Rozanne Els attended the 20th Anniversary Festival of TimesTalks, a live conversation and performance series presented by The New York Times. This past weekend the Times’ investigations editor Mark Mazzetti spoke to Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Joel Fields about the acclaimed TV series The Americans as its final season heats up.
New York - There have been few shows on television that has as high a body count as The Americans. Russian sleeper agents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, shoot (or stab, or break, or…) to kill – all in the name of Mother Russia. But over the course of six years and many, many deaths, the hit show, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, never wavered from its original premise: There are no bad guys on this show.
Joel Fields, who created the show alongside former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, asserts quite definitively that despite the action-packed intrigue that, “There are no bad guys. There are only conflicts between people.” Albeit violent conflicts, or the emotional conflict between Elizabeth and Philip that Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) describes as a “tennis game.”
The show premiered in 2013 and received 14 Emmy nominations over its run thus far. It has yet to win an Emmy though, a disgrace that makes no sense to anyone who has ever watched the show and seen Russell and Rhys at work – or paid attention to the impressive detail Fields and Weisberg incorporate to make The Americans as real a representation of 1980s America. The series’ focus falls on the complicated lives of the Jennings family – undercover KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip are not only married, but also parents to Paige and Henry, their American-born children.
A GOOD TIME TO END THE SHOW
Now in its sixth and final season, Russell, Rhys and Fields agree that it is time to end the show.
“It does feel like it has to end,” says Russell, who years ago rose to prominence for her role in Felicity. “But in a good way. It’s still interesting and engaging. We want to go while it’s good.”
The show has been lauded for its authenticity thanks to Fields’ obsession with detail to accurately represent both the time period, but also the culture of the 1980s – the clothing, the TV shows that were on, the games that were broadcast on the radio, the right Russian dialect. If a character is Russian, Fields will only cast a Russian actor. German? Same thing. All to make the show as real as possible, he says.
To that end, Russell says she preferred to do most of the stunts herself. “It’s fun to do the stunts, you just go for it. It looks rough, but the rougher it looks, the more real it looks.”
FROM ON-SCREEN ROMANCE TO AN OFF-SCREEN LOVE STORY
Russell and Rhys also share a love story off-screen. Russell split from her former husband Shane Deary in 2013, but she and Rhys actually met some 20 years prior and were friends for years before they became a TV spy couple. They both attended an event hosted by Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey and met in the parking lot where Rhys proceeded to try to “impress Keri by opening a beer bottle with my thumb,” he recalls, laughing. The couple now have a son together, Sam.
Their on-screen relationship is much more tenuous. In the new season Elizabeth’s nostalgia for the past still drives her, but Philip embraces the “American way” and doesn’t want to be a spy any longer. “Conflict is drama!” says Fields.
He knew going in that there was a danger that the show could pivot toward vilifying Russians, but the goal was to show that people are linked through humanity. No bad guys, remember?
Fields, who describes the past five years on The Americans as the most gratifying experience of his career, concedes his actors sometimes push back against the show’s darker moments.
“They get the scripts well in advance and they can see what horrible things they’re gonna do,” he says. And yes, they do sometimes challenge Fields and Weisberg, says Russell. She often emails Fields, “This [the killing] is too much! Even I hate her [Elizabeth] now!”
Most of the time Fields will say, “Stick with it!” but he respects the challenge and will make changes if the story merits it. It becomes a collaborative effort to tell a story about humanity that takes place in a very specific bubble of history. In many ways the show is a version of the “American Dream,” says Russell in reference to Elizabeth and Philip’s role as parents. “They’re just trying to be the best parents they can, at all times.”
The Americans season 5 airs Wednesdays at 20:00 on M-Net City (DStv 115).
(Photos by Griffin Lipson/BFA. Courtesy of TimesTalks)