The morning of July 14 didn’t go as either Keri Russell or her on- and offscreen partner, Matthew Rhys, had anticipated. After three straight years of watching their critically beloved FX spy drama The Americans get largely shut out of the Emmy race, the actors saw little reason to tune in for the nominations. But in skipping them, they missed hearing their names read aloud for the first time in the lead actor and actress categories, just as they did their show finally breaking into the best drama series race alongside Homeland and House of Cards.
“You just think if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably never going to happen,” says Russell, 40, whose 8-week-old son, Sam, with Rhys (her third child, his first) is lying peacefully on her chest. After a shared if momentary panic about how the awards attention would wreak havoc on their show’s underdog status, the actors got busy celebrating at their summer home in Woodstock, N.Y. “We went to the fridge, and there were two Pacificos, and then we made a cheese quesadilla because we’re classy,” jokes a heavily bearded Rhys, 41, in his Welsh brogue.
Two weeks later, Russell and Rhys are kicking back with a drink at the picturesque Deer Mountain Inn in nearby Tannersville (rosé for him, a beer for her) for a wide-ranging discussion about the FX drama’s new status, their pitch for how the niche series should end and why it’s about time everybody got over Felicity’s infamous haircut.
How does it feel to finally be recognized?
RUSSELL You get so used to being the underdog for so long, and you’re comfortable in that place: no pressure, no expectations.
RHYS So the celebration was short-lived. For three minutes, we were like, “This is fantastic,” then we were like, “Oh no, now people will watch. We’re dead. Everyone will hate us. This is terrible.” (Laughs.)
Keri, looking at your résumé pre-Americans, is it fair to say this wasn’t an obvious next step?
RUSSELL The fact that [FX Networks CEO] John Landgraf wanted Felicity to play this cold, icy Russian spy is incredible. And he asked me multiple times to do it, and I’m forever thankful to him for doing that. I was like, “Me? What are you talking about?” The part that interested me most was that marriage. In the beginning, it’s a relationship where the female was a little less invested, which is such an interesting take because it’s always the woman pining after the guy who’s cheating on her. I read those scripts all the time.
President Obama is said to be among The Americans’ many high-profile fans. But it was Gary Oldman, who appeared in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with Russell, whose fandom had Rhys most excited. “He told her, ‘Me and my friend David Bowie watch that show.’ That’s when I was like, ‘I can die now.’ ”
That flipping of traditional gender roles is especially apparent when it comes to their parenting styles.
RUSSELL Which I relish …
So you don’t recoil at her stoicism?
RUSSELL No, I love it. Because everything we see as a woman is that you’re supposed to be loving and nurturing. Elizabeth believes in what she has to do and it’s OK that there’s another parent at home who’s a little more touchy-feely. I know it’s not always cozy, perfect parenting, but I also think it’s real. As a mother of three, there are moments where [you’re not] the craft-making, cookie-making mom you want to be. And you know what? It’s OK.
Matthew, in what way is Keri most and least like her character?
RHYS Height and hair. No, she doesn’t have the ice of Elizabeth — though sometimes she does.
RUSSELL How dare you! (Laughs.)
RHYS No, for the most part, you’re not as calculating and icy as she is. But I think it has to live somewhere inside you in order to play it with conviction.
So was that the most or the least?
RHYS Pick one. That’s all I’m saying. I’m already drowning in hot water. (Laughs.)
And Keri, how about Matthew?
RUSSELL He’s incredibly good with people. And with women. He’s a good listener, he’s incredibly emotional.
RHYS This is going f—ing south. Next question!
RUSSELL He’s dying. (Laughs.)
These parts not only are quite physical but also require you, as KGB spies, to take on multiple characters. What are the most challenging scenes to play?
RHYS The hardest to land are in those moments where great stretches of the imagination have to merge with reality. Like telling [our daughter] Paige that we’re spies.
RUSSELL Yeah, that was difficult.
RHYS When you read it, you go, “This sounds like a Monty Python sketch. It’s absurd: We work for Mother Russia.” So the challenge is landing in a real place where the audience believes, “Oh my God, that’s so moving,” and not, “That’s so ludicrous.”
The series is heavy on graphic sex scenes, too, something you’ve said you hadn’t done a lot of prior to this role, Keri.
RUSSELL I know you might find it surprising, but people don’t cast me for my voluptuous body all the time. “We’re looking for a woman with a 13-year-old boy’s body. Who can we get? Yes, you!”
RHYS Don’t say that because what does that say about me? (Laughter.)
Did you have any hesitation?
RUSSELL Definitely. No one wakes up on Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. and is [excited to be] like, “Hey! Nice to meet ya! OK, here we go, whoooo!” with 50 of our friends watching. But I will say I sort of love the use of it on our show because, at least in my experience being a woman, you usually have to do the most sexy, the most in love, the most romantic version. In our show, I’m in a place of power: it’s to get information from that person or to make that person feel a certain way. And that can be empowering.
Rhys and Russell, who live in Brooklyn during the year, say they take their work home with them, often reading lines together or consulting each other for professional advice. As for what they’d like to do after The Americans wraps, Russell would love to travel, while Rhys is itching to get back to doing theater.
Is it any less comfortable because you two are a couple offscreen, or does that make having a crew and cameras there that much more awkward?
RHYS There’s that immediate thing where, like, physically you’re comfortable together, and so that’s fine, and you’re not all …
RUSSELL “Can I touch your arm here?”
RHYS “I’m sorry if I do this. … Oh God … Oh, can someone get her a robe, please?” (Laughter.)
You’re not doing that with Keri?
RHYS I am, actually. I get a little protective. I’m like, “Can someone get her a f—in’ robe, please?! She’s standing there naked, we’ve cut for five seconds, Jesus Christ.” (Laughter.) And they’re like, “Dude, this is the fourth season.”
RUSSELL “We’ve seen it.”
FX has renewed the series for two final seasons. What conversations have you had with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the endgame? Do you want to know how it ends?
RUSSELL For sure. Every year we sit down with them at the beginning of the season, and they give us a basic outline for that season. I think they already have the ending that they want, and it has nothing to do with what we say or want. (Laughs.)
Have you pitched your ideas? You know, “I’d like us to turn, become Americans …”
RHYS Oh, I definitely do.
RUSSELL I actually said to them at the beginning of last [season], “Are we seeing cracks? Is there any way this could be Elizabeth saying, ‘Maybe we should double agent or something?’ ” And Joe looked like I had said the most blasphemous thing. He was like, “No, there is not a chance.” (Laughter.)
RHYS These spies were called “illegals,” and so we had a real illegal come to set who did exactly what we did. We caught some flack in the press about having an FBI agent [Noah Emmerich] living next door, but that was his story. He had an FBI agent who lived next door to him who turned him, so I was saying all this to Joe and Joel. I was like, “This is perfect. Noah Emmerich will turn us — we’ll become double agents.”
RHYS This whole massive pitch. And they went, “Yeah … no.”
Russell and Rhys arrive arm-in-arm at the White House on Aug. 2 for a state dinner honoring Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of the Republic of Singapore that was hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)
How has this show changed the opportunities that are being brought to you? Matthew, word is that you’ll be appearing on the final season of Girls, which would qualify as a real departure.
RHYS Well, yeah, that’s a prime example of our show [opening doors. Lena Dunham] watches it and goes, “Oh, come and do this.” It’s a total departure, and that’s what you always want.
You also do The Wine Show with Matthew Goode for ITV, which Twitter went crazy for when the first trailer surfaced.
RHYS Well, that certainly wasn’t because of The Americans. (Laughter.) That was because my friend called and said …
RUSSELL “Do you want to get drunk together?”
RHYS (In a drunk voice) “My brother-in-law is making a show about wine, do you want to be in it?” I went, “Where is it shooting?” “Italy.” “Yes, please.” [Rhys and Goode currently are exploring new locales for a second season.]
RUSSELL You have to tell her what your mom said.
RHYS She said, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, no. This is the best thing you’ve ever done.
How has it impacted what type of offers come your way, Keri?
RUSSELL When I’m shooting The Americans, I’m not there for some nights in school and bedtimes and things, so I really show up in the summer. I haven’t taken something these past few summers, so I don’t really know what’s out there. But I will soon, I’m sure.
Have the fan exchanges changed?
RUSSELL Oh yeah. After season one, when I got to beat up Margo Martindale, I’d be walking down the street in New York City, and like every construction worker would be like, “Yo! You really kicked that lady’s ass!”
RHYS Actually, what he said was, “I loved it when you kicked that old lady’s ass!” And you were like, “How dare you call Margo Martindale an old lady. How f—ing dare you.”
I assume that before The Americans, those fan interactions largely would be about Felicity?
RUSSELL Yeah. “My mom and I watch that show and we cry and we love it and your hair, it’s really an inspiration.” (Laughter.)
RHYS Your hair was really an inspiration. (Laughs.) There are still a lot of people going, “Felicity! Felicity!” What it has given to me is a realization of how much of a rite of passage, seminal piece of work it was in the U.S. It affected a lot of people. A lot of young men come up to you and go, “Oh, I used to watch Felicity.”
RUSSELL And I’m like, “Really?”
Have you seen it?
RHYS Sadly not. I mean, I’ve watched parts of it on YouTube.
What? You’re the father of her child, you should get on that. Keri, have you seen Matthew in Brothers & Sisters?
RUSSELL Nope. (Laughs.)
RHYS There you go, and I’m the father of her child!
I’m sure you’re horrified that we’re still talking about the uproar caused by Felicity’s decision to cut off her hair, but you’ve said you don’t think it would have been nearly as big a deal if it were to happen today. Why not?
RUSSELL Just because it’s not kosher to talk that much shit about some girl’s hair anymore. Like, Hillary might be president. You gotta be cool with that shit. Tone it down. And I hope that someone would call someone out on that if it happened now. But I still stand by it. I loved it for the character. What surprised me most was that it wasn’t a fashion show. She wore big, baggy sweaters and boy clothes. Since when do you care what she looks like? But apparently people did.
So Matthew, if Keri came home and had chopped off her hair, how would you react?
RHYS I’d be like, “I hope you kept that hair, we can put it on eBay. Buy Felicity’s real hair.” He (nodding to baby Sam) needs to go to college. (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.