‘The Amer­i­cans’: at home with Phil ’n’ Liz

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY HANK STUEVER

ON THE SET OF THE SPY DRAMA AS IT BE­GINS ITS CRU­CIAL FIFTH SEA­SON

new york — All along, cer­tain view­ers have found “The Amer­i­cans” too grim to bear — too nail­bitey, too much stress on the throw pil­lows.

Un­der­stand­able, com­rade, but try film­ing it. The show’s in­tense late-fall and win­ter pro­duc­tion sched­ule gives it a nat­u­ral grim­ness that would be costly to repli­cate. Gray skies, dead leaves, bare trees and the oc­ca­sional snow flurry cast a dour, Mus­covite pall on the Rea­gan-era sun­shine.

The show, set in and around Wash­ing­ton (and, in­creas­ingly, Moscow) dur­ing the mid1980s, is filmed in Brook­lyn, where, on a painfully frigid 20-de­gree Thurs­day in De­cem­ber, a res­i­den­tial street has been cleared of present-day sig­ni­fiers for a scene in an up­com­ing episode of the show’s fifth sea­son. Cars parked along the block have been re­placed by a fleet of Ia­cocca-style beat­ers, and, once the cam­era starts rolling, a plain brown wrap­per car­ry­ing the Jen­nings fam­ily — covert Rus­sian spies Philip and El­iz­a­beth (played by the show’s co-stars, Matthew Rhys and Keri Rus­sell) and their in­creas­ingly anx­ious 16-year-old daugh­ter, Paige (Holly Tay­lor) — rolls up to a non­de­script apart­ment build­ing and parks.

It’s a big day for Paige. Her par­ents have de­cided that it’s time for her to meet their mys­te­ri­ously calm but al­ways stern su­per­vi­sor, Gabriel (Frank Lan­gella).

When mak­ing tele­vi­sion, ev­ery­thing takes longer than you could ever dream it would. It will, for ex­am­ple, take most of a morn­ing to shoot a scene of the fam­ily ner­vously get­ting out of the car, fol­lowed by a scene in which Philip and El­iz­a­beth an­swer a few of Paige’s ques­tions as they return to the car later. The cold makes it seem that much more bleak; the ac­tors, at­tired for the early spring of 1984, look un­happy be­cause they are.

“Paige is meant to be quite shocked,” says Rhys, who is also di­rect­ing this episode. “I was hop­ing the ex­treme cold would help with that . . . . This is the kind of show where there are no throw­away scenes. I would try to give a note [to Rus­sell and Tay­lor] and the two of them were like ‘F--- it, it’s too cold.’ I’m cold, too, but we have to get it right.” Fi­nally sat­is­fied, the cast and crew return to the block of non­de­script ware­houses a mile away that serve as the show’s stages and pro­duc­tion hub.

“The Amer­i­cans,” which re­turns Tues­day night, is en­ter­ing what is likely to be its most cru­cial sea­son, set­ting up its fi­nal act. Never an im­pres­sive rat­ings hit, the show rou­tinely tops crit­ics’ lists; Emmy vot­ers aren’t as en­am­ored. Near the end of last sea­son, just as the show be­gan catch­ing on (around 1.8 mil­lion view­ers fol­lowed the fourth sea­son each week), FX an­nounced a fin­ish line for 2018, which gives the show’s cre­ators, Joel Fields and Joe Weis­berg, this sea­son and next sea­son to fig­ure out how it all ends.

The cre­ators’ com­mon aim is re­straint, tight­en­ing and tight­en­ing the show’s wires just to the snap­ping point — but rarely past it. Fields and Weis­berg said that they will some­times “un­write” a scene in which they think the ex­cite­ment and anx­i­ety lev­els have ex­ceeded plau­si­bil­ity. Speak­ing of which, there isn’t a sin­gle Vladimir Putin or Rus­sian elec­tion-hack­ing joke that Fields and Weis­berg have not heard by now, so don’t waste any more time send­ing them clever tweets about “Sea­son 30” and the like. Weis­berg, who says he thinks about Soviet and Rus­sian his­tory and cur­rent events “all the time” (his stint at the CIA in the early 1990s means that each “Amer­i­cans” script must be sub­mit­ted to the agency’s pub­li­ca­tions re­view board for ap­proval), isn’t in­ter­ested in draw­ing mod­ern par­al­lels. This show is res­o­lutely about three things: the Cold War, the ’80s and, most of all, a trou­bled mar­riage.

“In Sea­son 1, there were fights and guns and ex­plo­sions and I thought, okay, that’s fun, but what I love more is that I haven’t held a gun in two sea­sons,” Rhys says. “It’s al­most all about the re­la­tion­ships, and if you can main­tain a show that has that kind of ten­sion based on those things — it’s hard to do and so much bet­ter.”

On or­ders from the KGB, Gabriel (and his col­league Clau­dia, played by Margo Martindale) rou­tinely send Philip and El­iz­a­beth on risky un­der­cover schemes and acts of breaking and en­ter­ing that bring the story to the brink of panic. Be­sides the fact that Paige now strug­gles with the se­cret that her par­ents aren’t merely the worka­holic pro­pri­etors of a Dupont Cir­cle travel agency, the most press­ing is­sue is the fam­ily’s overly friendly, across-the-street neigh­bor in Falls Church, an FBI agent named Stan Bee­man (Noah Em­merich), who is more de­ter­mined than ever to root out the spies in his midst.

“Noth­ing scares those two,” Clau­dia tells Gabriel in the Sea­son 5 opener.

“Ev­ery­thing scares those two,” Gabriel replies.

And so “The Amer­i­cans” has be­come a vol­cano that’s way over­due for dis­as­trous erup­tion. Like that copy of “Leaves of Grass” in Walter White’s bath­room (“Breaking Bad’s” un­for­get­table pivot point), this, too, feels like the sea­son in which “The Amer­i­cans” will have to crack it­self open. A few years ago, when they were des­per­ate to get peo­ple to watch the show, Fields and Weis­berg could be quite chatty about where they thought the story was headed, along what sort of time­line. Now? For­get it. Story arcs are top se­cret and kept in a mas­ter binder ev­ery­one’s heard about and no one gets to see, not even Rus­sell and Rhys.

“I only know what’s hap­pen­ing to about now, and we’re on episode six and seven,” Rhys says, tak­ing a lunch break. “I think they’re wise to the fact that I have a mouth like a drunken sailor and that I would shoot it off to any­one.”

“Do you know?” Rus­sell asks me, “Did they tell you any­thing? No? Oh well.”

She has changed from her ’80s garb into a faded blue jump­suit, topped off with a huge Mon­go­lian wolf-fur hat that tow­ers a foot above her head and that on just about any­one else would elicit guf­faws. On her, it seems fetch­ingly ex­otic. It’s one of her most trea­sured pos­ses­sions — Rhys brought it to her in 2014 af­ter he made a horse­back trek in Mon­go­lia.

There’s some­thing to be said for a charm­ing Welsh­man who brings his co-star a prized Mon­go­lian wolf hat. You’d swoon, too. Not long af­ter the show first gar­nered high praise, the celebrity-news me­dia started cov­er­ing Rus­sell, who turns 41 in March, and Rhys, 42, as an item. A cou­ple of years on, parts of Sea­son 4 were shot from an­gles that hid her preg­nancy. Their son, Sam, was born last May, and the cou­ple man­aged to keep the vi­tal sta­tis­tics out of Peo­ple, Us Weekly, et al. for sev­eral weeks. Sam is Rhys’s first child and Rus­sell’s third.

Most of this has been played in the low­est key avail­able to to­day’s celebri­ties. “I think most of the pa­parazzi we get is falloff,” Rhys says. “They’re wait­ing for some­one big­ger and then we hap­pen to just walk by.” Height­ened at­ten­tion brings about a nec­es­sary guard­ed­ness that echoes some of what Philip and El­iz­a­beth would do to pro­tect their own kids. When pho­tog­ra­phers were try­ing to get a photo of their baby’s face, “it was the most pri­mal I’ve ever felt,” Rhys says.

“Do we re­late to it in that way?” Rus­sell won­ders. “It must fil­ter in some­how. What you’re mak­ing me think about more is that, of the two of us, I nat­u­rally am the more pri­vate one. Maybe I al­ways was . . . be­cause I did that TV show [the late-’90s col­le­giate drama “Fe­lic­ity”] when I was very young and I was re­ally un­com­fort­able with [celebrity], so I tend to be very pri­vate and closed down about all sorts of things, ver­sus he’s much more gre­gar­i­ous and in the world and talk­ing to ev­ery sin­gle per­son.”

Both Rus­sell and Rhys say they used to talk much more about Philip and El­iz­a­beth (“Phil ’n’ Liz,” as Rhys calls them), of­ten teas­ing each other about their char­ac­ters’ faults, which could lead to real ar­gu­ments about their es­sen­tial points of view. “You mean how Phil is in­fi­nite

ly more hu­man?” Rhys asks, smirk­ingly. “We do ar­gue about them, yes, of­ten start­ing out with a lit­tle mock­ing de­bate — she’ll say, ‘Phil’s so weak’ and I’ll say, ‘Liz is so cold,’ and it leads some­times to a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion about who’s the stronger or more dy­namic.”

“We never planned in the be­gin­ning how [Philip and El­iz­a­beth] were go­ing to re­act or be­have with one an­other, not re­ally,” Rus­sell says. “You’re like an­i­mals in a cage to­gether — you work well with some and you don’t work well with oth­ers. And here it just worked. We trust each other. Or we don’t, some days.”

At this point, Rhys says, there’s less ar­gu­ing about who Phil ’n’ Liz are and more talk about how they feel. “I go so far as to say own­er­ship,” Rhys says. “I own Phil Jen­nings. I’m the per­son who thinks the most about Phil Jen­nings. No one else.”

This sea­son opens with a nifty ad­di­tion to Phil ’n’ Liz’s end­less re­serve of wigs and dis­guises — this time they’re pos­ing as an air­line pi­lot and flight at­ten­dant who are mar­ried and based in D.C., and whose adopted Viet­namese teenage son (an­other spy) be­friends the de­jected son of a re­cent Soviet émi­gré who may or may not be help­ing the United States con­tam­i­nate the U.S.S.R’s wheat sup­ply. Be­friend­ing this man and his fam­ily en­tails an­other long con for Phil ’n’ Liz, whose en­tire lives are a lie.

As it hap­pens, around the same time frame in which this sea­son plays out, the au­thor and psy­chi­a­trist M. Scott Peck pub­lished “Peo­ple of the Lie: The Hope for Heal­ing Hu­man Evil” just as his ear­lier book, “The Road Less Trav­eled,” was be­com­ing a big best­seller.

Where “The Road Less Trav­eled” ex­plored such warm sub­jects as ful­fill­ment, love and grace, “Peo­ple of the Lie,” re­leased in late 1983, made a darker, more dis­turb­ing case for the no­tion that we are sur­rounded in our ev­ery­day lives by a ba­nal yet per­ni­cious evil that qui­etly con­sumes our neigh­bors, friends, fam­ily and co-work­ers, caus­ing them to live de­cep­tively. Peck, who died in 2005, be­lieved that evil should be con­sid­ered a men­tal ill­ness, and his pop psy­chol­ogy is just the sort of fleet­ing yet per­fect pe­riod de­tail that would show up in an “Amer­i­cans” episode.

At the time, read­ers of “Peo­ple of the Lie” be­gan see­ing evil and lies in even the most nor­mal­look­ing cir­cum­stances. As a churchy teenager, very much like Paige Jen­nings, I re­mem­ber pick­ing up on the sub­tlest, con­tra­dic­tory cues while ob­serv­ing the adults in my life, which some­times in­cluded my friends’ par­ents — their quick tem­pers, the ar­bi­trary rules, the frosty si­lences or hearty laughs (one never knew which to ex­pect), the sud­den rep­ri­mand for shar­ing in­nocu­ous house­hold de­tails with friends on the phone. A teacher as­signed “Peo­ple of the Lie” and read­ing it gave me the creepy idea that many adults were pre­tend­ing to be some­thing they weren’t. If Paige and I had been friends (as we surely should have been, in that par­al­lel 1980s that holds all of Gen­er­a­tion X in its nostal­gic grip), Philip would surely have snapped my neck and driven my body out to the NoVa woods some­where.

I flash back to “Peo­ple of the Lie,” a book I haven’t thought of in years, while get­ting a tour of the chilly in­te­ri­ors of the Jen­nings home and think­ing of all the lies kept here — the liv­ing room, the kitchen with its ge­o­met­ri­cally gar­ish wall­pa­per, the ran­dom cas­sette tapes in Paige’s bed­room.

Fi­nally there’s Phil ’n’ Liz’s bed­room, in its mauve and wicker mid­dle-class splen­dor, with the en suite mas­ter bath and its rust-or­ange decor. It’s just a set on a TV show, but be­cause of what Rus­sell and Rhys have cre­ated to­gether — be­cause of what view­ers have seen here — it gives off a musky in­ti­macy.

And be­cause it’s “The Amer­i­cans,” there’s also a whiff of doom. Things are go­ing to get messy for Phil ’n’ Liz. View­ers will soon have to rec­on­cile the con­cern we have for them with the fact that they’re “the en­emy.”

Once she un­der­stood that El­iz­a­beth was more than just a cold­hearted com­mu­nist on a life­long mis­sion, Rus­sell says she de­cided to ride it out and see where it goes.

When first of­fered the part, she kept say­ing no, “Un­til I saw how in­ter­est­ing the mar­riage was,” she says. Even story twists she ini­tially didn’t like turned out well, so she quit wor­ry­ing about the Jen­ningses’ ul­ti­mate fate. There was a panel dis­cus­sion with the cast and showrun­ners last Oc­to­ber at New York’s 92nd Street Y, at which Rus­sell mused aloud about an up­beat out­come.

“I still al­ways won­der if I can say this or not, but there has to be a pos­si­bil­ity of a turn, right?” Rus­sell says. (Yes, of course. De­fec­tion! Safety! God bless Amer­ica!) “And I look over at Joe [Weis­berg] and he gives me a look and just says nope. . . . So now I re­ally have no idea — and I’m okay with it.”

The Amer­i­cans (one hour) re­turns Tues­day at 10 p.m. on FX.

KERI RUS­SELL AND MATTHEW RHYS. MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Matthew Rhys and Keri Rus­sell on the Brook­lyn set of the FX drama “The Amer­i­cans,” which is set in the 1980s.

PA­TRICK HARBRON/FX

LEFT: Rhys and Rus­sell play Philip and El­iz­a­beth Jen­nings, Soviet spies who are hid­ing in plain sight in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs.

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