Ah, the ‘80s portion of the Cold War: The mistrust, the xenophobia … the shoulder pads. It’s an era that FX’s new show, The Americans, makes revisiting a nostalgic experience.
Created by Joe Weisberg and starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich, the show (which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. E.T./P.T.) is a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington DC shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected President.
The arranged marriage of Philip (Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Russell), who have two children who know nothing about their parents’ true identity, grows more passionate and genuine by the day, but is constantly tested by, well, Cold War stuff like spies and informants.
To celebrate the kickoff of this must-watch show, Gilt is featuring authentic set props from, and home decor inspired by, the show (starting Sunday, Jan. 27 at 9 p.m. E.T.), plus some irresistible spy-worthy experiences (starting Monday, Jan. 28 at noon E.T.)
In anticipation of the show’s Jan. 30 debut, we asked Rhys a few probing questions about everything from playing a spy, to ‘80s style:
Talk about your research for the role. Did you learn anything about recent history that you didn’t know, or had forgotten?
MR: Obviously I researched the Cold War, but from Philip's point of view. I wanted to research the Soviet Union he would have grown up in. Seeing as he becomes ever enamored by the US lifestyle, the differences with what he knew and what he now knows were enormous. The research on the Soviet Union post-WWII made for heavy reading/watching.
How has this role changed the way you see people in everyday life? Has it made you more, um, observant of others?
MR: One of the things our show creator [Joe Weisberg, who himself is an ex-CIA operative] taught us was counter-surveillance techniques. Along with that, he suggested taking a more vested interest in our observation skills. Of which I realize I am terrible. I am certainly trying to be more observant of others.
For a show like this to work, the viewer needs to be able to empathize with — and, yes, possibly even root for — your character. Clearly, this isn’t easy, given that, well, you’re playing a Russian spy. How were you able to establish a character that people can empathize with? And when did you begin empathizing with your character (if at all)?
MR: My character was incredibly easy to empathize with, as all his reasons were on the page. With his children growing up, he realizes the life they're leading isn't sustainable, which motivates his suggestion of defection to Elizabeth. Couple with that a burgeoning attraction of capitalism and materialism versus the life he knew, and it's easy to understand why he does what he does.
How has this role/show challenged you in ways you haven’t yet been challenged as an actor?
MR: My last US TV job had me playing an American for five years. [Note: Rhys was born and raised in Wales.] During those years — not only mastering the accent, but playing an American — stood me in good stead for this job. And I've been lucky enough to have done a few jobs whereby there's been a call for martial arts; therefore, it all came into practice with this one.
In what ways do you identify with your character?
MR: I suppose in a tenuous way; I identify with the fact that my character is a man with a great love for his mother country that has made his way to a different country and made it his home.
Have you ever been to Russia? Do you identify with Russian culture? (Any Russian in your heritage?)
MR: I've never been to Russia and, sadly, have no Russian heritage. However I can strongly identify with their love of vodka.
Is wearing ‘80s fashion in the show fun, or is it an upsetting reminder of a style era many of us would rather forget?
MR: The ‘80s costumes are a lot of fun to wear on the show. Sadly there's no chance of popping into the costume truck on a Friday to borrow something for the weekend. If I'm honest, Keri Russell gets it a lot worse than me...jeans so high-waisted, she bangs her chin on her gun when she puts it in her belt.
How about the decor of your home on the show? Did it bring you back any ‘80s home-decor memories from growing up? (Peach curtains? Giant sectionals? Just some thought-starters…)
MR: The home decor certainly does bring back memories: wicker furniture with floral upholstery; a LOT of peach; VERY large electrical items. And the colors... I’d completely forgotten…
OK, three more ‘80s-related questions — promise! (We’re just excited to have a child of the ‘80s here.) What was your favorite toy from the ‘80s, your favorite song, and your most “memorable” hairstyle, i.e., the one you’ll never show us pictures of?
MR: I think my favorite toy of the ‘80s was one of the first models of remote control car... It was called ‘Big Trak.’ I was given it in 1980. It was like a large tank on caterpillars that had about 16 commands. I used to strap a tray to it and try and serve drinks with it, usually with disastrous results. And my ‘80s hair cut was the flat-top. I certainly didn't rock it.