From the strains of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” drifting over its promos to the addition of another character-actor heavyweight in Frank Langella, FX’s The American is planning on delivering more Cold War-era thrills in Season 3.
The acclaimed drama returns tonight with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continuing their rocky undercover marriage as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Only this year, the KGB agents will be fighting over whether the Russian spy organization can recruit their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) for their mission as well.
SPINOFF spoke with Rhys about his evolving role as Philip, and the actor admitted that even three seasons into the drama, the character still found ways to confound him.
“I’m still figuring out if there is indeed an easy part to playing him. I suppose the more enjoyable is that he continues to be as layered and rich and complex as he has been from the beginning,” the actor said of the man who wears multiple identities (and wigs!) across the series. “The harder part for me is to land him in a place of reality, somewhere that’s real for me — and hopefully real for an audience — in that someone who has to juggle as many plates in the air as Philip does but [also show] the pressure that that would bring. It’s landing that in a real place.”
As always, The Americans is balancing its ’80s Cold War spy work with not-so typical family drama, and the changing role for Paige as a potential agent hits Philip — known for his doubts about the Soviet Union’s ways — the hardest.
“It’s sort of the predominant and overriding arc for Philip and Elizabeth during this season, which is this enormous conflict between them that sets them poles apart, really, as they come from two opposing sides as to what should be done about Paige,” Rhys said. “Really, the entire season is that grapple and that wrestle between the two as they thrash it out.”
“We’ve seen a flashback in [seasons] 1 and 2: Philip and Elizabeth were children when they were picked, you know? They were in late teenage years, and I think heavily indoctrinated. Really, you look back at your own [self at that] age, you’re not very sure who you are at that time. He’s found himself in a vocation that he really didn’t choose in a way; I think it was kind of chosen for him, thrust upon him, and he’s evolving at a time and bursting out at a time when he realized it probably isn’t the life that he would have chosen. Nor is it the life he wants. And the same applies heavily for his daughter. He doesn’t want her pushed into something at such a young, vulnerable, impressionable age whereby in a few years she’s in up over her head because it’s not a job you can quit overnight.”
Complicating the question is Langella as Gabriel, the former KGB handler of Philip and Elizabeth who comes out of retirement to put the pressure on Paige. “It’s sort of like having a silverback gorilla come onto the set in the best way possible,” Rhys laughed of working with the veteran actor. “He’s this dominant, physical, mental, emotional, presence that kind of stiffens and straightens everyone’s back and lifts everyone’s game, certainly. He comes with this — the premise in which they set him, him being influential and instrumental in the training of Philip and Elizabeth is sort of great because it gives you instant history that he just does effortlessly. He has this commanding presence that builds a great conflict between them all.”
While Elizabeth more naturally gravitates toward the KGB’s way of doing business, Rhys said, “I think Philip feels a little isolated in the fact that Gabriel and Elizabeth are obviously the more staunch diehards of the party and the mission and the party come before anything else, and he’s very on board for bringing Paige into the fold whereas Philip isn’t and feels a great sense of betrayal. What happens is Philip is isolated from the two of them and feels betrayed, and that is sort of the bigger arc for him and Gabriel — that sort of sense of betrayal and conflict in the fact that he doesn’t want his daughter to follow his footsteps.”
Meanwhile, Philip continues to struggle with his alter ego “Clark’s” false marriage to CIA secretary Martha, a woman who increasingly wants more out of their relationship, including children. Rhys said that despite its complications, the fantasy relationship with Martha is closer to how his character would really want to live. “I think he’s arrived at a place in his life where it’s exactly what he does want,” he said. “He does want a sort of domestic contentment. He wants a simpler life within a healthy working relationship where there’s sort of mutual respect. And yes, there’s a large element of Clark and Martha that serves that.
“I think Philip is very aware that it can’t sustain itself. He can’t keep at arm’s length and fobbing her off and leading her down a certain garden path about having children and the rest of it when really, I think it affects him enormously, the sort of playing with her emotions, but I think he knows full well that it’s like his life in a way. It can’t sustain itself and ultimately, something will have to give. And more often than not, undoubtedly, it will be with relatively disastrous consequences.”
However, before that comes to a head, the character first has to contend with his real wife’s desires, and Rhys promised that by Episode 3, Philip and Elizabeth will clash in a scene both gruesome and sensual.
“It’s this dance that they have perennially. Their relationship and life together is so complex that it’s gymnastic in a way that it can leap from something incredibly domestic as to do with the kids’ school and then to do with a mission and then the killing or disposing of a body,” he said. “They jump these huge caverns, these leaps, varied and often and that’s true of their emotional life. Also, they only have each other in this situation. There’s no one else they could turn to. There’s no one else who can empathize or sympathize like the other one can. Therefore, in that respect, they’re sort of beholden and dependent on each other.
“I think this year, the scene, the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth about Paige, it’s sort of the more extreme version of what so many marriages and relationships go through in the raising of children,” he added. “It’s the absolute conflict that interests me, like how it will resolve itself and the very rocky journey of getting there.”
The Americans returns tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.
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