‘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.

Do you find the wigs useful, or do you mainly find them kind of a necessary evil because this is how he has to look?

Matthew Rhys: It depends. It doesn”t form a scene. It can help you. There”s an element of hindrance to it. I find acting in contact lenses is bizarre to me, because there”s just a giant filter between you and the world. I know it sounds painfully, ridiculously obvious, but it”s true. You”re just so detached.

As you and Alison (Wright) started doing more Martha and Clark scenes together, did you find yourselves wondering how she had not figured out about the wig, before we got to the episode where it turns out she knew all along?

Matthew Rhys: There was so much discussion as to, “Well, during sex there should be a hand slap away” or “Don”t touch my hair, I have a sensitive scalp,” or some line that might allude to why she hadn”t sensed that something wasn”t quite right about his waxy hair.

Have there been any incidents in filming the show where the wig has actually gone askew when it was not meant to?

Matthew Rhys: Oh yes, yes, plenty of times. Usually in fights they come off and if we”re sweaty the lace pops and pins come flying out. All matter of things.

You”ve mastered a pretty good American accent, but do you find yourself varying it from undercover character to character?

Matthew Rhys: It”s funny. We just talked a lot about what the disguises do, and I think ultimately when you”re in disguise, you”re trying to manipulate someone. Therefore, I think the truth should be as close to you as possible. Therefore if you start effecting an enormous voice, different accent and limp, you know, hunchback and all the rest of it, I think you”re endangering yourself to becoming fake. And I think the audience should be with the opposite character going, “Do I believe this person or don”t I?” Would I tell this person the truth or wouldn”t I? Therefore, I think you have to leave it to disguise and be as truthful as possible. Otherwise, it can become cartoonish.

The way the show is structured, there is kind of compartmentalization; it was a big deal in the season 2 finale when you and Arkady had a scene together. How abreast do you try to keep of what is happening in the other parts of the show not related to you?

Matthew Rhys: We”re abreast of it, but it doesn”t inform us. The whole point of illegals is that these units work alone. There wasn”t essentially a strong sense of support. Ultimately, they”re on their own. They”re not gonna be pulled by the Russian government if something goes wrong.

But do you ever find yourself either in script, or later watching the full episode, being surprised to see how the show beyond your part of it appears and what”s happening in it?

Matthew Rhys: I can only watch the other parts. I can”t watch our parts. So I enjoy those parts.

So what are you doing when it”s one of your scenes?

Matthew Rhys: I fast forward it.

So many actors I hear say that. It”s really interesting.

Matthew Rhys: Yeah. Do you reread your articles?

Yeah .

Matthew Rhys: And what do you think?

I usually think it could have been better.

Matthew Rhys: Ta-da! Yes, it”s painful.

I want to go back to Philip”s anger, especially in the “Martial Eagle” episode: “You respect Jesus but not us!” There is so much anger that comes out of you in that moment. What do you remember about filming that and trying to get yourself into that head space?

Matthew Rhys: What I wanted for that is I think Philip is a sort of amiable character; they were picked up when they were 16 years old to do this. They didn”t know who they were, what they believed in. And he”s done this for most of his life. And I think I wanted that to be a pressure point moment where he”s done all this shit, he”s put up with so much, he”s realized he”s probably in a profession he doesn”t want to be in and didn”t want to do, probably doing it for a cause he doesn”t quite believe in. And the only thing that matters to him is his kids. And it”s that thing where you take it out on the one you love most. And I just wanted a crack moment for Philip where it just is too much for him. It”s not really about – the lying isn”t about what”s going on at all. He”s so scared for her at the moment that he just goes, “Listen to me.”

Later in that episode, he goes to the church. What do you think he was intending to do, or do you think he had a plan at all?

Matthew Rhys: I don”t think he knew. I just think he”s in that moment he”s spiraling and he doesn”t quite know what to do. He probably walked away going, “Oh, thank God I didn”t kill him.”

The globalization of American culture is a much bigger deal now than it was when you were growing up in Wales. In this time period, how aware were you of American movies and music and everything else?

Matthew Rhys: My whole childhood is obsessing over America. It was always American television. It was “The A-Team.” It was “Airwolf.” It was “Starsky and Hutch.” The British stuff, we were like, “Pfttt. We want to be Americans.” It was Westerns. You wanted to drink Coca Cola. I wanted to go to a diner. I remember the first time I went to a diner I was like, “Oh my God.” It”s everything like that was so exotic, because it”s what you saw in your living room but you had no idea what it was. So the first time I went to McDonald”s, I felt like an American.

But now revisiting this period in this role for such an extended period of time and wearing the clothes and hearing the references and everything else, do you find yourself feeling differently about the period now?

Matthew Rhys: I don”t. I have great pangs of nostalgia. We have the VCR in the Jennings home that I remembered like the first Betamax and the first VCRs that came out like the eject button was like (he mimes the mechanical sound of a top-loading VCR ejecting). The eject button in the Jennings house like took me back. When I was like, “Oh my God, it”s the age of space.”

I was looking at the wall of current events in Joel and Joe”s office and they were lamenting the fact that Philip and Elizabeth don”t watch a lot of TV. Otherwise, they could work in many more of those things. Because you”re coming up on “The A-Team” premiere. That”s gonna happen during the events of this season.

Matthew Rhys: Oh that would be good. I love “The A-Team.”

Every boy of that age loved “The A-Team.”

Matthew Rhys: I know. That”s what we used to play. We used to go out in the yard and play “A-Team,” and argue over who”s gonna play who.

And who did you wind up being?

Matthew Rhys: I was always quite happy to move through them all because they were all quite (different). I think that was the actor in me: “Oh, I”ll have a go at B.A. today.” “Howling Mad Murdock, what a challenge!”

I”m trying to imagine your B.A.

Matthew Rhys: It was too caricature. But I loved every one of them, so I didn”t have a problem playing any of them. I was never the one going, “Oh, I want to be Hannibal.” So, back to your question, I think that I feel strong links between Philip in that. The research that helped me wasn”t really the espionage stuff, it was the kind of Russia he would have grown up in. And that was another link, a way in for me. I was like, “Who is this guy?” So for him to go this country is great, because the Soviet Union post Second World War was not a very easy place to grow up in. And to me that was the way in. It was like, “It”s pretty good here. We have it pretty good here.” So I can share that same excitement, the sort of Americana that Philip has.

A new episode of “The Americans” airs tonight at 10 on FX.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com