No good usually comes from focusing on the teenage kids of cable drama anti-heroes and heroines. A notable exception: Paige Jennings, the eldest child of the KGB sleeper agents at the center of FX”s “The Americans,” which returns for a third season tonight at 10. “The Americans” actually got better in its second season by concentrating more on Paige, first with her investigating her parents” odd comings and goings, then with her horrifying her secretly Communist parents by exploring Christianity, and finally with the KGB telling Philip and Elizabeth that they must recruit Paige as an asset to the cause of Mother Russia.
That last directive drives much of the conflict in the new season, and when I visited “The Americans” set in Brooklyn last month (the same day I interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields), I sat down with young actress Holly Taylor to discuss the challenges of playing an ’80s teen, her reaction to learning that Paige might be recruited, and the advantages of having Felicity Porter for a TV mom.
Let”s go back to the beginning, when you first auditioned for the part. What were you told about what exactly Paige might be up to or what they wanted out of you?
Holly Taylor: To be honest, I didn”t really know that much. They didn”t really give me that much information. They basically just said she was a teenager growing up in suburbia, and her parents were Russians and it took place in a Cold War. Other than that, I didn”t get too much information.
How old were you when you got the part?
Holly Taylor: I think I was 13.
This period was obviously long before you were even born. What kind of research did you find yourself doing, if any, to sort of get a sense of the period?
Holly Taylor: Well I definitely looked into the Cold War and the spy aspect of it, but I also was kind of learning about it in school. Every year in school, they go over the same topic about the Cold War. I was getting it in school also so I didn”t have to do too much research.
But did you find yourself watching movies or TV from the period, just to see what people were wearing and how they were talking?
Holly Taylor: I did that for like wardrobe and for the hair, especially, because I had the front bangs and just like straight hair and they were like, “Oh, we might have to change that.” And I was like, “To what?” And I was so scared, so I was looking up “Saved By The Bell” or something – which I don”t think is even accurate.
Yeah, that”s about 10 years later.
Holly Taylor: Yeah, I know. But then I looked up other shows, and I got the gist of it, and I was like, “Oh my God, please don”t do my hair like this.”
But you were okay with what they ultimately did?
Holly Taylor: Yeah. Every year it somehow manages to get a little bit shorter. They cut a little bit more.
Doing the research and watching movies and music and all that, did you find yourself interested in the period, or was it just work, and none of it was of interest to you outside of the job?
Holly Taylor: Definitely the hair and the clothes scared me a little bit. There were a few things I saw that I was like, “Oh, that”s kind of cool,” and some people recreate like the 1980s style now. So you see some of it in everyday culture, but I don”t know. The music I”ve always been interested in, because my parents are from Europe, so they listen to a lot of like English 80s music, and then we listen to the American 80s music. So I have very eclectic taste in music. I always thought was interesting.
In the first season, Paige and Henry are kids, somewhat in the background. Season 2 comes around and they used you a lot more then they did in the first. At what point did you get an inkling that they felt they were ready to give you that kind of responsibility?
Holly Taylor: I don”t know. With each script, there was a little more, and of course I got a little more excited. But then I also realized that Paige is causing more trouble and making it a little more on edge. And I would read people”s Tweets, and they”re like, “Oh my God, when is Paige gonna stop?” And I was like, “Please don”t hate me. I”m just playing a character, you guys.” But it was exciting to see that they gave me more responsibility with it, and I hope it grows that way.
What was your reaction when you read the season 2 finale script and Margo”s character says that Philip and Elizabeth have to recruit Paige?
Holly Taylor: I was like, “Oh my God, I”m gonna be a Russian spy!” That was my first thing. And I was so happy. I was like, “Please right now initiate me into the KGB; I will do it.” I was so willing. With season 3, it”s just easing Paige into it, and they”re still trying to decide what they want to do. So I don”t even know what”s gonna happen now. But once I got the season 2 finale script I was like, “Yes, I”m a spy. It”s happening.”
I”ve talked to Noah (Emmerich) before about how he tries to stay compartmentalized and not pay too much attention to the parts of the show that Stan wouldn”t know about anyway. Are you that way or are you just into the whole thing?
Holly Taylor: It depends. Sometimes, things at the Russian embassy goes over my head a little bit. But I read all of the scripts and I watch all of the episodes so I can try and know what”s going on, but I also understand that obviously Paige doesn”t know what”s going on, so I keep that separate.
What”s it like working with Keri (Russell) and Matthew (Rhys) as your parents?
Holly Taylor: It”s amazing. I honestly couldn”t ask for better people to work with, especially on my first big project like this. They”re so nice to look up to, and they”re so talented and humble and respectful to everyone. Everyone says that we”re so lucky to have such an amazing cast and crew. So it”s just really a blessing.
If I”m doing the math right, you weren”t even born when “Felicity” came on the air. Was that something that was even in your consciousness before you got this job?
Holly Taylor: I heard of it and when I told a few of my really close friends, their parents will go, “Oh my God. I love her.” I actually just had my science teacher get kind of mad at me because I hadn”t handed in an essay or something. And he was telling me, “In the future, I”d prefer for it to be this way.” And then I started walking away and he”s like, “So what”s it like working with Keri Russell? I loved ‘Felicity.” That was my favorite show.” And I was like, “Wow, this is a subject change.” It”s a good conversation starter.
Have you gone back and watched any of that now?
Holly Taylor: No I haven”t. I don”t think it”s on Netflix, is it?
I don”t think so, no.
Holly Taylor: I”ve been watching “One Tree Hill” on Netflix and it just consumes my life, so I haven”t watched anything else.
Because at some point, if you see it, it”s going to be weird because you”ll be close to her age by the time you get to it.
Holly Taylor: Yes. I”ve seen a few of her Disney things, like the Mickey Mouse stuff. That was really weird, because she was around my age. But I think it”s so cool.
What can you say about Paige”s arc going into this year?
Holly Taylor: She doesn”t know it, but her parents are still balancing a decision of if they want her to be a spy or not. And I think that Paige has definitely proved that she wants something to fight for and how she”s been staying with the church and she”ll continue to follow that path in season 3. To be honest, I don”t really know what”s gonna happen so far. It”s all on the edge. So I think it could go a bunch of different ways. It”s gonna be crazy, suspenseful and exciting.
But if Paige”s parents were to lay out the evidence and show her the closet of wigs and all that, is she going to be excited or is she going to be upset?
Holly Taylor: I think at first she”ll be upset, because she”s been living her whole life basically a lie. She”s bound to be upset, but I think after a while when she realizes that they”re doing it for a cause and they have something to believe in just like she does, I think she would grow to respect it and hopefully join in.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com