'The Americans' Star on Lack of Awards: "We Haven’t Been Sleeping With the Right People"

Matthew Rhys also dishes on his new alter ego, Jim, plus Clark and Martha's future.
Michael Parmelee/FX
Matthew Rhys in 'The Americans'

From bone-breaking to teeth-pulling, season three of FX's espionage drama The Americans hasn't exactly been an easy ride for the spy couple.

Tension continues to build between KGB agents Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings as they continue to butt heads over whether their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) should be recruited. Meanwhile, Paige has her own ideas about her future, ones largely influenced by her growing interest in Christianity.

Read more 'The Americans' Star Keri Russell on Season 3: Is it Sexist to Not Recruit Paige?

Most recently, we see the Jennings (or more appropriately, Phillip's new alter ego, Jim) intent on gaining access to the CIA Afghan Group via the head of the organization's daughter, Kimberly (Julia Garner). As a young girl around Paige's age, Kimberly could be an example to Phillip and Elizabeth of what it may look like if Paige were to enter into her parents' line of work.

The first few episodes of the current season of the drama have been well-received by critics. "The Americans not only built on its impressive first season when the second came around," writes The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman, "but the first four episodes of season three find it rising to new creative heights yet again."

However, the rave reviews the series has consistently garnered over its two-plus years on the air haven't translated into awards recognition. "We haven’t been sleeping with the right people," Rhys jokes of the show's perpetual snubs, adding in seriousness: "We’re very happy with the critical acclaim it’s received, and it's justification and celebration enough."

Ahead of the season's fourth episode, Rhys talks with THR about why Phillip doesn't fully trust Elizabeth, the marriage advice he'd give his character and the fate of his cover identities.

Phillip has been struggling with the idea of Paige getting recruited to the KGB, and has been facing new marital issues because of it. Where is Phillip coming from?

It’s very simple, very black and white. Absolutely not. To me, the greatest reason is that it’s about safeguarding the children because this isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. It becomes progressively more dangerous. Keeping them from that would be the only reassuring thing. For Elizabeth to want her to join the KGB, you couldn’t have picked a more opposite [desire] as to where you want your child’s future to lie.

At this point in their marriage, does Phillip truly trust Elizabeth?

No, not truly. In season one, there was an element of betrayal, when she was informing the Center about Phillip. I think that has stayed with him. It’s like Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” So he doesn’t trust her fully. I think it’s clear that there’s great suspicion.

Read more Will 'The Americans' Become More of a Family Affair in Season 3?

How does your onscreen marriage compare to the average American one?

The themes we deal with are an extreme version of a marriage. The stakes are higher. I think that’s why our show has universal appeal. Everything we deal is basically what people deal with in marriages every day. Ours is just an extreme version of it.

Any marriage advice you’d like to give your character?

Leave and don’t look back [laughs.] It’s a tough one because Phillip does love his wife and he loves his kids more than life itself, but trying to find a harmonious path is just almost near impossible. The other thing is that Elizabeth holds this loaded gun and at any minute she can say, “Alright, I’m just going to tell her.” This may be ignorant of Phillip, but if you ask him what he would want for his children, it would be that his family grow up happy, healthy Americans, that’s it. That’s the base objective he wants. So at any moment it’s not going Elizabeth’s way, she can pull that trigger.

What’s different about Phillip in season three?

What I’ve tried to filter in a little bit more this season — and you saw a flash of it last season — is that the pressure of what he’s doing is continually building and building. I liked when he ripped the Bible last season because, in my head, it didn’t have to do with Paige really, it was just the larger manifestation of a long time of suppressing a number of things.

Oftentimes, your character comes across as the more easily relatable one compared to Elizabeth. Do you hear that from viewers a lot?

I like it best when viewers come up to us and say, “I really see her point of view and I really see your point of view.” That’s, to me, when the show pops. When you present two anti-heros to begin with that have slightly unsavory views on life, I love it when ultimately you conflict an audience and they’re not quite sure what to think or what to do. That provocation to make people think, “I don’t know where I lie.”

Should viewers be rooting for you and Elizabeth, considering you guys are Russian spies trying to take down the U.S. govenment?

What you hear often is that viewers are with us in the human story so much that they often forget that we’re Russian spies, which I think is great. But the writers are very conscious of doing that. If the audience is sitting there going “ugh,” then you’re not with them. There is no entity.

Who is your favorite alter ego to play?

I’ve named him Fernando. He’s the one with the mustache and the long hair that works as a janitor sometimes. It’s weird, the wig goes on, the staches go on, something just kinds of happens — don’t even ask me what it is because I don’t know — but some suave Spaniard just came to me. I was like, “Buenos Tardes.” The hair and makeup department is very cooperative and collaborative in building the disguise with you, too.

We’ve recently seen a new cover identity introduced this season, Jim, who’s been getting involved with Kimberly Breland (Garner), the daughter of the head of the CIA Afghan Group that the KGB is trying to penetrate. What’s he like?

Jim is a tough character to pull off. He’s a challenge for me because sometimes you’re presented with a character that has to do some unsavory things, but you can’t attack it from a judgmental point of view, as much as you find it hard, you have to find a justification as to why people do these things. There’s a very clear justification, but in the execution, it’s devious.

And what about Clark? Martha is getting more and more serious about wanting to have kids. Where do you see that relationship going?

To me, Clark is always edging closer to Phillip, and I think that’s the right thing to do because the deeper he goes in, the more he sees the cruelty he’s doing to Martha. The more she wants children, it snowballs in a way. Then the dust settles and you go, “I’m really f—king around with this woman’s life.” It’s that perennial tale between gaining information and messing around with peoples’ lives.

What do you hope to see through in future seasons, if the show were granted them?

I’d want more of those long, incredibly emotional scenes with Elizabeth. They would be painful and ugly but incredibly releasing. I think there’s a long way for Phillip to go with the sort of vomiting of truth. It’s still pent up in there and ready to come out. That could easily take two seasons. And I would also love for them to defect and for them to become double agents, in order to safeguard their children’s futures.

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