IAR Set Visit: 'The Americans'

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 11:54 Written by  Justine Browning
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IAR Set Visit: 'The Americans'

Few series could pull off showing a corpse being doused in acid and disposed of followed by a sex scene in a 76 Oldsmobile to the sounds of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Not only has The Americans successfully managed to balance the gritty realism of the Cold War with an alluring, yet understated romance--it's done so with style.

Set in 1981, the thriller follows two deep-cover KGB spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) posing as married Washington suburbanites Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. The two have even raised two children to cement their appearance as an all-American family. When Stan (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent, moves next door, the two must take extra precautions to mask their true identities.   

Former CIA officer Joe Weisberg developed the FX hit and he frequently incorporates real spy craft tales into the storyline (like the poisoned umbrella!). I had the chance to visit the show's Gowanus, Brooklyn set this month to talk to the cast and writer Joel Fields about the acclaimed series.

Inside the Writers Room, there's a massive timeline documenting notable historical and cultural events from early 1980's. It remains to be seen, which of these highlighted portions of the Cold War will factor into season two, which is set to premiere on February 26.


While the show deals with espionage and Soviet ideology, it's primarily about a complicated relationship. Season one largely focuses on Philip and Elizabeth's struggle to draw the line between their cover story and the very real feelings they've developed for one another over the last 15 years.

"When I first read the pilot, the more interesting element of the whole thing was their relationship because I'd never seen a relationship in that situation before," the Welsh-born Rhys says. "The backbone of the story is this espionage thriller. But I think that, at its heart, what makes it universal is it's about a relationship."

At the start of season one, Philip is far more emotionally invested in his role as a husband and father than being a spy. He admits, much to Elizabeth's dismay, that he's considering defecting to America and living out his cover as a reality. Philip has the chance to do so after he and Elizabeth kidnap a KGB defector named Timashev who now works for the FBI. Due to an operational stand down, they are unable to return him to Moscow--where he's set to be killed. Philip wants to make a lucrative deal with the FBI for his safe return…that is until he discovers Timashev raped Elizabeth years ago during training.

In a moment that marks a massive turning point in the story, Philip brutally kills Timashov, and his chance at the life he so badly wants. The significance of this is not lost on Elizabeth, and her coldness towards him quickly dissipates. But the two soon learn that having a real relationship poses a significant threat to their work. Midway through the season, Elizabeth blames a botched mission on their personal involvement and puts a stop to their romance. Though she later regrets this decision, she is unable to communicate this to Philip until she is critically wounded--leading to season one's conclusion in which she asks him to "come home" in their native language.

According to Russell, Elizabeth has come to realize how much she values her relationship with Philip.
 
“When you're living life like that, so cut off emotionally and things are constantly chasing you and blowing up, you can’t live like that forever," the actress said. "I think there’s a point when you realize you're going to have to change or you're not going to survive it. She’s going to lose everything. She's going to lose him. She's going to lose her family and I think she senses that and that it's not sustainable. I think in season one she lost everyone. She lost all these incredible safety figures in her life. And she's left and with Philip, who was there from the beginning."


So does this mean, its now Philip and Elizabeth against the world?

"To me that always presented itself as a starting point," Rhys said of the finale. "It wasn't concrete that they were going to be fine. It was like one of the first steps they took together which I thought was a great platform for the next season, really. The season's a long, rocky journey for them to get to there. She has to be shot up in order for them to [get to that point].

One of the show's most admirable and perhaps forward-thinking elements is the level of equality between the two leads. Few other shows have shown couples on the same level both personally and professionally.

"Interestingly, there’s a sense that there were less formal gender separations in the Soviet Union, among KGB officers," says Fields. "At least that was the ideal. But in this case, these are soldiers in the field, and they’ve been in the field together for a long time. And that’s very equalizing. And it’s an interesting perspective, for a couple that had a fake marriage and now has decided to have a real marriage, in a way puts them ahead of the curve. Because they're starting their real marriage, as hard as it is, on an equal footing that didn’t exist a lot in the early ‘80s."

To say there's an implicit degree of sexuality in the series would be an understatement. After all, the pilot begins with Elizabeth posing as a prostitute and performing oral sex on a member of the FBI in order to obtain intelligence. This makes the later revelation that she was raped all the more unsettling.

"On some level, both of these characters are sexual abuse victims," Fields says of Philip and Elizabeth. "The KGB had extensive sex training for its male and female operatives, to prepare them to do what they needed to do. And there’s an impact of that on people. And so the show, in not too overt a way, but certainly in the second season, deals with the dynamic of sexuality in marriage, the sexuality in the relationship and sexuality that’s challenged by past and current experiences."


"What I loved is that the KBG enrolled the services of a sort of English cad to come over to Russia and teach them seduction lessons," Rhys adds.
 
"I was like, 'let's see that,'" the actor joked about possibly seeing those moments in a flashback sequence. "I had images of a Terry Thomas impersonator, with a cigarette," he says (adopting the tone of the English comedian),"No, no darling. You must always order them a martini!"

There is historical evidence to suggest both men and women attended special schools in order to master the art of espionage and thus developed the ability to acquire information by having intimate relationships with their targets. The women were sometimes referred to as "Swallows,” while men who participated in covert seduction were known as "Ravens."

Perhaps a more familiar term for a woman who trades sex for secrets is the "Honey Trap." A concept Russell found particularly intriguing during the research process.

"I just thought it was interesting that it was used so prevalently and- that it worked so often," the 37-year-old says. "What it comes down to is people want to be appreciated and people are lonely. And their egos are so big, they want to be adored and they want someone to think they're great or to be in love. It works so often across the board and I was just really surprised by that."

A solid example of this can be found in Stan and Nina's storyline. Grappling with his troubled marriage, Stan begins an affair with the beautiful young Russian woman who he's been using as a source. It's up for debate whether or not Nina has true feelings for him or if she's using him for protection. But as Emmerich points out, Stan connects with Nina out of necessity.


"There’s a real loneliness at the heart of Stan’s life, a real sort of isolated, lonely despair," Emmerich says. "And in Nina he encounters someone who’s equally sort of lonely and isolated in a foreign land, not really enmeshed in a particular culture of society or group, and, yet, they understand each other without even needing to speak about it, because they’re sort of mirrors of each other as Philip and Elizabeth are to Stan. And I think the first thing that draws Stan into that possibility is the sense of being known, of being seen, of a shared experience, which we all need in life."

There's also the male equivalent to honey trapping, known as the Romeo, something Philip knows an awful lot about. Philip's now beloved alter ego Clark wed and bed Martha (Alison Wright), an FBI employee who has proven to be a valuable source for the KGB. Throughout season one, he ruthlessly exploits the lonely Martha seemingly without remorse. This season though, Philip exhibits some guilt over the arrangement.

"When they broke that storyline I was like, 'What?’," Rhys says of Philip’s marriage to Martha. "But apparently this is a huge ploy by the KGB, a very successful one as well for agents to marry sub-level security cleared staff within intelligence services and they did it with great effect. In the first season, they never really allowed it but I think Phillip does have a great degree of guilt about it, in relation to the fact that he is trying to reconnect with his wife or forge a proper relationship with her. And also, I keep going back to the fact that I think they were recruited at a very early age and got indoctrinated into it when they didn't really know who they were.  And I think Phillip is coming of age now where he isn't defined by his job and his beliefs that his greater concerns are with his family and the welfare of his family. And therefore the long-term goal is their safety. There's certainly a lot of guilt on his part, which hasn't really have been given the opportunity to be vented."

Based on the promos, a recent GQ spread featuring Rhys and Russell, and early chatter about the show's sophomore season--viewers can expect things to get steamier between the Jennings.

"One of my favorite episodes this year, we had this Danish director and we had so much sexuality in her show," Russell says with excitement. "Some of the characters that Philip plays, Elizabeth is sort of intrigued by and now that she's much more in a relationship with him, she's like, 'What do you mean that you do that with that person. What does that person like? Why don't you do that with me?' It's like this weird blurry thing that happens."

For Russell, such sexually charged material is somewhat of a challenge, considering many of her past roles have been tamer.

“That's not usually what I do," Russell says of sex scenes. "I'm like the nice, boring, pregnant mom or something. There’s a learning curve, massively. But what I find good about this show is the sexuality is all to gain something, to gain information on some level. In a big movie or in this big sweeping romance, the girl always has to be so beautiful, so in love, and so orgasmic. And in this it's very different than that. It's much more calculated and you're doing everything as a show. So there’s a real safety in that. It's about doing something to work somebody and in whatever weird way that person needs to be worked."

The show's irresistibly campy tone allows for a degree of comic relief from the frequent physical beat downs and murders. Part of the fun of watching the series is seeing Philip and Elizabeth adopt various alter egos and personas--often donning some ridiculous wigs.
 
The show's hair and makeup team, headed by Lori Hicks and Peg Schierholz, keep a "wig wall" comprised of various photos of the cast in their many disguises.

Of course, it's difficult to discuss those gravity-defying wigs without inquiring as to how they manage to stay on during some of the most…strenuous of activities.

"That is a hot topic of conversation," Rhys says. "That was one of my primary questions to the creators and I was reassured that Philip was a master wig work."

For the cast and writers, assuring that the show remains grounded in realism, despite the laugh-worthy knitwear, is no small task.

"Believe me," Russell says with a laugh. "There are many times when you're sitting on the set and you go back to your room and you see yourself in the mirror and you're like,  'Oh my God!' What have I been looking like? This is a joke, no one is going to believe this!'

"Hopefully we've already grounded the characters enough," she continues. "We try so hard in the relationship scenes to eke out anything un-relatable and not let it get too big. I think that's what interests me most about the show is this really complicated relationship. So that's what I focus on the most. "That's what I most relate to. Hopefully, if you set that up to be believable, the other stuff that's harder to believe will follow behind."
 
The Americans season one is currently available on Blu-ray. Season two premieres Wednesday, February 26th on FX.


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