'The Americans': Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys on 'crazy intimacy' of their Russian spies

Gary Levin


Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star in FX spy drama "The Americans."

NEW YORK – It's a snowy day in February, but there's fire inside a studio on an industrial, dead-end block of Brooklyn.   

Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), the spy and fervent loyalist to Mother Russia who's at the center of FX's acclaimed series The Americans, is engaged in a final confrontation with Claudia (Margo Martindale), her steely handler, in a scene near the end of this final 10-episode season (March 28, Wednesdays at 10 ET/PT). 

"The damage you've done is indescribable," says one of them to the other. (To say more would be a spoiler.)

There's more strife everywhere, as the last batch of episodes jumps forward about three years, to 1987, and a more liberal atmosphere in the Soviet Union. Elizabeth and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), posing as Washington suburbanites, are at odds: Always circumspect about their profession, he's out of the spy game, and now a full-time travel agent, their cover. Fiercely loyal, she's soldiering on, but clearly stressed.  

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in a scene from the sixth (and final) season premiere of FX drama "The Americans."

"It’s just been a hard thing for the marriage to deal with; she’s just gotten exhausted and worn down, and in a way is sort of wilting under that burden," says co-creator Joe Weisberg.  "On top of it, now (Mikhail) Gorbachev has been leading the Soviet Union for two years, and glasnost and perestroika have really started to come into their own, and this is something Philip and Elizabeth are not on the same page about. So history and politics have thrown another wedge into their relationship." 

More:'The Americans' by the numbers: We tally all those kills, disguises and 'honeytraps'

While The Americans is a spy thriller, at its heart it's about the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth, and the costs of their jobs to their family.  

"Its strength is this very intricate, complicated marriage," Russell says. "The spy element of it is such a great backdrop; it pushes and pulls the relationship in so many different ways. You’re sleeping with other people, and there’s massive trust issues, and you’re killing people." 

A further strain: Their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), once oblivious to the family business, has been recruited into it, against Philip's wishes. (Son Henry, now a hockey star at boarding school, remains blissfully unaware.) 

"When I was at the CIA," says Weisberg, a former officer, "one of the things that interested me most was the story of parents who had to figure out when to tell their kids, 'Hey, this is what I really do.' Even in all of espionage, it seemed like the most interesting thing." 

They kill, but they love (each other). Real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play married spies on FX's "The Americans."

Now that Rhys and Russell are a real-life couple, and parents of son Sam, who's nearly 2, is it easier or harder to play one on TV? 

"Both," says Russell. "You have a true crazy intimacy with somebody, so it really lends itself to scenes when there needs to be kind of sincere intimacy. But then on days when you’re having a hard day, it’s like, 'Go (expletive) yourself, I don’t want to be around you now.'  And it’s great when it’s 2 in the morning (at work) and it’s freezing outside and snowing and I get to have him there instead of a stranger." 

That was the setting for their final scene, filmed March 9, in an episode producers have envisioned from Season 1. The actors promise a "satisfying" ending, and say the time is right for an exit. 

"You can’t buffoon Stan Beeman for that long," says Rhys of the FBI counter-terrorism agent, played by Noah Emmerich, the couple's clueless friend and neighbor. 

Adds Martindale, a two-time Emmy winner for her role: "It’s ending at exactly the right time. I think people might be tired of Russians." 

Especially when talk of Russian meddling — and this month's poisoning of a former spy in the U.K. — offer eerie echoes of The Americans.  

Producers are often asked if real life seeps into their scripts.  But "I’m beginning to worry about the opposite," jokes co-creator and executive producer Joel Fields, "that someone over there is watching the show and getting ideas," he says. "We did an entire season about bioweapons, and then they go and (poison) this guy with a bioweapon. I’m beginning to feel disconcerted."  

And, he adds, "I'm looking forward to the day the audience can experience the show with a bemused nostalgia instead of a creepy familiarity."