Keri Russell Scorches in FX’s Cold War-Era Thriller The Americans
From: Malibu Magazine April/May 2014
by: Maxwell Williams
“Laundry? Incredibly satisfying,” she says, laughing into the phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York. “Vacuuming? Incredibly satisfying. Bathroom cleaning? Not as good, but the outcome is wonderful. It’s meditative. I do love putting the kids to sleep and then that nice 45 minutes of cleaning with good music and a glass of wine.”
The gulf between Russell’s home life and the life of the woman she plays on TV is as wide as the Siberian Plain. At home, she is the consummate mother of two, a progressive-thinking Brooklynite mom to the core. On television, Russell’s Elizabeth poses, with her husband, Philip (played by a perpetually fretting Matthew Rhys), as a normal nuclear American family. That’s where the similarities end, however. Though also a mother of two, Elizabeth is a highly trained killer, hardened by the torture and abuse she endured in Russia as she was coached to become part of the sleeper-agent duo. Elizabeth has to make split-second decisions about killing or putting her motherland in danger, which makes for gripping, Kalashnikov-paced action.
But, unlike the majority of TV shows that feature car bombs and FBI shootouts, Philip and Elizabeth pay penance, the violence affecting them in ways popular culture has taught us to forget. And that’s just the way Russell, who has mainly portrayed mostly gentle souls, likes it. “Hopefully, we’re more human than spy show,” says Russell, her voice friendly and easy over the phone. “That’s why I was drawn to it, and I hope it stays that way. The point is, especially with Philip, it’s taking its toll, doing these things that are increasingly more dangerous, and his heart isn’t really in it anyway. I guess there are these sorts of people, or shades of these people, out there, and I think it would take its toll.”
The show’s compassion is what grounds it and makes it one of the most special shows on television right now. As Elizabeth and Philip juggle brutal special ops, they’re just as concerned with picking up the kids from school. They’re not supposed to let their two worlds collide, but in one memorable scene, as the duo is en route to carry out a mission, they have a dialogue about purchasing a new car. It’s a seemingly innocuous conversation, broken up by the sudden appearance of their far more extremist superior officer, but it reveals that the humanity of the show resides within the two characters. In the end, the show’s not really about the Cold War so much as these two characters who have been assigned to each other for more than a decade.
“And we do talk about the history a lot, but the stuff that interested me more about the show was more the metaphor the show makes about marriage, and more this season a metaphor on family,” Russell says. “I know that it’s couched in the spy world of 1981, but, to me, it’s very relatable stuff. The spy elements of the show just elevate the stakes and push things much more dramatically than they would in real life, but I feel all of those things are related back to the way I feel in my life in relationships or families, and the buttons we push and how far can we push and how does it affect us.” Certainly, the recent events in Russia have imbued the series with the unintended color of current affairs, but Russell admits that the busy shooting schedule and taking care of her two kids has depleted her NPR listening time, admitting that she’s not as up-to-date as she’d like to be. Nor did she much delve into the more technical aspects of covert operations during the Cold War. The aspects of the Cold War that captivated her were not the moment-to-moment historical time line but the mindset of the Soviet people in the 1980s.
“I did a little bit [of research into Cold War history], but the stuff that I was researching had [more] to do with the human aspect,” says Russell. “I was more intrigued and interested as to what the indoctrination period was for this generation of Russians growing up the way they did. So, I picked up a few Putin biographies. He talked about how hard it was growing up at that time in Russia, with multiple families living together in these one-bedroom apartments. Everything was communal – you did everything for the group and just how that affected this incredibly intense belief system.”
Russell plays Elizabeth with that intense nature ingrained in her, but it’s starting to come apart at the seams. Her time in America seeps through into her character’s comportment. Elizabeth’s newfound appreciation for a market economy includes a love of air conditioning. And it’s not surprising that her secret life is starting to fray — spend enough time in a place, and you’ll inevitably adapt and take on that place’s characteristics.
To that end, one of the more intriguing aspects of the show is that, while on American soil, Philip and Elizabeth aren’t allowed to speak a lick of Russian, so even their kids are oblivious to their deception. It’s interesting timing on the show and in real life, because Russell’s own eldest child, River, is just now starting to figure out how to decode his mother’s hidden life.
“One of the biggest things I’m dealing with right now is that my son can read,” says Russell about her inability to keep secrets from her children. “He can read anything. He reads appointments that are written down, he reads what’s on your phone. So, that’s a huge new world for me. There’s no more spelling out secret things bad or good” that are going to happen to hide it from him. So, literacy is a big problem at our house.”
It may be innocuous fun as Russell has to dodge her son’s cognizance in real life, but secrets and deceptions play out with consequence on the show, causing the tensions between Elizabeth and Philip to frequently run high. The two spies have been forced together, having never met in Russia, to start this new life as KGB agents in America. Somewhere along the way, they develop affections for one another, throwing a monkey wrench into the whole death-before-dishonor thing. More than once, the characters have gotten jealous or taken risks to save their spouse at the expense of the mission. They have built a bond, but it is strained by work — something everyone can relate to.
‘At its best, when the show and the writing and everything are really working, I think it’s so interesting,” says Russell. “Anyone who’s been in a relationship longer than two years, married or not — or even a business partnership — [knows that] relationships are so complicated. I love the idea that they didn’t know each other, and that they’re in this marriage, which essentially is not real [but] then they do end up falling in love. [The show explores] how that is, for people who’ve known each other for so long, [to] then slowly fall in love with each other and how that affects their work.”
Some of the work involves being a “honey pot,” which is espionage slang for seducing someone sexually in order to get them to drop their guard. For instance, in the show, Philip, in disguise as “Clark,” leads a second life with a CIA secretary named Martha, from whom he gathers important information. In the latest episode, we see Elizabeth, also in disguise as “C1ark’s sister,” have to choke down the information that Martha thinks Clark is a wildcat in bed, something Elizabeth isn’t privy to.
“You meet [your partners] co-workers, and they’re like, ‘Oh, so- and-so’s so funny at work,’ or, ‘So-and-so loves this,’ and as the partner, you think, ‘Oh, they’re not like that at home. That’s weird,”’ says Russell. “I think everyone can relate to that, and it’s compounded for Philip and Elizabeth with the idea of using sexuality. Philip is very aggressive sexually with Martha, and now that Elizabeth’s in love with him, she thinks, ‘Well, why isn’t he like that with me?’ Because things are different with every person. I think that would be true, sexually, and she’s curious, wounded. She says, ‘I want ‘Clark.’ I want you to be like that with me.’ It’s dark. And he thinks it’s so weird, and it’s this blurry, weird thing. They try it, and then it’s awful, and it ends really badly. I’m not saying that every married couple goes out to have sex with other people, but we are different with other people. I think those are questions that people ask themselves. ‘How are you when you’re not with me? And how is it different than when you’re with me?”
It’s Russell’s even-keeled handling of these types of tautly dramatic scenes that earned the actress a nomination for best drama actress at last year’s Critics’ Choice Television Awards, but it’s the elaborately choreographed–and convincing–action sequences that hearken back to her teenage years growing up in Colorado when she danced competitively “I would finish school and, I had a scholarship at this studio I would dance in, so I would dance there until sometimes 9 o’clock at night,” says Russell. “The weekends were spent dancing, too, going to competitions and doing little shows.”
It’s also during these action sequences that Elizabeth displays a brutality that is at odds with the more wholesome characters she’s previously played on TV and in film. She got her start on Disney’s family-friendly The Mickey Mouse Club after attending an open call in Colorado, which led her down to Orlando where she joined the same crew as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling. Of course, it may have been Disney, but the lesson learned with Russell time and time again is: Nothing is as it seems. Though she’s fresh-faced and chipper on the show, Russell admits to some behind-the-scenes misbehavior.
“[I was] pretty bad,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t be deceived by The Mickey Mouse Club; there were a lot of shenanigans happening. I won’t speak for others, but I had my moments for sure.”
After her roguish days as a Mouseketeer were up, Russell decided to move to L.A. to pursue a career in acting. She slogged for a few years with bit parts on sitcoms (Married With Children, Boy Meets World) and Lifetime movies (The Babysitter’s Seduction, When Innocence Is Lost before finding herself at an audition for the part of a particularly affable young student dealing with the foibles of college life in New York.
“I remember auditioning for Felicity, and all of us were standing outside,” recalls Russell. “We were all 20 years old, standing in these big lines, and I remember one girl saying, ‘It’s so sad. Everything about it is so sad.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I think it’s so funny’ It’s sad to her, but it’s really ridiculous what she’s doing.”
She credits this ability to read [Felicity’s co-creators] J.J. Abrams’ and Matt Reeves’ writing as a reason she got the part.
“There are certain people whose words just ?t better into your mouth,” she says. “I think [Abrams] is really good at walking that line of writing something that’s really true, but it’s funny at the same time. Funny and sad, which is my favorite combination. I feel the same way with Matt Reeves. It’s just a spirit. I just like him so much, and we’ve continued to all be in touch.”
Felicity with its awkward and self-destructive but ultimately endearing lead character, ended up being one of the most beloved TV shows in history, earning Russell a Golden Globe Award for best actress in a television series drama. And it’s still regarded as seminal: A few years ago, Entertainment Weekly called Felicity one of the 100 best TV characters of the past 20 years. Russell says she is still recognized on the street.
“Being on TV is such an intimate thing because you’re part of people’s homes,” she explains. “That character was so thoughtful and sweet, and people really feel a certain way about that character, so they’re always incredibly nice to me, by the way. I can’t imagine what it must be like to play a child molester or a drug addict. I bet the reaction is so different. Mostly, people will come up to me and say, ‘Did I go to school with you? You look so familiar.’ [Laughs.] ‘In a way, you did.’ But people don’t say it as much anymore. It was a long time ago. We’re all old now. But I love when people talk about it. It was a beloved experience by me as well, especially since it’s so long ago now that it’s nice to talk about.”
Russell is thankful that she did Felicity at a time before the prevalence of Internet gossip and overbearing paparazzi.
“All the kids who would be that age that I was then — I can’t imagine going through that now,” she says. “I’m so thankful I wasn’t a teenager during all the crazy stuff. It’s so hard.”
She pauses, thinking back to the uproar created between seasons two and three of Felicity, when Abrams convinced Russell to cut her signature flowing ringlets into a sassy super-short ’do. Ratings fell that season, which led The New York Times to blame the decline on the haircut.
“Oh my god, right,” she says laughing. “[Having the hair controversy] happen now would be intense. Although maybe it wouldn’t be because there’s so much more salacious stuff these days. Maybe a haircut is no big deal anymore because there are all these sex videos. Is a haircut the biggest thing that’s going on? It’s true [that they still talk about the wigs on The Americans], so maybe hair is still a topic. People really like to talk about hair. We love hair. Can’t get over it.”
After Felicity ended, Russell, burned out by all the attention, packed up and moved to New York where she took a few years off from acting, a decision she cites as being one of the best in her life. After her sabbatical, she threw herself back into acting, scoring a role in J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III (2006) alongside Tom Cruise. Even more recently, she reconnected with her other Felicity collaborator Matt Reeves on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second of the rebooted Planet of the Apes origin series, due out in May. In the film, Russell plays a member of a small group of humans that remain after a deadly virus has wiped out most of the beings on Earth. She embarks on an adventure with six other people and a group of apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis).
“We’re in the woods, and we’re just trying to coexist, and will we see eye-to-eye or will we not? We’ve basically lost everyone, and this is all who’s left, and [we have to] make these relationships with the people who are left,” Russell says. “[My character has] some small medical knowledge, so that’s kind of what’s kept [her] important in the circle. I’m Jason Clarke’s character’s girlfriend, so to speak, in a makeshift family, and someone who relates to Andy Serkis’ character.”
The post-apocalyptic undertones of the film aren’t lost on Russell, who notes a trend toward a return to self-sufficiency, perhaps in preparedness for something like an Earth-shattering viral outbreak.
“Even living in Brooklyn — for the love of god — I have chickens in my backyard,” she says. “People are making their own pickles or cheese and making their own whiskey, and everyone’s very much into self-sustaining foods. It is funny; it’s all kind of about trying to take care of yourself.” For her part, Russell is ready to take another self-preservation-style break in between this–she just barely wrapped shooting The Americans– and her next role, which is as yet undetermined.
“Finishing up a last little week of press,” she says about her immediate future. “Then I’m a free bird, theoretically, until [The Americans] were to be picked up again, which would not be until the fall. This summer, I don’t think I’m going to take any other jobs. I’m ready for some travel and some friends and cooking at home and laundry.”
Russell laughs at the mention of laundry — but it makes sense. The Americans may be an action-packed thriller about spies and a covert Russo-American war being played out on American soil, but at its heart, it is a story about domesticity, relationships and the struggle to be honest. And if laundry is Russell’s thing, who’s to argue?
See the pictures