05/01/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated May 02, 2013

Margo Martindale On 'The Americans' And The Spy Life

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It's hard not to think of FX, at least in part, as a Margo Martindale delivery system.

Martindale delivered an Emmy-winning performance as Harlan County crime matriarch Mags Bennett in the second season of "Justified," and fans of the actress were thrilled to learn last year that she'd joined the cast of "The Americans," an FX drama that debuted in January.

Naturally, Martindale did not disappoint: Her character, Claudia, has been a wily, prickly, charismatic presence on the show, alternately goading and grudgingly coaching the spies she supervises. One gets the sense that Claudia enjoys being underestimated by her employees and by strangers who mistake her for a kindly, sweet matron. Claudia is a lot of things, but sweet isn't one of them. There are no spoilers to be found here, but let's just say that "The Americans" first-season finale, which airs Wednesday, contains one of Martindale's most memorable scenes -- and those who follow her work know that's saying something.

Claudia is a Russian secret agent with decades of experience and a flinty, driven nature that has led her into repeated conflicts with undercover Soviet agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). Claudia thinks the Jennings are naive and distracted, and in turn, the couple -- especially Elizabeth -- don't take kindly to her authoritarian ways and her attempts to prevent the duo's relationship from becoming too messily personal.

Among the highlights of the show's debut season have been scenes of discord, disagreement and detente between Claudia and Elizabeth, who probably don't see eye to eye because they're so alike: They're both tenacious, shrewd, loyal and convinced, with good reason, of the rightness of their instincts and choices. As Martindale notes in the interview below, Claudia doesn't necessarily dislike Elizabeth (who memorably beat up her handler at one point this season). She's actually trying to give both Jennings the benefit of her vast experience, and to ensure that their American mission not only brings glory and intelligence to Mother Russia, but also doesn't end fatally for either of them.

After a recent panel discussion of "The Americans" at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I spoke to Martindale about Claudia, the Jennings and spy work, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation. By the way, I hope to post the entire "Americans" panel discussion later this week. But until then, we've got interviews with Noah Emmerich, Matthew Rhys and the show's executive producers, who spoke to me about the show's first season and finale, as well as a new Talking TV podcast on "The Americans."

Do you think Mags and Claudia would get along?

Yeah, I do. Two smart women, really smart. Mags is more about business and Claudia is more about loyalty to the Motherland, I guess. Mags is a little more out for herself.

Obviously Claudia is loyal to Russia, but there's also some cynicism on her part when it comes to how agents are treated. She knows that, on some level, they're all expendable.

People are expendable, but I don't think you start to learn those things until you're older. As much as I thought I knew at Elizabeth and Philip's age -- I'm saying this as myself, Margo Martindale -- I know so much more, so much more deeply, now than [anything I knew at their age]. You can't know except through learning. They're not experienced enough. They think they know it all.

And that's part of her conflict with them: They think they know enough but she knows they don't, and she's trying to teach them.

I'm especially trying to teach Elizabeth everything that I know. I think that next season, I would find my way to Philip. I think maybe in this last episode [of the season], I began to find my way to him. [A sentence here is redacted because it refers to revelations in the season finale. It's at the end of the piece in case you want to wait to read it after you've seen the finale.]

And that's another problem Claudia has with the Jennings -- they're too emotionally involved with each other, and that means they're less focused on their missions.

That's exactly what Claudia thinks. But I think there's something [in their relationship] that touches me. We've talked about backstories -- Claudia has been married and it didn't work out well. [The character has] that knowledge coming into this, too. That marriage that I had went to s***, the job is hard on it -- that's what I know.

I'd love to know more about Claudia's past.

What I would also love to know is how I am when I'm alone. That's the most intriguing thing to me right now.

People definitely liked that scene of Claudia playing "Ms. Pac Man."

That's a fighter. You see a fighter in there, and I like that. I don't want to see a cat lady. I don't want to see a woman who doesn't have things that fill her up in her loneliness. [I think she has] a full emotional life, but she's probably very alone.

We did learn a little bit about her past with [Russian intelligence official] Victor Zhukov.

She did know him. [When Claudia and Elizabeth discuss Zhukov,] I don't know if I'm playing her or not. Was he really my lover? I think so. But I'm doing that for effect, I'm using it.

So you're keen to have more people from Claudia's past turn up?

Oh yes. I know that [the producers] are very open to it. They're just fantastic guys to work with. They're open to anything we want to talk about and think about.

So I have to ask about a business matter. You're currently attached to another show [a CBS comedy pilot from "Raising Hope" executive producer Greg Garcia; CBS has not yet picked up the show]. Do you think you'll be able to come back to "The Americans" in Season 2?

I think there's going to be a way to do everything. I am fighting for it. I don't know. That's my hope.

Just looking back at the season, what were some of your favorite scenes and moments?

There's a scene in a park that was the most horrible scene for Keri and me [to film due to the cold]. It was right after she'd beaten me up. It was on a park bench at night. It was just an intriguing scene, full of rage, and it was so beautifully shot. It felt like Russia to me.

I also loved the scene in the car with Keri where we're talking about Victor. I liked [a key Claudia scene in the finale]. And I'm intrigued about Clark's mother [whom Claudia "played" during the wedding of FBI employee Martha and "Clark," a Philip cover identity]. I'm interested to be able to be in disguise. Mostly I've been with my fellow Russians, and I've been in disguise as [cover identity] Granny, but I haven't really gotten to be in the world as Granny, [as she was in] her first episode.

It must be fun to try on all these different personas within one role. Claudia even speaks differently from your other characters.

With Claudia, I try to do a more formal, clipped speech than I normally do. My accent bleeds into it some, but not a lot. I try to talk as if I learned English formally.

It's elocution.

Yes, elocution. It's very hard work. They write massive amounts of words. It's a lot.

There have been some great speeches this season, but I think this cast is so good that some of my favorite moments have had no dialogue.

The cast is fabulous. Those are my very favorite scenes, when you don't talk. Walking back to the car one time -- saying nothing, but looking around on an isolated, desolate street -- I was like, "I get it. I get this part right now." And that was with no talking at all.

Here's Martindale's complete answer to a question above.

And that's part of her conflict with them: They think they know enough but she knows they don't, and she's trying to teach them.
I'm especially trying to teach Elizabeth everything that I know. I think that next season, I would find my way to Philip. I think maybe in this last episode [of the season], I began to find my way to him. At least I found my way to understanding that he really loves her.

The season finale of "The Americans" airs 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on FX.

The Americans