Tablet Life & Arts

Five questions with Matthew Rhys of ‘The Americans’

Matthew Rhys

Matthew Rhys pretends for a living, and he’s quite good at it. In The Americans, in its second season on FX (9 p.m. Wednesdays), the Welsh actor portrays a crafty Soviet spy posing as a milquetoast American family man during the Cold War 1980s. Rhys’ character, Philip Jennings, and wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) also have a variety of convincing disguises at their disposal. But Rhys is quick to admit that he could never pull off such deception for real. “I get anxiety just playing a fictitious part,” he says.

1What is it about the premise of The Americans that most fascinates you?

It’s not just a straight spy thriller or a straight domestic drama. It’s a combination of the two. One second I can be assassinating someone or “honey-trapping” someone and the next I’m making PB&Js for the kids. And both lives have to be credible. It’s that fine balance.

2Given how close the FBI is to catching Philip and Elizabeth, do you think they’ll be able to enjoy a happy ending together once the series comes to an end?

I think they can. That was laid down by Philip in the first episode of the first season, when he presented the defection package, saying they could go into witness protection, work for the U.S. government, be put into hiding and live out their days. The realization of how unsafe it is grows every day. Philip wants unashamedly to sign up for the white-picket-fence life. And he’s hoping Elizabeth will come to a place where she says, “I can’t do this anymore.”

3Philip is juggling two wives. There’s Elizabeth, for whom he has genuine feelings, and there’s Martha (Alison Wright), whom he’s romancing strictly to get inside FBI information. As an actor, how do you deal with frequent bedroom scenes?

The first one is the hardest. Then you realize there’s a very perfunctory element to it, where the cameramen shout, “Down with your elbow! Lift your leg up higher!” The clinical element of it takes away the embarrassment.

4Did you always want to be an actor?

  It was a slow burn for me, from a very early age. In Wales, they’re very big on performing arts. Everyone does it until they’re 18. Then they go to university and get real jobs. But when I was 17, I thought there was a possibility I could do this for a living. My parents said, “No, no, no. You’re meant to do it as a pastime, not for a career.” But I thought, if I can get away without working for the rest of my life, I’ll give it a go.

5As a viewer, what TV shows appeal to you?

  I don’t mean to be too much of a cynic, but I am unfortunately of the mind that I watch a film or television show thinking, “Oh, that was technically very clever,” or “Oh, they used a crane in that.” But documentaries are still a mystery to me. They hold the kind of magic where I can follow a story. So it tends to be documentaries that I watch.

— David Martindale, Special to the Star-Telegram