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Noah Emmerich on Season 2 of The Americans and Stan’s Original Backstory

In many ways, The Americans' FBI agent Stan Beeman is worse off than the KGB operatives we all know are doomed to lose the Cold War. Not only is he so far off the trail of Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, his personal life is a mess. His years as an undercover agent have left him estranged him from his family, his partner was killed, and now he’s fallen for his Russian informant Nina who, unbeknownst to him, has turned double agent. Or has she? “No, she’s still totally in love with Stan,” laughs Noah Emmerich — but he's not entirely kidding. Ahead of tonight’s season-two premiere of the FX spy drama, Vulture spoke with the actor about whether Nina’s really playing him and how the writers have avoided making Stan look totally incompetent.

Not sure if you know, but our critic Matt Zoller Seitz named you 2013's dramatic performer of the year.
I know. That was the nicest thing ever. I’m embarrassed now. I’m not good at taking compliments, but that was like heaven. No one even realizes he’s my brother.

Heading into this season, Stan’s in a precarious position.
God, yes.

But at least Nina’s still alive.
Everyone was nervous about that. Everyone kept thinking she was going to get killed. I didn’t know certainly, but my intuition was that we weren’t going to lose Annet Mahendru. She’s too good.

Do you think she’s just working Stan now? Does she still care for him?
I think the ambiguity of that is really critical. No one can really know for sure, not from Stan’s point of view or Nina’s. These are the sort of grays that I think should never be answered too explicitly. Even if you could ask the characters, I don’t know that they could give you a real answer. We’re complicated animals. Like Nina says to Stan in season one, “You Americans think everything is black and white. We know it’s gray.” I think there are definitely real feelings and real exploitation there. Where the balance lies is ever-changing.

Either way, I feel for him. He’s got a family, but he’s the loneliest character on the show.
He spent three years before we met him undercover with this white supremacist group, which is a horrifying backstory. We don’t know too many details about it, but it was clearly traumatic for him. It estranged him from his wife and his family. Now he’s in D.C., finally with a chance to maybe live a normal life, but in fact it’s even more complex and secretive now that he’s with the FBI. He can’t share anything with his wife. Nina is someone on a very visceral level who understands him, even if they’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I think he sees a young version of himself in her, someone a little lost, heading down a treacherous path. There’s a part of him that thinks he can help her.

Did you see that relationship coming?
I was shocked more than anyone the first time they had Stan kiss Nina. I thought, Oh my God. It totally turned my world upside down and shifted my perception of the character. Under any normal circumstance, he would be the hero of this show. I don’t know this for sure, but I think you have to diminish Stan’s sympathetic-ness to some degree or the audience would be really rooting too much against Phillip and Elizabeth. Stan has cheated on his wife and he kills this puppy-eyed KGB agent.

Ha! I did feel bad for Vlad. He was enjoying his burger.
Vlad was a Soviet spy working to bring down America and all anyone really remembers is this sweet, young kid who wanted to be a doctor and that I killed him. It makes you nauseous, this show. [Laughs.] You can’t figure out who you’re supposed to empathize with.

Nina’s been tasked with turning Stan. Do you think that’s possible?
I don’t think he would do anything that would be detrimental to his country. I mean, that’s what he’s given his life to. Here’s a man who really has sacrificed so much of his personal life for what he considers to be a noble, higher cause.

But if he really falls for her?
It could get messy, yeah. That will actually be explored this season to some degree. He certainly is incentivized to protect her and to help her. If that infringes upon his notion of patriotism or duty, it’s a question of how deeply it infringes upon that and how much he’s willing to trade for her. We get into that.

Any chance we’ll see any of Stan's backstory the way we’ve gotten glimpses of Philip and Elizabeth’s?
Well, we know he comes from this dark place, and I think on some level that serves the character really well. Deflating that tension bubble, I’m not in any rush to do that, personally. I sort of lobbied the writers to not go into my backstory in too much detail yet. Curiosity is a valuable feeling to have in an audience. So, you know, hold on to that as long as you can before you dissipate it. It’s a lean forward. You don’t want to know what’s in that black box, necessarily.

How much did you know about where Stan was headed going into the show?
Nothing.

Was there an adjustment period, not knowing your character’s complete arc? Most of your work has been in film. 
It’s a totally different approach. In fact, even when we shot the pilot, the nature of Stan’s backstory changed dramatically during production of the pilot. When I signed on to the job, it was a very different backstory.

How so?
He was from the Midwest; he was working in bank robbery. He was a meat-and-potatoes guy who didn’t have any of this dark history. That kind of change happens. Like I said, I read the script where he has an affair with Nina and I thought he would never have an affair. Okay, so I adjust my understanding of this character. There’s an improvisational fluidity that comes with television work that is intimidating for me, or at first it was, but it’s quite liberating in the end. I compare it to painting. Oil painting is like making a film. It’s very methodical and you come back and you repaint and you let it dry and you repaint it again. Television is just charcoal sketch work. You make a sketch, you get it in the can, you move on.

Martha feeds “Clark”/Philip information from Stan's office, and Nina feeds Stan information (and misinformation) from Phillip’s bosses. Does this circle ever get confusing for you in terms of who's got the advantage?
All the time. And I’ve settled upon really just living in Stan’s understanding of the universe because it makes it easier. I don’t want to have to know things that I’m not supposed to know and act like I don’t know them. Obviously I read the scripts, but I don’t hold on too tightly.

Are you ever worried about Stan looking incompetent?
I thought that was a worry from the very first episode, in fact, when Stan goes into their garage. Stan’s suspicious of them from the get-go. How long can you hold those balls in the air without him looking stupid for either not figuring it out or ending the show and figuring it out or getting killed? I think the writers really elegantly walk that line where Stan is 100 percent competent and very intelligent and yet unable to penetrate, to realize that the very people he seeks are his next door neighbors.

Well, those official sketches are pretty bad. They look nothing like Phillip and Elizabeth.
They definitely fit the profile, but in the most generalized, abstract way possible. Okay, maybe any couple could fit the profile.