'The Americans' star Matthew Rhys: Philip would defect 'in a heartbeat'
Last week, I published the first two of the interviews I did on “The Americans” set in December, with producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields , and with actress Holly Taylor. Now it’s time for one of the show’s two leads, as charming Welshman(*) Matthew Rhys and I talked about where Philip’s head is at in season 3, the pros and cons of so much wig work, why Keri Russell is referred to on set as “The Hulk,” how “The A-Team” helped inform his performance as Philip, and more.
(*) My biggest regret about this interview? That I turned off the recorder right before FX’s Lana Kim prompted Rhys to share a memory of one of his first American jobs, as the killer in the final “Columbo” movie. This involved him doing a dead-on Peter Falk impression as he recalled that Falk wanted him to play the killer as a Cockney gangster, and after the first few takes pulled him aside and asked, “Where are you actually from?” Told Rhys was from Wales, Falk patted him on the shoulder and said, “I think maybe he should be a Welsh gangster instead, okay?”
So today you’re filming parts of four episodes, with three directors and two crews.
Matthew Rhys: Have we beaten some cable record? Yes, to me it’s a new kind of crazy.
So how do you keep it straight in your head where Philip is at in any one particular moment, when you’re bouncing from chronology to chronology?
Matthew Rhys: I chart it now very meticulously. It’s all written out like a little map, exactly where you’ve been, where you’re coming from, what’s happened, blah, blah. It’s the only way you can do it. And even then I still go, “Hang on” and check the script. There’s a lot of that.
Have there been any moments in the past, maybe not quite this busy, but where you were doing multiple episodes at once and you found yourself screwing up?
Matthew Rhys: Totally. “Oh, hang on, I haven’t experienced that yet.” And then I was like, “Oh shit, I sort of played it as if I had. Oh well, good luck editing!”
Where do we find Philip as we return for the new season after what happened last season?
Matthew Rhys: Confused. Basically, the end of season 2, where we left off with Elizabeth dropping her bombshell, is where we pick Philip up. And that is the main preoccupation of his time and thoughts throughout this season as to the safety of his daughter.
What is your reaction when you read that script and get to that scene where you have to recruit Paige?
Matthew Rhys: I’m like, “Oh my God. This is terrible.” Because I think I’ve always maintained this thing that for Philip to say in the first episode of the first series, “I want to defect,” to someone like Elizabeth is enormous. It’s enormous. And that thing doesn’t go away. That sits with him and it has sat within him for a long time prior to that. And the way I got to that place was thinking he’s realizing this is a career that (without) secure futures. This has a time limit and he wants to secure the future of his children. Therefore, the only way to do that is defection. To turn to the Russians and say, “We want to stop now,” they would say, “You’re basically gonna do this until you’re caught or dead.” And so the only way to secure the kids is to defect, and I think that still sits within him. It’s his super objective in life is to see them grow up as Americans. And therefore for (Elizabeth) to take it one step further and say, “Actually, it’s not just enough for them to be raised here with a slight socialist slant to their upbringing; I want them to do what we do,” all his nightmares have come true.
So if Elizabeth wakes up one morning and says, “You know what, honey? Let’s defect,” he would do it in a second?
Matthew Rhys: In a heartbeat. That’s my take on it.
Last year, Philip was going through a lot of things. Was it just the fact that he was killing so many people in short order that was weighing on him, or do you think that there was more driving that anger that we got to?
Matthew Rhys: I think it’s an amalgamation of a lifetime doing this. And then just getting to a breaking point within him. And yes, that succession of body bags was a breaking point for him.
Do you and Keri keep track of how many bodies are being dropped by each of you?
Matthew Rhys: I don’t. However, I think I can safely say she’s probably killed a lot more people than Philip. When you look back at the two seasons you go she’s the violent one.
Well it seems in season 1 she was the violent one and then in season 2, he decided, “I’m gonna be the violent one to protect her.”
Matthew Rhys: It was that. It was chivalry that led him to kill. But I think she has a sort of gleeful natural enjoyment of it — I mean on and off set.
How do you generally fare in the action sequences when Philip is having a knife fight or choking someone out?
Matthew Rhys: There were stretches of season 2 where Philip didn’t really kill that much or fight that much. In fact, if you remember, Philip spent most of the finale big fight lying in a trunk. And very little violence this season. They let The Hulk do the fighting, as we call (Keri).
When did that nickname come into being?
Matthew Rhys: One of the J’s (Fields and Weisberg) coined it. He said “She Hulk.” It might have been a script description. I went, “Hulks.” And it stuck. Or David Banner, as I call her.
Let’s talk a little bit about the wigs. When you took the job, what, if anything, was your understanding of how often you would be the wig?
Matthew Rhys: There might possibly be one in a season. Not one per scene.
And so at what point did you have to make peace with the fact that you were going to be spending a lot of time in the hair and makeup trailer?
Matthew Rhys: Early on in season 1, I think. Season 2 was just a frenzy of disguises. Season 3, I don’t think you can keep up with that pace. You have to reinvent something and I think we’re at that place, which I think is very real. There would be recycling of disguises, used in variations and not just continually trying to beat the last one and do better.