Emmy Watch: Matthew Rhys on the challenge of playing a knit-wearing, suburban spy

Matthew-Rhys.jpg

Image Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

Audition processes are notoriously grueling, but actor Matthew Rhys scored his role on FX’s The Americans by literally being slapped in the face.

It happened when he and co-star Keri Russell were performing a scene from the pilot together in front of producers. At the time, Russell had already landed her role as one half of a Russian spy couple in the Cold War-era drama and they were looking for an actor to play her husband, with whom her character would share a complicated relationship.

“[There’s] a scene from the pilot where [Russell’s character] Elizabeth slaps [Rhys’ character] Philip’s face and Keri just — I don’t think she really meant to — but man she just took a whack at him. She hit him so hard because they were both so into the scene, and Matthew didn’t even flinch. It was like he just hadn’t even gotten hit,” executive producer Joe Weisberg recalls. “There was something about that moment…when he took that hit he just seemed like the toughest guy in the world.”

This story makes Rhys howl with laughter.  “I was too much in shock,” he says of not reacting to the blow. “Internally, I was like, ‘What just happened?'”

What happened was Rhys had just scored a job of which actors in his position usually only dream. After finishing up five seasons as Kevin Walker on ABC’s soap drama Brothers & Sisters, he’d been hoping for a role of a different kind, but, he admits, didn’t think it’d actually come his way. But it did. And as Philip, whose marriage with Elizabeth is built on a lie but infused with real romantic feelings, Rhys has become part of the conversation this Emmy season for delivering a layered and compelling performance.

Here’s our conversation.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Talk to me about the challenge of playing a relationship where the two parties have so much unsaid between them. That’s got to be a difficult dynamic to portray. 

MATTHEW RHYS: [I’ve been asked] whether I enjoyed the spy scenes or emotional scenes with Keri, and it is those [emotional] scenes with Keri because playing that level of subtext, I find that incredibly difficult. It’s challenging and from that, you’re sort of engaged because you’re trying to get it right. They’re trying to do so much without communicating, that’s where the challenge comes in for me. It’s hard but engaging.

People knew you from Brothers and Sisters before you started this. When you were in that period right after finishing the show, were you looking for a role THIS different?
In an ideal world, yes. Was I expecting it? Absolutely not. I think at this stage in an acting career, you’re fully aware that those kind of choices aren’t a choice. Do you know what I mean? So when the script came along, it was a real shock to be considered for this kind of part. I thought, ‘Oh my god. That’s a real departure from Kevin Walker.’ So it was heaven sent to be that divorced from the acerbic brother from Brothers and Sisters. I was flabbergasted, actually.

Had you been approached mostly with projects similar to Brothers & Sisters up to that point?
Kind of. A little more emotionally sensitve-drive — not that Philip isn’t. But there’s the flip side of him, which is enormous, too.

 Talk to me about bringing that sympathy to Philip.
It was important to me because you sort of go — you think of a KGB operative and you think of a cold, hard-line machine. And at its core, in the research I did early on, you realize those operatives who are working as they did were indoctrinated from a very early age. So usually around 18 [years old] they were taken into the Committee, as it’s called. So you think, they were taken in as kids when they didn’t know who they were, and I think he’s gotten to a point in his life where he kind of realizes he’s no longer defined by his job because his kids are his priority. And he spent 14 years in an ostensibly arranged marriage and now real feelings are crossing over. I just thought it was important to bring a human element to it…if you think the elements human and universal, then you’ll get the audience. The audience will go with you then, and I think it’s important to bring those elements to their relationship.

Did you know Keri well before taking on this part?
Weirdly enough, we were talking, this was our second day on set, and we realized we both met at a party about ten years ago in Santa Monica on a Sunday afternoon, playing…it was the first time I played kick ball. Do you know what kick ball is?

Yes.
I went to a kick ball party. I was ,like, ‘What the f–k is kick ball?’ I remembered we’d met and we’d talked.

Did you have a game together?
Yeah. But I’d totally forgotten it.

Maybe that’s the secrets. Co-stars should play more kickball.
That’s what it is!

What fascinates me so much is that you both came into the project with so much — it’s a terrible word but I can’t think of an alternative so I’ll use it anyway — baggage.
Yes, no, you’re absolutely right.

Tell me about breaking out of that — breaking the Felicity and Kevin molds part of the audience probably had you in.
Absolutely. Keri was on this project from the get-go. And John Langraf, head of FX, said  himself, he was a great…from the get-go he said Keri Russell is the one for this part. And another journalist said this recently said the casting of Keri Russell is the same casting the KGB would have done. They would have looked at her and said, ‘She needs to be the operative.’ I thought it was shrewd and brave of FX to [cast] Felicity, America’s sweetheart…and the same reason I said that when I first read the thing, I was shocked that they’d considered me for this role because I’m coming straight off Kevin. But that’s who the Jennings are supposed to be — this suburban couple. I just thought it was really shrewd casting on FX’s part and brave .

Tell me about the training you’ve done because this is a pretty physical role at times.
We did kickboxing, a little bit of jiu-jitsu, and krav maga.

I’m always curious: has your training made you feel tougher, like more equipped in real-life? Like if something ever happened, could you bring down a robber?
Kind of. You do quite a bit of training and you think, ‘I’m pretty invincible’ then there will come a moment with the stunt guys where you’re like, ‘Let’s spar a little bit,’ and they hit you once and you go, ‘Oh god, I’m not tough at all. That really hurt.’

Let’s talk about Clark briefly. Does he feel like a separate character you have to play?
A little bit. I went into the pilot with a very clear idea of who Clark was going to be, but the situations they’ve given Clark haven’t quite allowed that to happen. I was going to have him be this really smiley — but I and no one knew he was going to be a regular occurrence — so I was having fun and [making] him a little too smiley, a little bit too slimy. But the situations they’ve brought for him to face don’t really allow that. He’s mostly ‘Oh, f—.’ There are a lot of ‘Oh, f—‘ moments for Philip playing Clark. ‘How the hell am I going to deal with this?’

You’re not stranger to acclaim, but how does it feel to be involved in the Emmy conversation this year?
Not to sound like an old sage, but there are projects you do early on — and this has to do with my time in Britain as well — where you do good projects and people go ‘Oh, BAFTAs’…but you ultimately set yourself up for disappointment. So now, it’s like the analogy about a potential job — it’s not until you’re standing in the breakfast line, holding the breakfast burrito, about to shoot your first day, that’s when you believe you’re doing a good job. So I try not to indulge in that thought too much because it’s all sort of madness. Beautiful madness.

I know this might be hard to answer, but what do you see as your greatest achievement with this role? Or best scene?
[Sarcastically] I think my martial arts skills were phenomenal. [Laughs] It’s funny, actually, because I thought you were going to say something to this…there were times I watched it over the season where I thought, ‘Have I made him too emotional?’ You know? That was my concern because that’s when I was thinking when I was watching [the finale]. ‘C’mon, toughen up.’ Because at the end of the day I am a KGB agent wearing knit-wear and trying to be tough. I’ve always struggled with finding the good in the work you do — like the other 99.9 percent who hate watching themselves.

Read more:
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