Matthew Rhys plays Russian spy Philip Jennings who masquerades as a suburban dad during the height of the Cold War on FX’s “The Americans” — plus a whole other host of personalities in his various disguises. He sat down to answer questions in a media conference call Wednesday to discuss his work on the show and some of the challenges of the role.
Q: I was wondering what it’s like being an Englishman or a Welshman playing a Russian, who’s masquerading as an American, who’s been masquerading as all these other people. When you’re doing all of that, how much of that layering are you having to process, and how much do you just focus on the character you’re playing at the moment?
Matthew Rhys: The simple answer is, it’s a great bonus; it’s a great advantage to me. At first, I kind of went at it from that point of view thinking, oh I’m a Welsh Russian playing an American, and it just makes for a great amount of confusion. In its simplest term, I’m a foreigner pretending to be American, which is what I was doing on “Brothers and Sisters,” and now I’m legitimately doing it on “The Americans.” It helps my cause enormously that … I’ve been through it in doing “Brothers and Sisters.” What I was genuinely doing was trying to be a foreigner assimilating to American point of view, so I know exactly what it is.
It’s strange with all the accent work I was doing on “Brothers and Sisters” more often than not, the dialect coaches say, you accomplish sound right, you sound right, but you don’t sound like an American if that makes sense. It’s more about an inner temple, you just have to be in the country for long enough to get the right rhythm and right cadence, and that took a long time. Something I’ve been familiar with.
Q: Your performances seem so effortless, but I assume that there are pretty difficult parts besides the accent with the costume changes and all these different personas. What do you find has been the most challenging part of doing this series?
MR: The accent is always a tricky part for me because I think such a large part of your brain is working towards that, so you have to sort of stay on it as much as possible. I think just the physical filming of this series is incredibly difficult for the simple reason, the scene count we have, the amount of days we have to shoot, the jumping from disguises; it’s a big juggling act, this series, and the pace at which we shoot. In a day you’re in the chair, a wig is going on your head and you don’t even know if you’re doing a pickup shot or whatever, you can’t remember what episode it was from. It’s kind of a challenge say, keeping your head sane in the madness, and keeping a focus on where you are in the arc of the season and just trying to keep level headed with the madness of it all.
Q: I wanted to ask you a question about my personal favorite episode of this season; “Martial Eagle.” You gave a phenomenal performance. Can you tell us a little bit about what went into creating the scene where Philip screams at [his daughter] Paige?
MR: Yes. The training I received many, many years ago when I was at college in London; a very strong philosophy based training where your real emotion, your true emotion is used, and there’s a term they used called emotional memory or emotional callback. I just used something from my own past that was similar that would elicit the same feeling, and then you kind of go through an emotional trigger that gets you to that base … That was the primary focus for that scene.
I think Philip realizes that it’s a number of things. Obviously the pressure on him is enormous, and he realizes there’s an element with his daughter that she’s slipping out of his reach, and in that way that so many of us do, you lash out because you feel helpless. That’s how I went about it.
“The Americans” season finale airs Wednesday night on FX ar 10 p.m.