Following a highly acclaimed first season, one that didn’t shy away from violence and sex, ‘The Americans’ second season is set to debut as its two most fascinating main characters continue their dedicated life’s work.
Airing on FX on Feb. 26, aside from being a compelling geopolitical period drama, ‘The Americans’ has been propelled by its two talented and bold leads. Sure, Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings are charming and beautiful, as well as physically fit and clever, but they also happen to be killer Soviet spies living in America in a covert operation that began when they were very young.
“The part of Elizabeth, I think, was written for Keri [Russell], and I love the fact that they really turned that on its head … the female anti-hero,” explained actor Matthew Rhys directly to TVRage during a conference call ahead of the Season 2 premiere.
“They kind of reversed a lot of the characters,” he continued. “They didn’t go for cliché casting of a sort of tough, big, seemingly physical Russian person.”
Rhys is Phillip, as he and Elizabeth are our protagonists, and even though it seems we shouldn’t be rooting for them, we are. “The thing for me, I’m not this sort of big, macho, butt-kicking person,” Rhys added. “I think as a cover we work well, in that we blend into the Americana and suburbia, and therefore is the sort of twist of it. That element I was nervous about. You know, sort of being credible in that role (laughs) of someone who does all those things.”
Both Rhys and Russell need to check a lot of boxes to inhabit these supremely layered roles. They are Soviets acting as Americans, partners acting as spouses, spies acting as travel agents. Their neighbor is (of course) an FBI Agent, and indeed, they cannot trust anyone – and sometimes don’t even trust each other. Together they raise two very smart children, the older of which, a precocious redheaded daughter, is growing ever-observant.
In theory at least (and maybe moreso for American audiences), it would seem these characters aren’t ones desired to succeed in their subversive mission. “He does have romantic ideals, as well as materialistic ideals, because he came from a very harsh, fiscally challenged place,” Rhys offered to TVRage about why Phillips might be so likeable. “But, I think he longs for a wife to love, and to have those feelings reciprocated. His main priority are his children, their future and their safety. I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for this white picket fence life and to have those nice things and live out a nice life.”
“I think those are sort of very real, palpable obtainable dreams and aspirations of so many people,” he continued, drawing to mind moments during the first season when Phillip’s loyalty was questioned. “We’re sort of raised to think that in a way, and Phillip has come from an extremity of that. There’s a real opportunity to live out the real dream. It’s in front of him. It’s obtainable. You just have to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle.”
Rhys, one of many British actors donning American accents on U.S. shows, brings a great deal of humanity to his character as well as versatility, for in one moment he is having dinner with his government agent neighbor, and another he is in disguise, carrying a gun, and ready for anything.
Rhys admitted some hardships with this role in this show, and they linger yet into the second season. “It’s a very strange series in that an incredible amount of it is based on absolute truth, not just the storylines, the setting, what these people did, etc. etc. That being said, you tell the audience this is all true, and you can say that until you’re blue in the face, but to a degree you’re still asking the audience to go on a fantastical journey.”
The fact that the Jennings live next door to an FBI Agent may be one of those stretches, and perhaps some of the very regularly sexual encounters, but ‘The Americans’ takes you back to the Cold War and puts you amid so much tension, uncertainty, and hardened beliefs.
“It’s an incredibly heightened reality. It’s not just a straight spy thriller or a straight domestic drama. It’s a combination of the two,” Rhys concluded in chatting with TVRage. “What I find difficult, and still do and was nervous about, is the balance of the two, and making the leaps credible that in one second you can be assassinating or honey trapping or whatever, and next you’re making PB&J’s for the kids. Both lives have to be credible and there has to be a credible link between the two that affects the two.”
“And, it’s that fine balance that makes me nervous, and still does.”
‘The Americans’ Season 2 airs on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 10/9c on FX.
*With some reporting by Allyson Koerner