On The Americans, Alison Wright plays Martha Hanson, the dowdy, plain, timid secretary to FBI counter-intelligence agent Gaad, and secret wife to Clark, one of the many aliases of Matthew Rhys’ KGB deep cover operative Philip Jennings. In real life, Wright is striking in appearance, speaks loudly and confidently in her native English accent, and dresses far more stylishly (here’s what she wore when I interviewed her in January) than her alter ego. In other words… acting!
The Americans returns Wednesday night at 10 on FX. It was, is, and will likely continue to be for as long as it’s on the air (my guess would be we have at least another season to look forward to after this one), one of the very best shows on TV. The first four episodes are stunning, and the premiere in particular is a great showcase for Wright as Martha. I will be, as always, reviewing every episode, and in the meantime, here’s a conversation I had with Wright at TCA about the evolution of Martha and Philip’s “marriage,” the hardest part of doing an American accent, and why she can’t stop herself from reading the parts of each script that Martha would know nothing about.
We also spoke a bit about her work in the premiere, so look for that Wednesday night after it’s aired.
When you came in to read for the role, what were you told in terms of what sort of commitment it might be?
Alison Wright: I was first of all told that she was a dowdy, very plain secretary in love with Philip, and she was going to be in love with him from the very beginning and keep being in love with him. I didn”t know much more that that until about halfway through the first season, and then the J’s (producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg) took me aside and said, “We”re thinking, you know, they”re going to get married.” In real life, in history, a lot of these marriages went on for years and years, maybe ten years, and there were children, and these were long-term, long-game situations, so then I knew that I was onto a winner.
Because I remember that whole first season, everyone constantly was saying, “Oh god, is this the episode where Martha dies? Is this the episode?” And now you”re a regular.
Alison Wright: Yeah, and I think people are still thinking, “Is this when she dies? Is this when she dies?” But yeah, still here.
(FWIW, I asked Fields if Martha had ever been on the chopping block in that first season; he said the plan was always for Philip to marry her, but they didn’t tell Wright at first. As she notes later in this interview, the showrunners tend to keep their actors in the dark as long as possible about what’s coming.)
This business is very strange about its view of women, and can be really harsh about appearances. You are not plain at all, but as you say, the description of the character is that this is a plain woman. Did you have any reticence about that going in?
Alison Wright: Not at all. Not at all. If there were two sides of a coin to view yourself on, I would definitely view myself on the plain side. Maybe not “plain” is the right word, but I know that that”s something that”s close to me and that I have close access to leaning into that. I know how I do that.
Because you were a guest star at the start, what input, if any, did you have on Martha”s wardrobe then as opposed to when you were a regular?
Alison Wright: Probably not that much in the beginning. I mean, when it comes to hairstyles and things like that and makeup, I”m all for being as accurate to the time as possible, which is often looking what now seems ridiculous, but I would bring the most ridiculous outfits, and I always wanted leg warmers, and like, a sweatband. They never went my way, but I preferred it to be super accurate to the time, no matter how ridiculous or silly that might be rather than trying to be glamorous. I”d rather go all the way into the pink and purple eye shadow, and just be accurate to the time.
It feels like her look has changed since they got married, and she feels a little more confident in herself. Even if it”s a secret husband, she has this guy.
Alison Wright: That was definitely their intention. I guess, maybe that”s as well, I was always trying to keep being ridiculous, and they were like, “No, let”s have her look a bit more pretty and make a bit more effort and be thinking about her appearance more,” as you do when you fall in love, and you start wanting to take showers and take care of yourself and stuff.
I don”t know if you heard about this. The creator of You”re The Worstwas on a panel today, and he just mentions in passing, “I”m watching The Americansseason 1. How does Martha not know that she”s having sex with a man in a wig?”
Alison Wright: Oh. He”s way behind, right?
Yeah, we had to explain it to him after. But was that something that was being discussed by you, and by Matthew, before it was revealed that she understood it was a wig?
Alison Wright: Yeah, I mean we would joke about it, of course. Totally. We would joke about it all the time, but then you have to suspend your belief for whatever it is that you”re doing.
So what did you tell yourself that Martha thought back then?
Alison Wright: Well, it”s always that she wasn”t aware of it. Until it came, whenever it came, that she said, “You know, it”s been fine, I know you”re wearing a toupee. It”s okay.” But even that is not set in stone that that”s really what she thought. That”s just what she said. There”s a lot of gray area with Martha, and I think it”s easy to mistake her for a simple black and white character, but really, all of her life is really in the gray in terms of what she”s admitting to herself or letting other people know that she knows. There”s more than a few times that it”s come up throughout the story that it”s indicated that she knows more than she”s letting on anyway.
In online discussion of the show, it seems like half the time, the character”s full name is Poor Martha.
Alison Wright: That”s actually official now, I think.
Do you see her as a victim? Because you talked about how she lives in the grays. How do you view it?
Alison Wright: I probably would see her very differently if maybe I”d only ever read her storyline. It”s something that I have thought about, and I wanted to do at the beginning of this season – to ask to only see my storyline from now on, to not know – but I think I was too far down the track already, just having the awareness of the other life, and that will affect whether, I think, she”s a victim more than if I had never known. I think that they”ve written in more strength and spunk for her as we”ve gone along to lean away from that victim mentality, is what I feel that they”ve done, and they”ve introduced certain things to make it seem like she”s not that dumb, you know, she”s not that clueless. She”s stood up to him a few times in arguments. She wasn”t just a doormat, because she can”t just be a doormat, because that would be boring. And I think because she came into her own in the relationship, too, it did give her strength and independence of character, in a way.
Matthew”s been playing Americans for a very long stretch of his career now. Had you done the American accent before this role?
Alison Wright: I had, yes. I (also) did a play once off-Broadway at the New Group where I got to be from Manchester. I”d never been able to use my own voice in anything. Not much calls for it.
So what is the hardest part? I hear different actors from the UK say different things about what they find most challenging when they”re playing American. What trips you up?
Alison Wright: It”s definitely the Rs. Yeah. You”d say, “My brother Robert, the murderer.” That”s really hard, because they”re so high and up. There are certain things, like one time I had to say something about, “It”s in the drawer” in a scene with Matthew. It was so hard. I was like, “Can we just change this word?” So it”s the Rs and pushing them far forward enough.
Sometimes I hear people say that yelling is their Achilles” heel. Does that turn into a trouble spot for you?
Alison Wright: No. That”s okay. Yeah. Just a load of Rs. They”re the problem.
You said before that you asked to only see your storylines, but it seemed too far down the pike. As someone who is in this one corner of the show but gets to read all the other stuff, what is your reaction when you”re going through a scene like the one where Paige”s parents tell her they are spies?
Alison Wright: I love it. I love reading the scripts. I get excited about them. The J’s have said that I”m usually the first one to get back to them in the email like, “Oh my god, oh my god.” I love reading them, because they don”t let us in on that much, you know? We”re really guessing in terms of what”s going to happen and what it means and what that could mean, and we”re always conspiring. We”re a bunch of conspiracy theorists among all of us, in hair and makeup, everybody. “Maybe this means this,” and, “Maybe this will happen with Pastor Tim,” and, “I think Paige…” We”re all…
We”re all worried about Pastor Tim.
Alison Wright: Right? But he seems to be doing okay.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com