On this week's episode of "The Americans," titled "COMINT," the tension is rising and star Matthew Rhys, who plays KGB spy Philip Jennings, is as excited as viewers are to find out what's next. "Something has to happen," he insists about Philip and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell). "Something has to give."
Rhys chatted with HuffPost TV via phone about playing a tough guy, getting slapped by Russell (on a take-by-take basis), why he's slightly terrified of guest star Margo Martindale (who plays the Jennings' KGB handler Claudia), hoping Dexys Midnight Runners makes it into "The Americans" one day, nicknaming Russell "John Denver" and much more below.
Stateside, TV audiences really knew you from "Brothers and Sisters" so had you done a lot of action sequences before?
I had a few little jobs back in the UK that required [it] -- you know, a couple of war films and things like that, but nothing on this scale, certainly.
Were you worried about diving into some of Philip's scenes then?
Yes, to a degree. I'm always terrified to play a new part anyway. But yes, it's always a concern of the danger that you're going to try too hard in being tough and that never comes across as tough. I was lucky that I had done a little bit of training prior to getting the job so I had a little bit of a head start on the martial arts, but I was concerned, definitely.
Have you had an action sequence go awry?
No. I mean, there's been a number of fights that I've messed up. My ego really takes the bashing there. But they've gone relatively well.
I read about the chemistry screen test between you and Keri. The script called for her to slap you, she did and now it's become some sort of ritual. Is that true? She really slaps you before takes sometimes?
More often than not, yes. I think she's taken it upon herself to become some sort of life motivator or acting coach or, as she bemoans, it sort of keeps me on my toes and to get into the character that I'm going to be playing. But certainly, without any warning, I do get a hefty one across the chopper before someone says, "Action."
Elizabeth and Philip's marriage isn't like anything else we've seen on TV, really. And it's a very unique chemistry that you and Keri have to have because when we meet these characters, they don't have chemistry as a couple, but you both need to have chemistry as actors.
Yeah. One of the concepts that I loved about the show was that there was this undefined relationship. It didn't have any real boundaries and those it did [have] were sort of being crossed emotionally. Ultimately, these people have been pretending to be husband and wife for 15 years, but for the first time, they're developing emotions for each other. It's a tough one to try to gauge, I think. So that was and is certainly a challenge.
Things seemed to take a turn for them in "Gregory," when Elizabeth finally reciprocated at least a little bit of what Philip's been feeling. How will that change their relationship going forward?
It's an incredibly tumultuous one and it certainly gets a lot worse before it gets any better.
Since the pilot, we've known that Philip wants to defect. Is that something he's going to actively try to convince Elizabeth to do or will it take a backseat?
Yes. That takes a massive backseat. I think he realizes the reaction he got from Elizabeth in that moment. He knew that he had to take a backseat on that one because it certainly wasn't going to come to fruition.
The friendship between Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Philip is also interesting because as they get closer, the FBI is closing in on the KGB. That relationship seems like a ticking time bomb.
That to me is a very interesting dramatic device because not only did this neighbor move in next door, but Philip strikes up this relationship with him and exactly like you said, it becomes a ticking time bomb. And Elizabeth is trying to use Stan to get as much information as possible.
What's it been like working with Margo Martindale?
Oh, fantastic in that way that she sort of has this grounding effect that she brings effortlessly. She has a great authority about her that slightly terrifies me sometimes. [Laughs.]
We've been teased about a showdown between Elizabeth and Claudia. What can you tell us about that scene?
Only that it happens on the most barbaric scale and even I was was shocked at what Keri Russell is capable of. It doesn't disappoint.
Were you worried at all about making a historically-based series set in a time period that's fresh in a lot of people's memories, and how that affects suspense? In certain situations (like the Reagan shooting), people know how things will end.
No. I think it lends itself [to suspense]. One thing I've certainly become aware of is the lack of technology that was available. I think that is a great service to us in creating tension. It was impossible just to sort of call someone on a cell phone or look something up on the internet. I think that lends itself fantastically to the tension of the show.
Is it refreshing to work without that kind of technology?
Yeah because they actually have to interact on a personal level. I love it. There are often times when they bring the gadgets that they were using in the 80s and I'm surprised that they're not from the 1940s. You forget what the past 10 years have been technology-wise.
The '80s is not exactly a time period people look back upon fondly, especially in terms of fashion. Was there anything you've had to deal with along those lines?
I've been incredibly lucky because they made a very conscious effort from the beginning that the era itself wouldn't dominate or have this overwhelming personality. And they've done that with the clothes. [The Jennings are] really coming out of the late '70s in a way so they were very wary not to have those flashy, flamboyant, shoulder-padded, deco fashions of the '80s.
Well, you do get to play a lot of different people. Is it fun to work with Philip's many disguises?
Absolutely. I don't say this lightly: I think that if you were to write a list of everything you wanted as an actor -- playing a different character within the character, the spy aspect, the weight of the emotion with the relationship -- it does have everything. More often than not, the greatest part is just laughing at what Keri Russell looks like. She came down in a disguise the other day and I swear to God, she was the image of John Denver. We proceeded to call her John Denver for the rest of the day.
That's funny, because Keri Russell and hair have been a controversial pairing since "Felicity."
There have been a couple standout musical moments with Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Are there any songs you'd like to make it into the show?
The ones I've sort of suggested or that mean a lot to me, I don't think they'd fit -- things like Dexys Midnight Runners. I don't think that'd lend itself to our piece, but those are the ones that resonate strongly for me.
Well, the pilot scene with Philip and the cowboy boots added some levity to the show. Maybe there could be some Jennings family karaoke to "Come On Eileen?"
Now there's a pitch. [Laughs.] You know, I think with the pilot, you were finding them in a relatively good place, which allowed for something lighthearted like that. But suddenly, the vise tightens and the net becomes smaller in a way. A number of things have happened over the last few episodes where the severity of the situation has really increased. So those moments for a light intermission are sort of few and far between, unfortunately.
Now that the show's been renewed, what are your hopes for Season 2? Is there anything you'd like to get to do the second time around that you didn't in Season 1?
No, I'm just intrigued as to where it will go because obviously, personally, there's definitely a time limitation on what will happen. Too many things have been said that you can't invert: 1) The defection, 2) The family next door … All these time limitations set the ball in motion, but something has to happen, something has to give. So I'm intrigued to see more and what exactly will happen -- whether the FBI will catch onto them or whether the Russians come after them -- the options are numerous.
Also, the potential of their children finding out. Obviously, that'd have different ramifications than Philip and Elizabeth being caught by the FBI or the Russians, but it'd certainly be a game-changer.
Absolutely! It's funny, Joe Weisberg, the creator who was with the CIA, spoke of this day within the CIA. There are operatives that end up training together and become married or partners and sometimes they're sent into the field as an operative team or pairing. Some of them do have children and these children grow up obviously not knowing what their parents really do, but there's this day, this unique day, where the children reach a certain age and can be told. This is obviously an enormous thing within their lives where they tell the children what they do. So I said, "Well, how is that met?" And he said, "Well, it's met in a number of ways: Some children are relieved because they have always felt something strange was going on, but they couldn't quite put their finger on it; some are absolutely traumatized that they've been lied to that entire time; and then, some find it incredibly awesome that their parents are CIA operatives."
I'm very interested to see which categories Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) will fall into.
"The Americans" airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX.