Taking place in D.C., in 1981 at the height of the Reagan-era Cold War, FX’s The Americans follows The Jennings family; a suburban unit of four headed up by Phillip and Elizabeth – two KGB sleeper agents. Being both an espionage thriller and a family drama, The Americans stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as the two assimilated spies who live their lives like normal, average U.S. citizens, having to make hard decisions about their loyalty to their kids, each other and The Soviet Union.
The producers and stars of The Americans appeared at the TCA Press Tour to field questions and talk about the history behind their new series. “From the ’30s on to the present, the Soviets and Russian intelligence agencies ran what were called ‘illegals,’ or this type of sleeper agent, in the United States,” explained creator and executive producer, Joe Weisberg. “They played an important part in penetrating the Manhattan Project and getting the plans for the atom bomb from the United States. We don’t know everything about what they did, but they were always out there. They were a little bit different from a Philip and Elizabeth. They didn’t always speak perfect English without an accent, but they did live among us posing as Americans and people like that.”
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans.
Weisberg also talked about how real political events will take shape within the series. “The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan took place just 60 days after he was inaugurated,” he said, “so we’ve got that to deal with, and that’s going to be a big event in their lives, because their whole job is to be in the United States while trying to deal with things like that. So you’ve got your real events. And then you’ve got the secret history of clandestine activity during the Cold War, some of which is known and some of which isn’t. For example, when Al Haig in that same famous event said, ‘I’m in charge here.’ As we were looking into that, we discovered that one thing that actually happened was he got a copy of the nuclear football. He didn’t just say, ‘I’m in charge.’ He went to his people and said, ‘If I’m going to be in charge, I have to make sure I can launch nuclear missiles.’ You know, that’s terrifying and extremely relevant to Philip and Elizabeth whose country is in a kind of danger it’s probably never been in. So that’s a true event for us to deal with.”
“And then there’s a clandestine history that really nobody knows about,” Weisberg continued, “and there we’ve got events that we can sort of make up but position as true. So those are kind of the three levels that we’ve got to deal with in our show. And mostly what we want to do is kind of mix and match them in a way that feels real and is fun.”
Political and nuclear crises aside, most of the drama on The Americans will stem from the fact that, having been put together as a couple – in an “arranged marriage” – Phillip and Elizabeth have different ideas about their mission, their children and, it turns out, their opinions of America. Phillip has taken notice of America, not seeing it as the evil country his superiors think it is, whereas Elizabeth remains more hard-lined, always ready to sacrifice herself for Russia. In fact, in the pilot episode, Elizabeth has a rather brutal fight with another agent, kicking his head through a wall. The diminutive Russell, who doesn’t usually play such badass characters, was asked about this. “It was terrible to do,” she laughed. “The guy who I actually kicked in the head actually looked at me before. He said he could see that I was nervous to do it. And there was no pad. I’m kicking his head into the wall. He said he looked at me, 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. Just do it, and do it hard.’”
“I think we would all very much like both for Philip and Elizabeth to have a happy, healthy marriage that goes on for a long time,” Weisberg added. “From the start, it’s going to have a lot of ups and downs like most of the marriages that we’re all familiar with. And then in the Cold War, although it might be a little bit difficult to believe and get used to, we want you to root for the KGB.”
The Americans premieres on January 30th at 10pm on FX.
Follow Matt Fowler on Twitter at @TheMattFowler