In Season 3 of FX’s The Americans (Wednesdays, 10/9c, beginning January 28th), Ronald Reagan is president, the Cold War is raging, and Russian spy Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) has bigger problems than keeping his identity secret from the FBI agent next door.
He’s fighting with his wife and partner in espionage (Keri Russell) over whether to bring their daughter in on their secret and recruit her for the KGB, and the FBI secretary his “Clark” persona married to extract intel is pressuring him to start a family.
This guy is in deep, but Welsh-born Rhys is relishing every minute, as he shared in this interview.
“There’s only one Russian that’s come up to me. It was in Central Park, and he just wanted to say how much he enjoyed the show.”
This role is like many in one—you’re not only playing Philip, but his various spy disguises.
I think it’s incredibly interesting to watch and play. He’s presented with a mission that is conflicting to him as a father, as a human being, but it serves a greater purpose. I always find that in the playing of other characters other than Philip, the jump from sort of Philip to the other character is as minimal as possible in order for me to make it as believable as possible. It’s not about creating completely different characters but slight variations.
Do you have a favorite disguise?
I do. I call him Fernando. He has a mustache, and long hair, and sometimes a little goatee, and he’s usually in janitor clothes. Fernando makes me feel sexiest. He takes about an hour in the chair.
Do some others take longer than that?
Clark’s about an hour and a half because the wig needs a lot more attention, and then there was the army veteran that I did, which had a huge beard and huge hair. That was about two hours.
What do you think Phillip actually thinks of Martha? Does he have any affection for her?
I think he’s a man of great humanity, and he becomes far more painfully aware of his manipulation in this woman’s life and her feelings, and the deeper it becomes, the harder it becomes. Phillip targeted Martha because she’s a lonely person, and the manipulation of that is a cruel thing to do.
Do you think he would kill her if he had to?
I think he’d have huge qualms. It would be incredibly difficult. It’s the offset of, what’s the greater risk? If it’s her turning him in, which will ultimately lead to his incarceration and separation from his kids, then yes. If it’s a threat to their life, then yes.
White Russians: Russell and Rhys, ready for action.
This season a source of conflict for Philip and Elizabeth is whether or not to bring Paige into the spy biz.
Yes. Elizabeth thinks Paige should know who we are and I don’t think Phillip wants anyone to indoctrinate her. She should make her own decisions, and the fact that she’s found solace and family in something like that church isn’t a shock because they’re absolutely absent parents. So he doesn’t blame her for doing that. She’s on her own path, and it may not even last a year, but she should take that path herself.
Is this your favorite part of all time, or do you have others that stand out?
I would definitely say top two. I played Benjamin Braddock in a stage adaptation of The Graduate in the West End with Kathleen Turner. That was a real favorite.
Do you want to do more stage work?
I’d love to go back on stage in the West End or New York. That would be the dream. I haven’t done a Shakespeare in a very long time.
What’s the biggest difference between working in the U.K. and here?
Money. The production scale is bigger, and you don’t have craft service in the U.K. There’s a tea urn and a coffee urn.
Do people come up to you speaking Russian?
There’s only one Russian that’s come up to me. It was in Central Park, and he just wanted to say how much he enjoyed the show, and that was literally about it. He said it didn’t make him pro or against any of it. The human story is what interested him.
Any movies coming up?
I did a tiny part I had in Bradley Cooper movie. That’s out in October. We play rival chefs.
Do you cook at all?
Well, I do now. No. I do a little bit in the film. We’re both playing Michelin-starred chefs, and I have one scene where I have to make him an omelet. So I was like, ‘oh, this is going to be easy.’ We had a couple of Michelin-starred chefs on set helping us, and they said, ‘If you want to be a proper chef, there’s an art to a true omelet, and when they showed me, I was like, ‘I’m not even on the same planet as you.’ I wasn’t even close to what they could do with an omelet.
Photos by James Minchin/FX