In the opening scene of The Americans, Joe Weisberg’s tense new 1980s spy drama, Soviet sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) flirts with a middle-aged stranger in a Washington, D.C., bar.
Donning a blond Pretty Woman-style wig and a short dress, Russell is nearly unrecognizable, convincingly transformed into a barfly who pretends to be turned on by a G-man’s security clearance. Elizabeth and her mark head to a hotel room, where she proceeds to seduce him in order to elicit top-secret information, engaging in a range of sexual contact that’s all recorded and later listened to by Elizabeth’s husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys).
In other words, this is the anti-Felicity.
“Oh, yeah, blow jobs and push-up bras and wigs,” says Russell, laughing. “It’s certainly a far cry.”
It’s January, and Russell sits demurely on a couch at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. The 36-year-old actress is animated and excited, prone to waving her hands and pounding her fists emphatically on her knees while talking. It’s impossible to believe that it’s been more than 10 years since Russell played Felicity Porter on The WB’s beloved coming-of-age drama Felicity between 1998 and 2002. In the time since Felicity wrapped, Russell segued into a movie career, starring in the late Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 Sundance favorite Waitress, Mission: Impossible 3 (which reunited Russell with Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams), and a slew of others. (A brief return to television, as the female lead opposite Will Arnett in Mitch Hurwitz’s 2010 Fox comedy Running Wilde, was short-lived.)
In person, Russell is warm and open, nothing like the character she plays on The Americans, which begins Wednesday night on FX. While she’s all high-waisted jeans and smiles on the surface—the perfect portrait of 1980s suburban motherhood who brings over home-baked brownies to her new neighbors—Elizabeth is, underneath, a brutal and unflinching killer who believes in the mission given to her and her “husband” by their Russian overseers.
It’s a bit ironic that Russell is now playing a spy. After Felicity, Abrams went on to create the Jennifer Garner-led ABC espionage thriller Alias, the idea for which grew out of a writers’ room discussion about what it would be like if Felicity became a spy. (Alias would make a star out of former Felicity guest star Garner and become an international hit.) But while Alias featured a spy who was one of the good guys, The Americans’ Elizabeth is anything but on the side of the angels.
Given the hard line she takes against what she sees as the “weakness” of the West, Elizabeth shouldn’t be sympathetic, and yet Russell infuses her with an unbreakable will and an alluring complexity. Surprisingly, Russell finds similarities between killer assassin Elizabeth Jennings and navel-gazing Felicity Porter, who threw away her acceptance to Stanford to follow a boy (Scott Speedman) to New York.
“Even though that was a gazillion years ago, as much as Felicity had all these big feelings, she—like Elizabeth, in a way—had struggled with showing them or maybe showed them at inappropriate times,” Russell says. “Elizabeth has so shut down all of her feelings, which is so much fun for me to play because that’s obviously not what I normally do. Phillip is the more relatable, accessible, lighthearted, loving one, and it’s interesting for me to get to be the one who compartmentalizes sexuality and emotion. I think it’s cool, and I think those women are cool.”
Indeed, Elizabeth’s relationship with Phillip is one of the show’s strongest and most compelling throughlines. As much as The Americans is seemingly an espionage thriller, it’s also a provocative marital drama, one that uses the spy world as a prism through which to view the shifting gender politics of the time as well as the struggles that any couple faces.
“The best part of the show is the dynamic of the relationship and how strange—outside of the spy issue—it is,” says Russell. “It’s just these two people going, ‘Why can’t you do it my way? Do it my fucking way for once.’ That’s every marriage alive.”
Paired together for their never-ending mission, Elizabeth and Phillip have forged a life that includes two children and a seemingly idyllic existence in Falls Church, Va. But they’re strangers who know nothing of one another’s pasts, nor even their true names, and they live each day with the fear of being unmasked.
“You do get to couch it in spy stuff, so there’s the threat of being outed, the threat of your kids being left alone for their whole lives, sleeping with other people,” Russell says. “It raises the stakes, but I think that’s all the extraneous stuff. The interesting core is the relationship and the idea that this person is chosen for you when you’re a kid, and then 15 years later you look at them and go, ‘OK, well, could I? Maybe I do like this person,’ and being able to fall in love.”
Which reads, on some levels, as yet another kind of arranged marriage, a comparison Russell agrees with.
“It’s absolutely an arranged marriage, and I think she loves him like that,” she says. “But isn’t there always someone in the relationship that sort of loves the other person a little bit more? My friend’s mom, who is from the South, used to always say, ‘He should always love you a little bit more, honey.’ That’s very relatable. There usually is someone who is a little more invested…In her case, she has stuff. She’s closed off. Someone who just watched [the show], said to me, ‘Why won’t she just let him love her?’ And it’s true.”
But the fears Elizabeth faces, Russell maintains, are identifiable and accessible when you put aside the kidnapping, murder, and ruthless behavior. While Phillip and Elizabeth’s lives are far more dangerous than the average viewer’s, the show taps into primal emotions.
“There are universal fears whether you are a spy or not,” says Russell. “What if we get divorced? Is that going to be so damaging? What if you fuck my best friend?…Even though it’s spy stuff, it’s transferrable to ‘Are we doing the right thing for our family? Are we raising them with the values we want to impress on them?’ It doesn’t have to be spy, Cold War, Russia, America. That’s where I enter it, but [creator] Joe Weisberg will be like, ‘No, wrong. Definitely wrong. That’s not what I’m thinking at all.’”
Along with The Americans, Russell has two films coming out this year: a supernatural thriller called Dark Skies (to be released in February) and Jerusha Hess’s Austenland, a parody of costume dramas that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became a crowd favorite.
In the latter, Russell plays a Jane Austen-obsessed career woman who heads to an adult theme park based on the works of the Pride & Prejudice author to find her ideal mate. Of Russell’s performance in the film, The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern wrote: “The film is … anchored beautifully by Russell who, as she exhibited in Waitress and for years on Felicity is an actor who inspires such a tremendous degree of good will, you can’t help but root for her.”
It’s true in The Americans as well. In real life, Russell is a mother. She and her husband, carpenter Shane Deary, have two children—a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter—and she says she relates to the notion of secret lives, and that a woman is more than just an extension of her kids.
“You see the character of Elizabeth fucking that guy in the hotel room, doing this very aggressive, sexual, deceitful thing with this guy,” she says. “But then you also get to see her the morning after, making the school lunches … I make the school lunches and I show up and bring cupcakes to preschool and drop the kids off at a play date. But I have a whole world that happens to me outside of that.”
“That is what is relatable about this, getting to see the two worlds,” Russell continues. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if [mothers] were all just combing hair, doing braids, dropping cupcakes off, and buying bras with their daughters? But guess what? That ain’t the way it goes.”