Emmys: 'The Americans' Showrunners Try to Predict Who the Show's Characters Would Vote for This Election
"It's really a question of how Philip and Elizabeth would feel about [Vladimir] Putin and modern-day Russia," says Joe Weisberg as he and Joel Fields also discuss the show's first nom for best drama and how they found out late music icon David Bowie was a fan.
For three years, The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields woke up early on Emmy nominations morning to watch the announcements live — only to end up disappointed. So it's no wonder they weren't exactly eager to sit through them again July 14.
"I had told my wife about 30 times that I wasn't going to watch the announcements this year because we all knew what the results were going to be," Fields tells THR, later joking: "The Americans starts with the letter A, so as soon as they say, 'best drama series nominees,' I always figure it will end quickly because they'll announce Better Call Saul and then we'll be able to move on with our day."
But the pair eventually caved and tuned in to the live stream just in time to hear their series read aloud in the best drama category. (They later were told about the acting nominations for stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.) "I sort of didn't believe it. I thought I very likely misheard it," says Weisberg, who weeks later still is getting used to the fact that his FX spy drama no longer is the underdog it has been for so many years.
The series long has been a critical favorite, but any theories on why this was the year it finally was recognized by the TV Academy?
JOE WEISBERG I have none. Over the years I've built up, like, 100 theories on why we don't get nominated. I'm unable to now displace those with theories on why we got nominated.
JOEL FIELDS Yeah, it's mostly replaced by just gratitude. There was a lot of noise from the audience and the critics over the years, but I think it really reached a crescendo this season, so maybe that has something to do with it. And maybe we're just in a time where some shows hit the zeitgeist immediately and others can build over time.
The show counts some high-profile fans among its viewers, including President Obama, Ben Affleck and Gary Oldman. Who are some other well-known fans?
WEISBERG Well, David Bowie was.
FIELDS That was quite a thing because we had heard he was a fan, and we had been kind of invited to use one of his songs. We finally landed on that great song for him ["Under Pressure"], put it in the show, and that was the week he died. So that was kind of touching.
How did you hear he was a fan of the show?
WEISBERG I think Keri was friends with a friend of his.
FIELDS And we also heard through our music supervisor P.J. Bloom that they had reached out through his publisher. So that was really something. And we also had a funny Twitter exchange between Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, who were really nice about it. But to know that the president and first lady [watch it …]
WEISBERG And also the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau. He talked about it on TV.
FIELDS Somebody asked him what his favorite TV shows were, and he said The Americans. That was his answer! So that was pretty great, too.
Russell (right) with Holly Taylor, who plays teenage daughter Paige.
What was the most rewarding scene to see completed this season?
WEISBERG The one I just can't stop thinking about is when Philip and Elizabeth (Rhys and Russell) are together in the safe house and she says to him, "If it weren't for me and the kids, would you now leave and go back to the Soviet Union with Martha? You would, right?" And Philip looks at her like she's out of her f—ing mind. Like, "Huh? Are you crazy? I love you." I think you can feel the moments in their marriage before the show existed, which makes the show feel expansive and real in his utter bewilderment that she doesn't get how he feels about her. But also in that moment, she does start to get it. It's very moving.
FIELDS The one that comes to mind for me is the final moment of the season. I remember [director] Chris Long after he read the script saying, "I think their whole house is changing now in this moment, and I want it to look like a haunted house." And for the first time, the Jennings house does look ominous and haunted, and it's just spectacular. I remember when we saw that in the director's cut, we just sort of leapt to our feet. And the other part of it is the silent moment between Matthew and Keri — the amount that they are able to convey in micro glances when Philip is walking with his daughter and he throws that glance up to Elizabeth and she's looking down from that window. You once again sense the connection of these two characters and how much is at stake for them, how much they love their daughter and each other and their family and how much is at risk. I just thought it was so amazingly caught with not a word of dialogue from us.
MATTHEW RHYS "For the past season, when [Philip and Elizabeth] had the big fight. I think it was a moment these two people needed. It's like there is so much miscommunication and still so much unsaid. With Martha [Alison Wright] and Philip, there isn't the relationship or certainly the feelings that Elizabeth thinks there are, but because there is nothing said, that's where this tension and resentment builds. And at long last, these two people for a brief moment hash it out, and all this bile they've sat on is expelled for a second. You go, 'Oh, thank God, the pressure, the valve is broken for a moment.' So that was, for me, like four seasons of waiting for this expulsion."
What about the most challenging scene to pull off this season?
FIELDS The one that pops into my head is William [Dylan Baker] running away from Philip and Elizabeth after he tells them that they may have been exposed to glanders. The danger of that being silly was incredibly high, and as with everything on our show, the trick was to really play it real and have it be an absolute true moment. Still, I have to say for me, it was a real knee-slapper.
WEISBERG The greatest comic moment was when he took off and ran in such a slow, funny way, and Philip and Elizabeth took a moment to look at each other, like, "Are we going to chase this guy?" It was relayed so beautifully, it was hysterical.
What can't you believe you got away with this season?
WEISBERG If we were talking about any of the past seasons, that would be easy to answer — but this season, everyone just talked a lot. (Laughs.)
FIELDS Season one, the thing we couldn't believe we got away with was having characters do full scenes in Russian. We really thought that was going to be the end of us before we started. By season four, we watched a man die of Lassa fever, and people seemed to dig it. That's something to get away with! We've come a long way, baby.
WEISBERG As he said, he shit himself out through his anus, and we could have showed it if we wanted to. But we like to focus on the human drama rather than the spectacular.
FIELDS Yeah, we'd rather just talk about it. (Laughs.)
Rhys in one of his character's many disguises.
Whom would Philip and Elizabeth have voted for in the 1984 presidential election?
FIELDS I think it's safe to say that Philip would have voted for [Walter] Mondale/[Geraldine] Ferraro. And Elizabeth — it would have been a tough call between her heart wanting to vote for Mondale/Ferraro because it's better for the world but [Ronald] Reagan because it's better for business. But I still think probably Mondale/Ferraro.
And whom would they support in the current political race?
WEISBERG It's really a question of how Philip and Elizabeth would feel about [Vladimir] Putin and modern-day Russia, and I think that's essentially an impossible question to answer. To try to figure out where Elizabeth, in particular, would go, I just can't. Or really, I just don't want to go there. I don't want to extrapolate where she would be. And even with Philip, we think about him all the time because he's evolved more than her in certain ways, or changed more than her, but it's been less political than people tend to think. These transformations are more interior and emotional. But if his evolution continues and one day hits the political, I think it's likely that he would be more Democratically inclined, but who's to say?
What's the one thing people don't get about The Americans?
FIELDS That it's actually a true story. (Laughs.)
The material in the show can be very intense. Do the actors keep the vibe on set much lighter?
FIELDS Yes, they goof around! There's a lot of incredible prep work that happens before they get to the set. So even weeks before, the actors are working on the scripts and calling us with questions, so they arrive very, very prepared. And then they mostly screw around and tell dirty jokes in between their takes. It's an astonishing thing, especially when they're working with Frank Langella. Frank will tell the most insane jokes, and he'll be two-thirds of the way through, just on the precipice of the punch line, and someone will say that we're reading and suddenly they just snap into character — and the most incredibly true, powerfully emotional things happen. And then someone says, "Cut!" and Frank just busts out with the punch line.
WEISBERG Some of them talk about this as being important to their craft, that goofing around like that helps them stay relaxed and that they don't want to be focusing or thinking too much about the acting or the lines or their part when they're not on camera because it would in a way distract them or get them anxious. So keeping loose and joking and being in a totally different space and then snapping into it is actually really helpful to them.
If you could convince anyone in the world to give your Emmy speech for you, who would you pick?
FIELDS I'd love to see Ronald Reagan give it.
WEISBERG I'm going to go with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, sort of his final speech before he keels over. No offense.
Any advice for Emmy night host Jimmy Kimmel?
FIELDS He should definitely do a section in Russian with English subtitles. (Laughs.)
If you were in charge of the Emmy night seating chart, whom would you put yourself next to?
FIELDS I just want be next to Matthew and Keri. I think they so deserve to be there. That sounds like a chump-y answer, but it's the truth.
WEISBERG I don't want to sit next to Matthew and Keri. I see them all the time. (Laughs.) I want to sit next to Louie Anderson, but only if he's wearing a dress.
Seasons: 4 on FX
Executive producers: Joel Fields, Joe Weisberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Graham Yost, Chris Long
Emmy history: 10 nominations, 1 win
2016 Awards: AFI Award for TV program of the year; TCA Award for achievement in drama
The end in sight: In May, FX announced that the series would be renewed for two more seasons, with Weisberg saying, “We have a pretty good sense” of how to finish the story.
Fun fact: Costume designer Jenny Gering helped create a lingerie line inspired by Russell’s Russian spy character.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.