Q & A: Matthew Rhys on ‘The Americans’, Accents and Shooting During Snowmageddon
Season two of FX’s The Americans is now, unfortunately, in our rearview mirrors. The past season was outstanding and now I’m counting the days till season three.
In The Americans, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star as 1980’s Russian spies living in America, masquerading as an all-American couple with two kids and a nice home. Series star Rhys and FX recently had a conference call where Rhys talked about the season, shooting in New York and dealing with accents.
The Americans airs on FX on Wednesdays
When you started this, and continue to do the role, do you do a lot of your own research or do you depend on the writing to develop the character for you?
Matthew Rhys: It feels, to me, it’s an amalgamation of a number of things. 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, then yes, I’ll do my own research or talk extensively with Joel, who always has great input obviously because of his CIA background. Yes, it’s an amalgamation of a number of inputs, really, and I always find usually in television, because you have a length of time, does tend to evolve quite naturally from all parties.
There was a lot of snow in a lot of these scenes throughout the season. What was it like to shoot in the New York snowmageddon?
Matthew Rhys: It was pretty vast in the way that you can slightly shoot yourself in the foot in a TV series where you’ve accepted a particular time of year, and then you have an adverse snow flooding or whatever, which doesn’t help your continuity; the costume fitting you’ve had for that episode happened a week ago when you accepted the continuity in a house wearing a thin polyester jacket, and now you can’t be putting on a big puffer. It definitely has its challenges.
I know on the day of arctic—what was the term they used? I can’t remember. We were meant to be outside, and that was changed and we were all of a sudden inside. New York is its own animal, and brings its own challenges be it weather, or its vibrant, colorful residents.
The show gets good ratings, but not as high as you would expect from the incredible quality of the show, and do you think that’s because Americans maybe have a hard time sympathizing with Russian spies, even as fictional characters? With the recent tensions with Russia, do you think that might spark more interest, or be more of an obstacle to people being able to sympathize with your characters?
Matthew Rhys: I’m not sure. I know certainly there are those—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 writer’s done in making the two main protagonists antiheroes in way in that you are obsessively rooting for the bad guy. But I think what they’ve successfully done is made them fully fleshed and fully drawn out very human characters.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether the troubles in the Ukraine would spark more or less interest in the show. But yes, 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.
This season has the dynamic in that the family has changed so much, and that’s another thing that “Philip” has to deal with, with “Paige.” How has that been to play?
Matthew Rhys: Yes, of course. I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show, 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 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” that—I think he’s desperate for her not to take over a life that he didn’t have his entire life which is 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 that lends itself.
What is it like being an Englishman or a Welshman playing a Russian, who’s masquerading as an American, who’s been masquerading as all these other people. When you’re doing all of that, how much of that layering are you having to process, and how much do you just focus on the character you’re playing at the moment?
Matthew Rhys: The simple answer is, it’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me. At first, I kind of went at it from that point of view thinking, oh I’m a Welsh Russian playing an American, and it just makes for a great amount of confusion. In its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American, which is what I was doing on Brothers and Sisters, and now I’m legitimately doing it on The Americans. It helps my cause enormously that you’re—and 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 with all the accent work I was doing on Brothers and Sisters more often than not, the dialect coaches say, you accomplish sound right, 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.
In “Martial Eagle”, you gave a phenomenal performance. Can you tell us a little bit about what went into creating the scene where “Philip” screams at “Paige”?
Matthew Rhys: Yes. The training I received many, many years ago when I was at college in London; a very strong [indiscernible] philosophy based training where your real emotion, your true emotion is used, and there’s a term they used called emotional memory or emotional callback. I just used something from my own past that was similar that would elicit the same feeling, and then you kind of go through an emotional trigger that gets you to that base so you kind of access a [indiscernible] that comes quite easily. That was the primary focus for that scene.
I think “Philip” realizes that it’s a number of things. Obviously the pressure on him is enormous, and he realizes there’s an element with his daughter that she’s slipping out of his reach, and in that way that so many of us do, you lash out because you feel helpless. That’s how I went about it.
Your performances are so effortless, apparently, as we watch it, but I assume that there are pretty difficult parts from the accent to the costume changes to all these different personas. What do you find has been the most challenging part of doing this series?
Matthew Rhys: The accent is always a tricky part for me because I think such a large part of your brain is working towards that, so you have to sort of stay on it as much as possible. I think just the physical filming of this series is incredibly difficult for the simple reason, the scene count we have, the amount of days we have to shoot, the jumping from disguises; it’s a big juggling act, this series, and the pace at which we shoot. In a day you’re in the chair, a wig is going on your head and you don’t even know if you’re doing a pickup shot or whatever, you can’t remember what episode it was from. It’s kind of an [indiscernible] say, keeping your head sane in the madness, and keeping a focus on where you are in the arc of the season and just trying to keep level headed with the madness of it all.
You directed a few episodes of Brothers and Sisters, any chance that you might direct an episode of The Americans?
Matthew Rhys: 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 shoot—direct an episode. Having seen the pace at which we shoot, and the hours which we shoot is incredibly indulged on Brothers and Sisters whereby they wouldn’t write me late in the episode before 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, there’s absolutely no way I could do both jobs without either: a) killing myself or the use of incredibly heavy drugs.
The “Jennings” are really separated from the resident [indiscernible]. Are you in the process of getting your scripts—do you actually get to know what goes on on that side, or do you guys like to keep yourselves in the dark and almost play out what it’s like to get orders through other forms of communication rather than being able to interact with that cast?
Matthew Rhys: Just purely from reading the script I do enjoy what’s going on because I think there’s so much juice in their storylines, the [indiscernible] one especially. But purely just because the way we shoot we never see those guys, I very rarely have a scene with Noah [Emmerich], and that’s really my only communication, but we never see—we rarely cross paths in the make-up [indiscernible]. We don’t get to see them; we don’t go on their set. It is like, in that way, you’re sort of separate entities working toward the same goal.
You wear all these different disguises and different wigs and everything, which one is your favorite character, outside of “Philip,” to play on this show?
Matthew Rhys: My favorite character is one of them that has shoulder length hair, and a mustache and a little goatee and he’s usually at worker man, a phone electrician or caretaker, he usually wear the blue jumpsuit and it has a tool belt. I enjoy him just purely because I’ve given him such an elaborate and detailed backstory. As all of us do, we sort of give them alter egos and give them these fantastic biographies. Mine is a flamenco dancer from Seville.