the family [at the] beginning of the second season; they realize that they’re very fallible, they’re not untouchable." What they are is most definitely unforgettable.
The second-season finale of The Americans airs tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on FX; the series has been renewed for a third season.