As The Americans barrels through its third season on FX, the stakes have only gotten higher. The Cold War tale of a pair of KGB spies in an arranged marriage that has become very real, now has our heroes (or anti-heroes, depending on whose side you are on) struggling with a daughter who could be following in their footsteps—plus the day-to-day spying and just staying alive.
As the season draws to a close (the finale airs on FX on April 22 at 10/9c) we talked to Matthew Rhys, who plays patriarch Philip Jennings, about what conclusion fans can expect with Paige’s possible vocation, his favorite undercover looks, and if he’d make it as a spy (his conclusion: definitely not).
Let’s talk about this season: It’s been crazy. What’s surprised you the most about some of the things that have happened so far?
MR: As long as I’m honest, there’s been no real surprise. With the way they teed up the end of last season in how Philip and Elizabeth left things, I always knew it was going to be a sea of trouble for the Jennings with regards to Paige. And that’s certainly what it has been.
Do you side with either character as they are struggling with what to do with Paige?
Well, naturally my absolute loyalty lies with Philip. And I suppose from the audience’s point of view—maybe it’s my own bias getting in the way here—he’s the easier one to understand. Just through the simple way the two have been portrayed, Philip has a slightly easier relationship with the kids. And fundamentally, if you put it at its base level, he doesn’t want to put his kids in harms way, which I think is something universal that people can relate to.
Have you ever been challenged on that? Have you ever thought, “maybe Elizabeth was right?”
Never. I think Philip’s point of view is very relatable. It’s easily relatable. And it’s tougher for Elizabeth. She’s a hard line Communist who believes vehemently in the cause. And I think to a modern audience it’s possibly harder to relate to because those are bigger things. Those are bigger chasms to leap.
Besides the tense obviously emotional things you’ve covered this season, it’s also been pretty physical. How do you work through all of that?
It’s funny you say that because to me, this season seems very unphysical. I suppose that was kind of the sum total of it for me. I know Elizabeth (Keri Russell) has been doing more and more of the fighting as this season develops. I’ve viewed it and apart from that tooth pulling scene—which I think was an incredible metaphor for other things—I’ve personally found it a physical light year. I remember the first and second year—first season was especially hard, second season a little less so.
So you’ve been reclining on set and relaxing?
I mean that’s my M.O. in life. Maybe writers pick up on that and write to my strengths. They probably see me often in some sort of reclining chair with a cigarette and cocktail and probably go, “We should write to his strengths. This is where he lives comfortably.”
Speaking of living comfortably. What have you thought of some of your looks this season?
Jim/James, that was a tough look to get right because so often when we were working with wardrobe and hair and makeup, all the women we were working with would go, “If you were 16, would you be attracted to this guy?” So naturally we went through a million looks because so often the women were going, “Oh my god no not at all.” We landed on something. It was a tough one to get right.
Do you have a favorite undercover outfit or look from all three seasons?
I have this guy who appeared in the pilot, and he appeared in Season 2—long hair and a mustache, and a smallish beard. He usually wears a worker’s outfit, like a janitor outfit. He’s sort of my favorite. I don’t know why. I sort of built up an alter ego for him, and he’s fun for me.
Does that alter ego have a name?
I call him Fernando. I gave him this huge Spanish backstory of being a Flamenco dancer.
What kind of spoilers and tidbits can you give us? We’re getting close to the end of the season here.
As I’m sure the audience will realize and recognize and figure out themselves, the whole Paige path has been gaining momentum and speed and is going to conclude in a spectacular way. Be that good or bad.
So fans can expect something in the way of resolution with that story line?
There’s definitely—it seems odd to me to say the word “resolution’ because it. . . Obviously, I have to be careful of my words. It’s just big.
This season the show has been getting so much great praise. How has it felt to find that the press and fans are so deeply interested in what you guys have been working on?
That’s almost more to the writer’s really. The writing of the show is incredibly intricate. It’s very detailed. It’s very past-dependent. I personally get worried that sometimes it’s possibly too convoluted or a little too dense or too unrelatable, not just in past episodes or past seasons. You worry that you know the reactions will be, “Where are we? Who are those people? What?” But the beauty is realizing that through the press and through the praise that we’ve been heaped is that [the audience does] follow it, and not only do they follow it, they appreciate it. That’s a good feeling.
What do you watch in your own time, if you have any?
That’s all about to begin because when I shoot, I don’t watch anything. I kind of save up the boxed sets for the down-season, which starts this week because we just wrapped. I don’t even know what I’m going to start yet. I’d like to have a look at The Affair, Togetherness. I need to catch up on Boardwalk Empire. There’s a lot to catch up on.
Three seasons in now, do you feel as though you are prepared to go undercover and to be a spy?
The more we do this, the greater I realize how spectacularly inept I am at the intelligence world, and that it’s not something that comes to me very easily. [I had] the sort of blasé arrogance in Season 1, thinking because we were all actors that it was something that would come very naturally. The reality is it’s an entirely different mindset. It’s a very specific and unique mindset that I can only applaud and take my hat off to. But I know full well I’d be dead within minutes.
Well, I can’t think of a better question to finish on then that, than you saying you would die within minutes.
Yes, in fact lead with that.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX (Ch. 248).