By JUDY SLOANE
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Television viewers were first introduced to Keri Russell when she was chosen by J.J. Abrams to star in the title role of “Felicity,” a college student attending the University of New York.
Her new character, Elizabeth Jennings on the F/X series “The Americans,” premiering on cable’s FX at 10 p.m. (ET/PT) January 30, is starkly different. Set in 1980 in Washington D.C., Elizabeth appears to be the loving wife to Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), and mother to their two children, 13-year-old Paige and 10-year-old Henry. But their marriage was arranged, and she and Philip are in fact Russian spies, working for the KGB, posing as Americans.
Elizabeth’s life becomes more complicated when her husband suddenly shows a new affinity for American values and way of life, and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent, becomes their new neighbor.
Russell, 36, recently spoke at the TV Critics Tour about her intriguing new series.
Q: What was it about this series or role that captivated you?
Russell: I read the script multiple times before I said yes. What kept bubbling up to the surface for me was Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship. There’s a scene in the laundry room, where they’re fighting, and I know they’re spies and that they’re fighting about these huge issues between America and Russia, but to me it’s the same fight every married couple face. ‘Why can’t you do it my way for once?’ Everyone knows what that feels like, and that is at its heart when the series is at its best to me.
Q: Now that you’re part of the show, are you curious what direction it will take?
Russell: You’re wondering how are they going to survive it together? Is she going to turn him in because she cares so much about being true to herself? Can she compromise that, which is so essential to her core? It’s the relationship, and I think that’s the most relatable thing and I hope that continues.
Q: How much did you know about Elizabeth’s former life in Russia?
Russell: We’re finding it out as we’re going along. I think it’s important that her father died fighting in Stalingrad. She had definitely that kind of hero worship you have when a parent is lost early and you don’t know them, or all their faults and their misgivings. I think that is a very strong influence.
Q: Is she a better spy than her husband?
Russell: I think in a way she’s a better spy because she compartmentalizes things. And when she is being a better spy, she’s being a better mom because she’s not endangering her kids. If she’s captured then her kids could be taken away from her.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode yet?
Russell: In an episode that I really like, you find out that Elizabeth does have a sexual life elsewhere in a capacity in which she can manage. She’s not the cold-hearted, frigid lady, and it’s very intriguing.
Q: There’s a scene where you kick a man into a wall. Can you talk about that moment?
Russell: Yeah. It was terrible to do. The guy who I actually kicked in the head look at me before, and he said he could see that I was nervous to do it. So he grabbed me and said, ‘Listen, do it, and do it right because if you mess it up, we’re going to have to do it again, and then I’m going to be pissed.’ I just had to shut the world out and do it. The cool part of this job is experiencing that kind of masculine aggression.
Q: How do the fights scenes like that inform your character?
Russell: There’s a masculine rawness to Elizabeth, and it helps immensely to be able to do those fights scenes first and then do the scenes right after them. There’s a difference in your voice, it’s much lower, you’re exhausted. It’s more of a growl. In fact, we had to reshoot a quick scene because of the lighting, and I heard my voice and I thought, “Oh, that’s a terrible voice,” because there’s something when you’re fighting, pushing and kicking guys heads in the wall, it’s just more animalistic. It’s a cool place to come from.
Q: Is there anything about the ’80s that you like?
Russell: I think we’re doing a very nice version of it. I’m trying to do less of the shoulder pads and perms and more of the silk shirts, gold chains and Jordache jeans.
Q: Is Elizabeth’s existence, always playing a character, like being in a series for her whole life?
Russell: Yes, it must be exhausting.
Q: Can you imagine playing Felicity for the rest of your life?
Russell: (She laughs.) No. The idea of being a spy, what I think is interesting is you see this girl giving this guy a blow job, all sexed out, then you see her the next morning making lunches and living in the minutiae of being a mom.
Q: Do you think viewers—especially female viewers—will be able to relate to Elizabeth?
Russell: I know that not every mom is a secret KGB spy, but every person has this whole other life. You have no idea what gets them going, how they get up, what secrets they’re hiding, what’s shameful to them, and that, I think, is what is very universally relatable and what I hope this show does well.