With each passing week on The Americans, Poor Martha wades a little further into dangerous territory. Throughout the season, we’ll be on regular Martha Watch, checking in with Alison Wright to gauge her character’s state of mind and general welfare. This week, we talk about episode seven, “Travel Agents.” (Read our previous check-ins here, here, and here.)
Your phone calls to your parents really kill me. When Martha makes a call in this episode, what’s going through her mind? Is she planning to commit suicide afterwards?
It was floating in the ether, yes. So many of these real-life secretaries killed themselves upon discovering their lives had been lies — being guilty of the crime they could accept, but not that their marriages were not real. Martha doesn’t succumb in this episode because she still thinks Clark loves her, she still believes Clark fell in love with her when he wasn’t supposed to. It’s the circumstances and his awful job that have ruined everything.
More logistically, what are the challenges of filming a phone-call scene as an actor?
We get to witness a really private moment — watching someone make a phone call, we get to see what they might choose not to actually say. I really enjoy doing them. It can be a little easier to visually block out the crew too, which is helpful. I can choose where I’m looking to avoid distractions.
Your energy around Elizabeth/Gabriel is so different from how you are with Clark, almost like a trapped, defensive animal. It brings an unsettling tone to those scenes that I love. When Elizabeth punches her in the gut, what does that do to Martha, psychologically? Does she finally understand and accept the position she’s in?
Yes, she’s a different woman around Gabriel and Elizabeth. She can focus all her hatred and fear and blame onto them. They are the actual enemy. Well, I’m fairly certain Martha has never been in a street fight — never been punched in the solar plexus before. The physical pain is overwhelming but she is hearing Elizabeth’s words: that the FBI is looking for her and that she will ruin Clark’s life, he’ll go to jail. She immediately surrenders body and mind. She would never harm Clark. Her love for him is tremendous. She’s a better woman than I’ll ever be …
Can you talk a little about filming that scene with Keri Russell, as she’s someone you don’t tend to share scenes with on the show?
I can say the scene when “Jennifer” arrives at the safe house was an acting lesson I will remember for a long time. Keri had a very strong focus. It seemed to me I could really see the different thoughts, as beats, going through her head as she was evaluating Martha and deciding her next move. She took her time and filled every moment. It was a fairly quick scene but I got to enjoy it as myself, too, outside of Martha. Because I actually know Elizabeth and what she’s capable of, so I knew how much she was holding back, putting a little smile on and being more like “Jennifer.”
You talked before about how one emotional scene in the season-four premiere took five hours to shoot. This episode is heavy on emotional Martha scenes; you physically start shaking in one of them. How much time, energy, and preparation went into filming these, considering you’re in such a fragile state in each one?
Well, I’m lucky, very lucky. I’ve had four seasons to discover Martha and create a complete fictional character for myself, with feelings and opinions. It’s safe to say we have all known this moment was destined in Martha’s future. She was always going to find out Clark was KGB, it was just a matter of when and how the story would get us there. Every part of her journey since the pilot, I’ve been able to consider what she would think about each specific moment of their history, their love story, once she found out the truth. I imagined she would surely ruminate and have a feeling of devastation about each single lie. “Every day a little death” springs to mind.
But, yes, a lot of energy spent. If you’re crying all day for days or weeks, physically, the body feels like it’s actually been through a trauma, and a sadness lingers. It’s helpful for me to hang onto that for as long as I can while I need to. I cancelled Christmas away last year because the break was right in between all of the most important scenes Martha had, and I didn’t want to come back to work in January happy and satiated and glowing full of hope and joy.
When Philip tells Martha she has to go to Russia, she doesn’t argue with him, but asks questions that imply she’s being realistic about it. It feels like she’s almost resigned to her fate to forever be a lonely person. How do you think Martha views Philip’s instructions that she move to Russia?
I think Martha came back to that safe house beaten. Any ideas about resistance or hope of a way out are gone. She couldn’t survive out there on her own, she realizes that, and she doesn’t know what her next step should be. So now she will do whatever Clark tells her to do. A little part of her has died. When she discovers Clark won’t ever come to her in Russia she goes into shock, mourning really. She shuts down inside: self-preservation mode, numbness. She does think Clark is doing the best he can for her, she does see how much he is hurting. He is the only person who can help her now, he’s the only person she trusts.
Does a part of Martha want to go to the FBI and confess? Or is she not even remotely entertaining that option?
No. She may be ashamed of her actions morally, but confessing would mean giving up Clark to the police and she would never do that. She could never be responsible for sending him to jail. Also, fairly sure she would prefer not to be in jail either.
What was your favorite line to deliver in this episode? Martha has some devastating ones (i.e. these ones to Philip: “Not even to visit?” “I’ll be alone, just the way it was before I met you.”)
Yes! “Not even to visit?” was a good one. The realization that came with that line did it for me every time. I also liked “I don’t speak Russian.” I found it very sad. It triggered many thoughts and it allowed me many different interpretations as I was working on it. It serviced my rehearsal and my decisions more than being a standout line in the episode though. Which is good, because they used a take that was a wide shot of our backs anyway.