Emmys: 'Americans' Star Matthew Rhys on Covert Affairs and Worst Show Disguises (Q&A)

10:00 AM PST 06/16/2014 by Ray Richmond
FX
Matthew Rhys with Keri Russell

The actor also talks to THR about how he nails all those accents, why he trusts in his character's violent behavior and why he's happy to have no clue where the show is headed.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Welsh-born actor Matthew Rhys, who spent five seasons playing gay lawyer Kevin Walker on ABC's Brothers & Sisters, has likely never been more primed for Emmy contention. He can thank a second buzzy season of FX's The Americans, in which Rhys and Keri Russell portray Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings -- covert 1980s KGB operatives posing as an American couple while spying for the Soviet Union. Here, Rhys dishes on how he nails all those accents, why he trusts in his character's violent behavior and why Shakespeare has never been more relevant.

After two seasons, dozens of costume changes and countless accents, you're obviously now an expert on KGB-style spy efforts from the 1980s, yes?

(Laughs.) Oh, hardly. I got everything I know from [creator and former CIA employee] Joe Weisberg. I'm still challenged to think about how I might react to these situations. Fortunately, the writers do that for me.

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Has playing this role piqued your interest in participating in covert affairs?

I can honestly say absolutely not, for the simple reason that I know I'd be a horrible spy. There is just no way I could ever deal with that level of pressure. What playing Phillip has done is shown me just how alien the psyche and makeup of being a spy is to my own genetic character. It's so stressful that there is no way on God's green earth I could do it.

It must strike you as ironic that The Americans would debut and thrive at the dawn of something that could resemble a new Cold War with Russia.

There are resonances today, certainly. I remember when our first season debuted and there were all of these critics saying, "Oh, this is fantasy. It's such a stretch of the imagination." And then, lo and behold, a CIA officer was caught in Moscow with a briefcase full of cash and two bad wigs two summers ago. Shakespeare was writing about the same things we're dealing with today, but 400 or 500 years ago.

How challenging is it to slip into all the different accents required of your character?

The way I speak most of the time on the show [in an American accent] has never been one I find incredibly comfortable. There is still a degree of muscularity to it that reminds me in my mouth that it's not my native accent. I can never quite relax with it in that way where I can improvise willy-nilly. It tends to take up a large part of my brain when I'm acting, which is tough. As for the other accents, it's about muscular preparation, really.

Speaking of bad wigs, which of those that you've worn on the show is your favorite?

That would have to be Fernando's. He was originally in the pilot and grew to become a more sinister character. He has shoulder-length hair, a mustache and a sort of goatee. I love that look.

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And your least favorite?

(Laughs.) Oh, probably [Phillip's internal affairs nom de plume] Clark. He was originally conceived as a one-off character in the pilot. But then afterward, we somehow decided he would be a good character to run with. We figured he would be temporary, so his wig was chosen rather haphazardly. No one thought he would be around very long!

Phillip has had to kill increasingly more people to preserve the mission and his family's cover. How comfortable are you as an actor with these bloody plot points?

Phillip is incredibly torn as to where the future lies or where his beliefs and loyalties lie. Killing is now more of a survival instinct for Phillip, so I find it consistent for who Phillip is -- doing it out of necessity to preserve and protect what he has established and keep it going.

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And like any American parent, Phillip finds that his children are driving him crazy, especially Paige (Holly Taylor) questioning everything and discovering Christianity.

It seems a natural progression. Kids are naturally curious, and as they mature, they begin to evolve and sometimes deviate from the script -- particularly if they aren't entirely aware of the script they're supposed to be playing.

What do you know about what is ahead for season three?

Fortunately, nothing at all. As I say these words, the writers are about to get into a dark room somewhere in Manhattan and thrash out the arc for next season. I honestly can't wait.

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