Noah Emmerich (Super 8, The Walking Dead) is one of the best characters actors around and now he’s bringing his talents to FX’s new hit show, The Americans.
The Americans is a period drama set that revolves around two KGB spies who are posing as Americans. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), have spent years in America but now that the Cold War is escalating, so is their job of finding out information for Russia. Emmerich plays FBI Agent Stan Beeman, a member of the Counterintelligence Task Force and… the Jennings new neighbor.
This is his first Television series where he’s a regular and in a recent conference call, he talked about what that’s experience has been like. He also talked about how he got the part, character research and how he decides to take on a role.
The Americans airs on Wednesdays at 10 on FX
What kind of research did you have to do to find out more about what these guys really did, or did at that time?
Noah Emmerich: I spoke to a couple of ex-FBI agents, one of whom had been in counterintelligence, one of them had just been with the bureau in a more domestic situation. I read a couple of books about the foundation of the FBI and the history of the FBI, sort of the evolution of the FBI through time, and that was sort of the center foundation of my research. And then sort of reading a little bit also about the Cold War, about the shifting dynamics between the Soviet Union and the United States and the different periods and the different phases of the Cold War, and, obviously, most importantly, the dynamic in the early ‘80s, which I actually was alive for. I was a young boy but I remember very well, but I was just curious to get an adult’s point-of-view, which I had never really studied on the political dynamics of the Cold War. Just too sort of get a sense of the … of the time and our understanding of each other.
What surprised you or shocked you the most about some of the things you found out?
Noah Emmerich: I guess, in hindsight, the most shocking thing of all was the sort of wild overestimation of the Soviet’s capabilities. I think the Soviet economy was weak, and our fear of the threat of the Soviet Union was exaggerated and overblown. I feel like it’s actually probably not dissimilar to what’s happening right now with North Korea in some ways. I think the unknown enemy, the unknown boogeyman, can always take on quite intimidating proportions if we don’t know the reality. And, in fact, I think at the time the Soviet Union was not capable of the sort of world domination, militarily or economically, that we were afraid of. So I think it was a Cold War that we were destined to win with such a stronger economy and military industrial complex. But at the time we didn’t know that, and I guess that, to me, is the most.
And then you think about the number of lives lost, the number of lives, the time, the man hours, the energy, the money, the resources committed to fighting a Cold War, which perhaps in hindsight was not entirely necessary and an overuse of our resources and our time.
How did this role come about?
Noah Emmerich: Well, briefly, I’ve never done a television series before. I sort of feel like there’s a lot of interesting work happening in television, a lot of great writing and material being developed, in some ways more risky and edgy and interesting than what’s happening in the cinema. So I was open to the notion of doing a series; it seems like where the good work is happening. But I sort of had an idea in my head that I didn’t want to be a guy who carried a badge or a gun; I’ve done too much of that, and I felt like maybe more interesting television is happening where it’s character driven.
So when I got this script originally I sort of dismissed it, I thought, “Oh, a guy with a badge and a gun. I don’t want to do that.” And it was actually my friend, Gavin O’Connor, the Director who directed the pilot, who I’ve worked with a bunch of films, called me and said, “I think you should read this. Did you read it?”
I said, “Yes, you know the gun, the thing, the bad cop, and FBI.”
He said, “You didn’t read it carefully.” He said, “You should read it again and talk to me about it.”
So I read it again, and we had a conversation, and I really realized that the show is actually not about guns and badges at all, it’s really about characters, it’s about relationships, it’s about identity and our understanding of each other and ourselves and how we relate, and all those delicious, interesting layers of the onion in life that we have. And then I had a lunch with Joe Weisberg, who is the Creator/Executive Producer, and I asked him what the show was about for him, what Stan was about for him and how he saw Stan developing. It became readily apparent quite quickly that this really is, the ambition and the interest of the show is about people, it’s about relationships; it’s about character, which is always, I think, the most interesting territory to be exploring as an actor.
And I thankfully took the leap. It’s an interesting leap you take in television, because you only read one script. You don’t know who you’re going to be or what the story’s really going to be; you only know what the ambition and the desire and the interest lies, but you take a leap of faith. I thought the people involved–Gavin’s one of my great friends and an incredible director and Joe Weisberg is clearly like incredibly intelligent, interesting writer and person and I think the cast is phenomenal, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are both extraordinary actors–and I thought well this is going to be about human beings, and if it’s about human beings and you have it sort of laid in this incredibly wonderful world of espionage and spies and duplicity and lies, and it just creates a great environment for which you can explore the characters present. So I took the leap, and I’m ever so grateful that I did, because it has been everything I sort of hoped and more than it would be. So that’s the story of how I came to the show.
Does your character view sex as a part of his tactics or is he really getting attached to Nina?
Noah Emmerich: I think yes. I think it’s hard to parse exactly what means what, but I think it’s a complicated, messy ball. I think there are clearly real feelings between the two of them and there are clearly lots of other levels of relation that are going on between the two of them. It’s a very complex, messy, unclear world within which in the end we’re all just people, no matter what our job is, no matter what we’re doing. So the authentic human emotionality that is present with us that we carry into our lives, despite the task or whatever we’re supposed to be, whatever self we’re supposed to be in that moment, there’s our true self and there’s our prescribed self, and betwixt and between the two there’s a lot of gray.
So I do think that clearly sex is a weapon in the world of espionage. Sex is a soft weapon that is used by everyone to different degrees for different tasks, and I think the complications between the actually authentic human self and the actions that we take can have impact on each other, can have affect, even if they’re not supposed to. So I think it gets very confusing and complicated for everybody. I think using ourselves in that way is rigorous and demanding on our hold of ourselves, of our authentic selves, and I think for Stan he is struggling with that.
From Super 8 to The Americans, you do an awesome job in that law enforcement, military type role. Were you ever interested in being an agent or a spy when you were a kid?
Noah Emmerich: I think there was maybe some brief moment where I thought being in the FBI would be cool. I was probably very young; it wasn’t a long or protracted fantasy. But I can’t say it was a real significant part of my adolescent fantasy.
And somehow I’ve ended up playing quite a few of these military law enforcement, I think partially driven by the material that we’re creating them in our culture. For actors there’s a lot of cop shows, a lot of military stuff, there’s a lot of– We’re interested in that world; it’s dramatic and exciting and makes for good pictures. But I never imagined I would do it so often. As I said earlier to an earlier question, when I first read this pilot I discounted in immediately just because I didn’t want to carry a gun anymore. Although, like I said, again, this show isn’t really about guns in the end, but it does create a great dramatic context in which to tell human stories.
But no, it wasn’t really a very strong part of my fantasy as a child to be an agent or a spy. Maybe more so a western; I think I had a gun belt when I was nine or ten, one of those western six shooters. That was my bigger fantasy with a gun was to be Billy Jack, and that’s about the extent of it. Yes.
What has it meant to you to be in such a prominent supporting roles not only in this show, but in so many other great projects over the years?
Noah Emmerich: I’ve been very fortunate. I’m very grateful for a lot of the roles and the people I’ve had the chance to work with. There are a lot of really talented, incredible, people working in this business, and I’ve been blessed to work with a good number of them, and each time I learn more and I have a wonderful time, and I’m glad people are appreciating it. One thing that’s wonderful about this job, it’s unprecedented for me, is the time frame; there’s much more time, you get to do so much more material, there’s so many scripts and so many episodes, and you have sort of a sustained relationship with an audience, which doesn’t happen in film, it’s a one shot deal. So it creates room, I think, for a more intimate relationship between the audience and the character. It’s wonderful. It feels great to be seen and appreciated. It’s really it’s been fantastic, and I’m very grateful.
You graduated from Yale University where you majored in history, and seeing the historical nature of this show how important is it to you to keep that authenticity with the characters you portray?
Noah Emmerich: Well I think I’m very interested in history in as much as it helps guide us towards the future. History is, I think, an often-misunderstood field. It’s really an all-encompassing field, it can mean so many things, but it’s our inherited knowledge of the past, it’s an opportunity to have a discussion. Nothing changes over time, really; human beings are sort of persistently themselves from the beginning of Babylonia to now. It’s the context that changes and the specifics that change, but really there’s universality to the dilemmas that human beings face in trying to live with each other and to make a productive, interesting world together.
So I think the authenticity is important, because it’s the actual navigation points that have brought us to where we are today, and to blur that or obfuscate that or distort that would be unnecessarily distracting and diminishing of the lesson that we’re examining or the journey that we’ve taken together. So I think authenticity is always a plus and always adds legitimacy to our understanding of ourselves, and it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation without the pressure and the sort of adrenaline filled … or aggressiveness that comes with a conversation about current events, about things that are too immediately where our hair is up too strong to have a reasoned, peaceful conversation about, I don’t know, red state, blue state, where America is an incredibly divided place right now, sort of polarized and contentious and partisan. But as you talk about the past people calm down, they settle down, and you could have maybe a more reasoned, calmer exploration of differing opinions, of different approaches to society, family, culture, politics. So the more authentic the environment the more fertile the conversation will probably be in lending itself to understanding of ourselves today.
There have been a lot of flashbacks throughout the series so far. Can you let us know if we’ll get a flashback for your undercover work?
Noah Emmerich: I certainly hope that we will. I’m certain that we will, actually. The question is when. But clearly Stan’s background and the three years he spent with the white supremacists had a huge impact on his life and his character, and it’s something that we’re going to need to find more out about. I feel keep watching the show and give us time to get to that.
One of the fun parts about the show is the crazy wigs and the undercover stuff, and with your character you don’t really get to do that.
Noah Emmerich: I know. It’s very frustrating. I want to wear a wig.
Yes, and maybe like fake tattoos or some crazy outfits.
Noah Emmerich: Who said they’re fake?
What’s one aspect of playing Stan do you enjoy that you haven’t had a chance to speak about yet?
Noah Emmerich: Well, I love the diversity of Stan. I love that his relationship is so different. Stan is really sort of an isolated character in a way; it’s quite painful and lonely somehow. He’s not fully himself or honest with anybody that he relates to on the show. His wife, you clearly have quite a distance between them. Nina and he are from opposite teams, although they’re meeting in the middle, but clearly he’s not fully open or forthcoming with her. His partner, I think he had a huge connection with, but it’s also sort of a new relationship and not entirely trusting and cut from very different cloth, the two men. So there’s something interesting for Stan, for me as an actor, about playing these different scenes and just different dynamics, so many different, completely unrelated relationships.
And it never gets dull; every day I have a different, it’s almost like three or four different plot lines going at the same time, which creates a lot of dynamic fun and interesting colors, I think, for Stan to have in scenes with the other characters. Although it is a little bit lonely.
So there’s a lot of diversity. There’s like, you know—exactly. There’s the home life, there’s the work life, there’s a betwixt and between, there’s the secretive rendezvous in the safe house. There’s a lot of different tones to Stan’s work in the show, so that’s fun and exciting.
You always seem to do such interesting roles, this one included. I’ve never seen you do like a role where I’m not zoned into your performance. So when, and you kind of answered this a little bit, but when you’re looking at parts do you wait for the perfect role or is it luck or instinct?
Noah Emmerich: It’s, I think, a little bit of all of those. The luck is that the right role comes along, the patience is waiting for that role to come along, and the instinct is knowing the different between a good role and a bad role. For me I have been, I think in some ways as I look back, I have been quite patient and careful to do jobs that I feel will hold my interest, as well as the audience’s interest.
In the very beginning as an actor you take any job you can possibly get, anybody willing to put you in anything you’re grateful to. And then I had that experience quite young. One of my first film pieces was a thing I did on film, and I didn’t really think it was a great piece of material; I didn’t think it was a great character, but I was excited to have a job. And I did the job, and then I realized it wasn’t exciting for me at all, in fact I was humiliated. I had fantasies of stealing the negative and destroying it so no one would see it. I realized this is not just about the obstacles of a career, but when you do a job you’re putting yourself out there in the universe in a certain way and you’re saying this is my work and people are going to see it. And if you’re not proud of it and you don’t feel it’s interesting or worthwhile then for me it was quite a painful experience to have work be seen that I wasn’t proud of, and I promised myself in that moment that I would never do that again.
And you never know how things going to come out; some things come out great, some things come out terrible, but the ambition and the desire and the endeavor has to be at least worthy for what I think my instinct and my interests lie. It has to be in the right place in its ambition, and whether that’s fulfilled or not is up to fate, but at least I’m going to start in a place where I feel it’s worthwhile.
So sometimes that does mean sitting on the bench for a while waiting for the right job to come along, and sometimes that can be quite painful, because I love working. But it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s very competitive and material it’s mixed and matched, and it’s not always easy to find a role that I think is interesting both for me and a project that’s interesting for the audience.
I appreciate your saying that. And it is, like I say, I think it’s a combination of discernment, patience, instinct, and luck.
One of the really wonderful things about your performance as Stan is that you’re constantly contrasting performances with Matthew and Keri . They kind of play their emotions on their sleeve. It’s easier to, I think, read them, but you play such a very ambiguous and very pensive kind of demeanor. Was that the intention, the design of the character or is that something that you just kind of came up on your own?
Noah Emmerich: Interesting question. Yes, we actually talked in great detail to the need for Stan to have inherent ambiguity to him. From the pilot, from the first episode, we don’t know is Stan there on purpose, is it coincidence, does he know, does he not know, is he suspicious, how suspicious is he, is he still suspicious, has it dissipated. So to hold the much ambiguity in a character, to hold and not really know where he stands in relation to those characters around him, is he suspicious, is he friendly, you know all those things, you have to have, I think, a certain hidden ness in your nature, otherwise it would be too clear, we would know what he was thinking, we would know how he felt. And we talked, both Joe Weisberg and Gavin O’Connor and myself, talked at great length about having to ride that line where some people might think he knows one thing, some people might think he knows another thing, but it had to be on that line of ambiguity.
So I appreciate your noticing that and reflecting that back. But that is certainly something that we collectively decided was necessary for the character, and is quite interesting for me as an actor to explore that world, that space, but it is something that we aim to do.
You said that this is your first series-regular role on television. I know you’ve done a lot of guest spots. But the show was renewed for its second season early on. Was there kind of a freeing moment knowing that okay, we now know that we have at least two seasons to kind of tell the story of these characters?
Noah Emmerich: Yes, I think so. I think knowing you have that much room in front of you it brings a lot of air into the picture. It’s a very comfortable, incredibly exciting reality that, okay, we’re going to be able to do this for at least another 12 episodes, 13 episodes, and we have time, we have space, we have room.
Television is such a precarious business. Like I said, it’s my first time doing a series, but it was quite dramatic that every week they’re saying are we coming back, did people watch, are they not watching, do they like it or not like it. And I sort of stayed out of it to some degree, because it’s quite intrusive and I think detrimental to the freedom and the joy and the process that you need to have when you’re in production.
But it’s certainly in the ether, but fortunately we were saved I think from that drama quite, as you mentioned, early. We knew pretty quickly that we were going to come back, and then it allowed us to completely, at least me, to completely divorce myself from the reaction or the ratings or the numbers or the demographics, and just we’re here, and we’re going to be here for long enough to do some interesting, hopefully, interesting work, and we’re going to have time to explore these characters, and the rest is beyond our control, so how people respond or whether they watch or the numbers go up or down. It allows you to sort of pull back your perspective, a little bit more bird’s eye view, and say we have time and we’ll see, and either the audience will find us or they won’t and they’ll appreciate us or they won’t, but we’re going to be able to do this for a couple of years, and that’s a wonderful feeling.
What’s your favorite spy tech that’s been shown on the show?
Noah Emmerich: My favorite spy tech shown on the show. Well, it’s a good question. What struck me sort of the most, what startled me was the satellite radio transmission of Morse code to communicate. We’ve come such a long way in so little time. To think that we’ve gone from everybody having essentially a super computer in their pocket to Philip having to go dig out a transmittal box and set up an antenna and point it at the right place in the sky to get a message across the world I thought that was just sort of somehow very resonant for me in terms of encapsulating the differential in technology between now and then.
And it actually makes, I think, it easier for tension-filled storytelling, because cell phones kind of deflate a lot; just call them and tell them, tell them to stop. You can get a hold of anybody anywhere in the world sort of within seconds now, and that’s not always the best thing for storytelling. So that moment, to me, sort of encapsulated that, and I found sort of titillating.