Matthew Rhys on ‘The Americans,’ the Family Dynamic, and What Drives Philip

Matthew Rhys on The Americans, Philip, and the Family
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings in ‘The Americans’ (Photo by James Minchin / FX)

Matthew Rhys says season three of FX’s award-winning series The Americans will focus on Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship and their disagreement over the KGB’s desire to bring Paige into the fold. Philip will also remain busy attempting to keep Martha (Alison Wright) blissfully unaware that their marriage is fake while pumping her for secrets. Rhys promises season three, which kicks off on January 28, 2015 at 10pm ET/PT, won’t disappoint fans of the series who are invested in Philip, Elizabeth, and the entire Jennings family. And in a conference call in support of the new season, he talked about what fans of the critically acclaimed series can expect and Philip’s evolution over the three seasons. He also revealed what he’d like to see happen to Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) when the show ultimately comes to an end.

What are the most challenging and the easiest aspects of playing Philip?

Matthew Rhys: “I’m still figuring out if there is indeed an easy part to playing him. I suppose the more enjoyable is that he continues to be as layered and rich and complex as he has been from the beginning. The harder part for me is to land him in a place of reality, somewhere that’s real for me and hopefully real for an audience in that someone who has to juggle, in its reference, and keep as many sort of plates in the air as Philip does, but sort of the pressure that that would bring, it’s landing that in a real place. For me, it’s the sort of hardest balancing act.”

Can you talk about how the conflict over Paige joining the KGB is going to affect their marriage and affect the family in season three?

Matthew Rhys: “Yes, it’s sort of the predominant and overriding arc for Philip and Elizabeth during this season, which is this enormous conflict between them that sets them poles apart, really, as they come from two opposing sides as to what should be done about Paige. Really, the entire season is that grapple and that wrestle between the two as they thrash it out.”

What’s driving Philip’s belief that he really wants to keep his daughter out of this business?

Matthew Rhys: “I think a number of things. I think, ultimately, as we’ve seen a flashback in one and two, Philip and Elizabeth were children when they were picked, you know? They were in their late teenage years and I think heavily indoctrinated. Really, you look back at your own age, you’re not very sure who you are at that time. He’s found himself in a vocation that he really didn’t choose in a way; I think it was kind of chosen for him in a way, thrust upon him, and he’s evolving at a time and bursting out at a time when he realized it probably isn’t the life that he would have chosen nor is it the life he wants, and the same applies heavily for his daughter.

He doesn’t want her pushed into something at such a young, vulnerable, impressionable age whereby in a few years she’s in up over her head because it’s not a job you can quit overnight or walk away from. He doesn’t want her to have to do the many awful things that he has to do in order to stay alive and, therefore, keep the family alive.”

How is working with Frank Langella and what’s coming up with his character?

Matthew Rhys: “Yes. It’s sort of like having a silverback gorilla come onto the set in the best way possible. He’s this dominant, physical, mental, emotional, presence that kind of stiffens and straightens everyone’s back and lifts everyone’s game, certainly. The premise in which they set him, him being influential and instrumental in the training of Philip and Elizabeth, is sort of great because it gives you instant history that he just does effortlessly. He has this commanding presence that builds a great conflict between them all.

Working with him has been fantastic as he turned up with this natural presence and he is ready to listen, he’s ready to play, and he plays at a very high standard, which makes it exciting for us.”

How does his presence affect Philip and Elizabeth?

Matthew Rhys: “In the same way I think Philip feels a little isolated in the fact that Frank and Elizabeth – Gabriel and Elizabeth – are obviously the more staunch diehards of the party and the mission and the party come before anything else, and he’s very onboard for bringing Paige into the fold whereas Philip isn’t and feels a great sense of betrayal. What happens is Philip is isolated from the two of them and feels betrayed, and that is sort of the bigger arc for him and Gabriel, that sort of sense of betrayal and conflict in the fact that he doesn’t want his daughter to follow his footsteps.”

What do you think it would take to change Philip’s mind or do you think that he’s staunch in his belief that Paige should not follow in her parents’ footsteps?

Matthew Rhys: “I think he’s absolutely immovable in that respect. There’s nothing on God’s green earth that could make him acquiesce to the fact that she should join the KGB or, indeed, the intelligence world.”

Philip thinks Paige is young and impressionable and she’s going into the church and she’s following that religious life and that’s changing her at a young age. What do you think is the reasoning behind Philip not wanting her to be involved with either the KGB or the church?

Matthew Rhys: “Well, if you look at the lives, really, when they’re killing people and having sex with them for intelligence as opposed to a sort of – yes, it’s secular in one way, but ultimately it’s a communal, supportive group that has a strong belief, which is the same, but there’s no risk of being killed or hurt or imprisoned as a direct result of your job. I think there’s great responsibility, there’s great guilt, I think, on Philip and Elizabeth’s part as she joined the church group because if you notice…well you don’t even notice, it’s blatantly obvious…they’ve been absent parents in their children’s lives up until this point. It’s a very real reason why she’s sort of sought that support and that comfort from a group elsewhere. I think children tend to find the rebellion of the opposition of what their parents want. For them, it was the church.

Given the choice, this could be anything like any teenage had. In a couple years’ time she might say, ‘That wasn’t for me,’ and then you know, no harm done whereas I’m sure to join the KGB or anything related in that sense, that’s it. Once you’re in, that’s it. There’s no turning back.”

We’ve seen a pretty major difference between who Philip is as a spy and also who he wants to be as a person. Do you think it’s possible that the character of Clark is actually closer to who Philip sees himself as outside of the spy world?

Matthew Rhys: “That’s a very good question. I would agree. Yes, I think he’s arrived at a place in his life where it’s exactly what he does want. He does want a sort of domestic contentment. He wants a simpler life within a healthy working relationship where there’s sort of mutual respect. And, yes, there’s a large element of Clark and Martha that serves that.”

We’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth do some pretty horrible things for their country. At this point do you think there’s anywhere that they would draw the line, that there’s something that they just wouldn’t do?

Matthew Rhys: “I mean, it was pretty tough for Philip to agree to sort of follow-on with the operation and the seduction of this 15-year-old. I think if for some reason there was an order to come through to sort of harm or terminate a minor, then I would imagine that would be something that he probably wouldn’t carry out.”

In the new season’s first episode we see that Philip actually has a more pragmatic approach to the deaths around him. Last season we saw how he sort of derailed emotionally because of that. Can you talk about his emotional shift?

Matthew Rhys: “I think it was a combination of things that came to a head last year. Philip has kind of sat on so many enormous emotions for so long that it basically built and built and built and it erupted in that moment with Paige. Paige has been on the receiving end of it. It’s all about Paige but nothing to do with Paige, you know what I mean? She received the wrath of it.

I think in a sense, in some ways it was a minor breakdown on Philip’s behalf that he’s now recovered from and he has some distance and some perspective on it and realizes that it’s just now something he has to accept. It affected him enormously up until that point. Since then, he viciously disagrees with it but he accepts it now as a part, as a bigger picture. It’s basically to keep himself, his wife and his family alive and then it’s a necessary, an enormous necessary evil in that greater picture.”

What are you most excited about for season three?

Matthew Rhys: “To me, what was always exciting was when I first read the first pilot of this, at its heart, the most alluring for me was this incredibly complex relationship, at its heart, and how that would resolve and manifest itself. That’s what’s always of interest to me. I think this year the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth about Paige, it’s sort of the more extreme version of what so many marriages and relationships go through in the raising of children. It’s the absolute conflict that interests me, like how it will resolve itself and the very rocky journey of getting there.”

Do you think all of this attention they’re focusing on Paige is affecting Henry in some way?

Matthew Rhys: “I do. There’s this kind of deliberate sort of silent watching and listening from Henry throughout the season; I’m very interested as to how that will manifest itself in him. It’s clearly that kind of absence he feels and the sort of dysfunction and the distance, I’m sure he feels will have to sort of come out in some way, form or another. I look forward to seeing that.”

We haven’t really glimpsed much of Philip’s early life. Is that something we’re going to see more of or do you personally have a backstory as an actor for that?

Matthew Rhys: “I do have a backstory for it which sort of helps me in the way I kind of create my world for Philip. I don’t think it is, not this season, because this season is very much Elizabeth’s and the relationship with her mother, which obviously parallels and mirrors that with Paige and the way it informs the relationship with Paige. That’s a great focused moment.

God willing, if we do get a fourth season then maybe we’ll see some of Philip’s more miss-spent psychedelic days.”

Do you and Philip share much in common?

Matthew Rhys: “I’ve always appraised any character I approach with, basically, the characteristics should be built up of myself. I’m always interested in the truth of the character and the way I bring a truth to the character to make him, I hate to say, but it’s your own make up that you bring to the character. It’s rare that you see anyone play a great extremity in this day and age because only the big stars get to have the chameleon stretches that they want, but more often than not you’re kind of cast in the way that you are. More often than not, I think with television writing, as the first season unfolds, writers will tend to start writing to your own characteristics.

I think in that respect, when things evolve, naturally they see the family orientation and the rest of it, the more humanity of Philip. I like to think that those are characteristics that I share heavily with him, the same kind of hatred of the deaths that happen. There’s a lot of me in Philip, even though I’m watching now.”


Philip seems to get laid more than any television character…

Matthew Rhys: [Laughing] “That’s based on my life as well.”

As an actor, does it get any easier doing sex scenes?

Matthew Rhys: “No. It never gets comfortable. It never gets to a point where you go, ‘Oh, this is normal, this is natural.’ You’re simulating sex with 40 of your closest friends. It’s bizarre, the random bizarreness of it. Then it’s magnified when you have to do the gymnastics of the Kama Sutra as well. It’s never – I’d answer with never. It’s not close to a place where I can go, ‘Oh, great, another sex scene. That will be normal.’ It’s the opposite for me.”

The character of Martha is determined to have a future with Clark despite all the warning signs of him not being available. How much longer do you think that this ruse can last?

Matthew Rhys: “I think Philip is very aware that it can’t sustain itself. He can’t keep at arm’s length and fobbing her off and leading her down a certain garden path about having children and the rest of it when really I think it affects him enormously, the sort of playing with her emotions. But I think he knows full well that it’s like his life in a way. It can’t sustain itself and ultimately something will have to give, and more often than not, undoubtedly, it will be with relatively disastrous consequences.”

Do you think at the show’s end – hopefully many seasons from now – it’s more likely they’ll get captured and possibly killed or do you think there’s a chance they could actually defect?

Matthew Rhys: “My hope is that they do defect. Philip mentioned that in the first episode of the first season. I think that’s something that remained with him very closely until now and that’s really the absolute only way he could guarantee the safe future of his children. To me, I would love to see them defect.”

Would you say that Philip fell in love with Elizabeth from the moment he saw her or was he just more open to it because he was obviously more open to it being real than she was?

Matthew Rhys: “No, I’m a romantic in that sense. I do think that he fell in love with her in the beginning. Yes, so yes is the short answer. I think he is emotionally a lot more available and open, and that doesn’t serve him well in this business at times.”

Is it harder for him to shut that down than when he has to go into the field?

Matthew Rhys: “It is, it is. I think it takes its toll sort of deep down with Philip. I think it does affect him and as we’ve seen it’s a problem that comes back. It’s sort of the return of the repressed. It comes back to haunt him.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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