Welsh Actor Keeps Soviet Secrets In 'The Americans'

The Americans is a hit TV show on FX about KGB spies living in the United States. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Welsh actor Matthew Rhys about playing a Russian with an American accent.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Phillip Jennings runs a travel agency with his wife Elizabeth. They've got two kids. They live in a quiet suburb of Washington, D.C. circa 1981. Like so many two-career couples, it can be a struggle to juggle career and family life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

KERI RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) If this goes bad, you need to be out of town somewhere with the kids. Get the kids to Canada. Contact the rezidentura there.

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) That's fine, but you have it backwards. I'll meet the colonel, you take the kids, get ready to move.

SIMON: You see, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB agents embedded in the heart of America in the FX series "The Americans," now in its second season and an international sensation. Keri Russell plays Elizabeth. And Phillip, who's always putting on disguises, is portrayed by a Welshman playing a Russian who plays an American, Matthew Rhys, who joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

RHYS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is a question that seems to renew itself almost every episode. How can Phillip be such a tender and loving father and do the brutal things he does?

RHYS: For me, personally, from where I approach it now is that the back story is very important to me as to who these people were. And from a very tender early age Phillip, you know, and Elizabeth were plucked by the party and indoctrinated and then put into the field. And they had children in order to strengthen their American identities.

And I think very early on Phillip's primary goal in life is the protection of his children. And I think, with the past two seasons, we've seen that he has this growing concern for their future. And with each mission or with each sort of violent act that he has to accomplish himself, it's always for the survival of his children. He now has to be the best he can be in order to secure their livelihoods, to keep them safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) What did Moscow say?

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) I didn't get the signal. The kids were up. I didn't want to leave them downstairs.

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) OK. Let's just see what Moscow knows. You want to make the drop? Get out on the street a little? I can listen to the numbers.

SIMON: You sound as authentically American as - you know, you hear that voice and you ask - you want to ask where's your horse, partner?

RHYS: (Laughing) I think you struck the nail on the head there. That's - you know, it's a childhood of growing up watching American Westerns. As children growing up in Wales, we would go out into very wet, rain trodden fields and play American cowboys and try to affect these terrible John Wayne-esque accents.

SIMON: (Laughing).

RHYS: And that's where it begins, at the age of 6 trying to be the Duke in the shadow of a green mountain.

SIMON: The show's creator and producer Joe Weisberg...

RHYS: Joe Weisberg, yeah.

SIMON: He used to work for the CIA.

RHYS: He did. He did.

SIMON: But do you have any idea if he was a spy or just some guy who sat at a desk or...

RHYS: He - now my head is worrying as to, (laughing), what I'm allowed to say.

SIMON: Well, we don't want to get him in trouble.

RHYS: (Laughing) I know, I know. But, yes, he was...

SIMON: Break his cover story.

RHYS: I'll tell you this much, he certainly wasn't someone who was sitting at a desk or being trained or primed to be someone behind a desk. But in that amazing way, someone - with no discredit to him - someone you would look at and as he, you know, confesses himself, can blend very easily. He's not the sort of 6-foot Sean Connery-type in a tuxedo.

SIMON: Mr. Rhys, I don't know if you want the producer of your show to hear that you don't think he looks like Sean Connery.

RHYS: As soon as I was saying that, I going - this is going down the wrong part.

(Laughing)

RHYS: I hope this can be edited heavily. Otherwise the third season will be called "The American," starring Keri Russell.

SIMON: She's terrific by the way.

RHYS: She is.

SIMON: And could handle it. We should note that the scripts have to be vetted by the CIA because of Joe Weisberg's former employment. At first I thought, well, they must be putting their stamp on things. But the more I think about it - the CIA would have no problem with the FBI being shown as being incompetent.

RHYS: (Laughing) Yeah, in fact, they don't sort of send back, you know, notes about national security. They just send back notes attacking the FBI for their incompetence or congratulating Mr. Weisberg on his accurate portrayal of the Federal Bureau.

SIMON: (Laughing) Well, it can be exhausting to watch the Jennings.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON: On any given day.

RHYS: Yes.

SIMON: So, you know, they run this small travel agency in Dupont Circle, but on any given day they take pictures of a secret facility, they have to kidnap an Israeli agent, they come home, make school lunches and tuck their kids into bed.

RHYS: Yes.

SIMON: I mean, talk about multitasking.

RHYS: I know. And, you know, I think we're very aware that we're asking the audience to come on a flight of fantasy with us. However, the flipside of that is there - so much of what we do or the storylines are absolutely based on truth, which is, you know, frightening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) What do you want.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You, Mr. Jennings. We want you.

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) My name's not Jennings.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Phillip Jennings, 39. Wife - Elizabeth. Children - Paige and Henry. Runs Dupont Circle Travel. Seems to be out late at night quite a bit. Lives across the street from an FBI agent. Also, the details of his life before 1963 seem to be a bit hazy.

SIMON: Does Phillip like America more than Elizabeth does?

RHYS: Yes is the short quick answer, for the reasons which make such beautiful conflict between them as a relationship. I think it's Phillips background growing up in post-second World War Soviet Union, where there was incredible hardship and poverty. The trappings, be it capitalist or materialistic, in the United States for Philip are incredibly attractive.

And coupled with the fact that to remain the ardent agent that Elizabeth is, were he to do the same, I think it would come at a cost to the family, therefore he's the alkali to her acid sometimes in trying to balance the fact that they might not possibly make it a long term career and it might be fruitful for them to get out sooner rather than later.

SIMON: Is it considered a complement if someone tells you I never thought I could root for a couple of murderous KGB agents the way a root for Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings?

RHYS: It really is. I mean, if I'm perfectly honest, it's a great testament to the writing, that they've set up the antiheroes. And what I enjoy is when - if someone approaches to talk about the show, they say - I enjoy it when they say they're especially conflicted about where their loyalties lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

HOLLY TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Dad, do you really have to go?

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) Three new agencies opened up in the last month. The one around the corner is offering inclusive packages.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) What's inclusive packages?

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) It's where they give you all your food, airfare, hotel and you just pay once and then you forgot about it.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Oh.

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) Problem is we have to figure out a way to keep up or we're going to be wiped out.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Would it help if we came to work with you on the weekends?

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) No, it's not that bad.

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) No, he's exaggerating. Come here.

RHYS: (As Phillip Jennings) Bye, team.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Bye, dad.

RHYS: It's a real testament to the writing whereby they bring the humanity out in Phillip and Elizabeth. And we're not cold and callous - you know, we can be - but there's real depth to their humanity and there's really insecurity and fear and everything else that rounds them in a more complete human way, which I think makes for interesting television.

SIMON: Matthew Rhys, who stars with Keri Russell in FX's "The Americans," now its second season. Thanks so much for joining us.

RHYS: Thank you very much for having me.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.