In the last few months, Matthew Rhys seems to be everywhere, in a literal, geographic sense. He’s a Scottish captain Christian Carion’s Come What May, a drama set during the invasion of France in World War II; he’s an undercover Russian spy in The Americans; and he’s touring the world’s vineyards on The Wine Show with his friend Matthew Goode. When reached over the phone just outside his house in Brooklyn (the cell reception inside is terrible), the Welsh actor deferred any congratulations on his ubiquity, or his recent Emmy nomination, with practiced self-deprecation. He’d much rather talk about learning to play the bagpipes, why he’s happy The Americans will wrap up after two more seasons, and dreading the “hideous” spectacle that is the Emmys ceremony.
Let’s talk about Come What May. It’s a French project, and a little bit off the beaten path. What drew you to the film? Had you seen Christian Carion’s films before?
Like most projects, it was the script initially that I was drawn to. I had seen Joyeux Noël which is a beautiful film. He’s an exceptionally talented filmmaker. But it was a number of things. The more immature element for me, having been raised on Second World War films, I’ve always wanted to do one. Elements of it were reminiscent of a Western in a way. So there were elements that were a bit Boys’ Life, which were box tickers for me. Also, and I know that this isn’t what Christian had in mind, because the reasoning for his film is very personal, it’s to do with his mother. But I just thought the story of refugees meant the subject matter seemed very contemporary and relevant to this time.
This film was shot before the Brexit vote. But was there a sense of shared Europeanness you wanted to emphasize?
You know, Britain is an island and has struggled with its empiric past. It’s struggled as having an island mentality, but wanting to take over the world, and then complained about the consequences of all these other nations that they conquered coming to Britain, going, “Well, you can’t get out, mate. We fought and worked for you so we’re allowed to come here.” So, you know, the great hypocrisy of the British is always good to challenge.
I’m not someone who knows the British accent incredibly well, but your Scottish character seemed to have a more of a posh accent, rather than a Scottish brogue.
Yes, very much, there’s a strong blue-blooded, landed-gentry theme, if I can use that word, in Scotland. There are those upper-class, large land-owning families that ostensibly would have very posh, English accents. And I based him on this character called Lord Lovat who was like that: upper-class, landed-gentry Scottish, the elite. But it's another thing, because in many ways in Scotland those people hate it as well because they’re not seen as Scottish, although they would say they were fervently Scottish. So the layering of questioning of identity, it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. I’m sure he would say he’s British whereas the majority of Scots would say they’re Scottish.
Yeah, and that would be an important distinction for him.
Oh, and I was just going say I can admit learning the bagpipes was one of the hardest skill sets I’ve ever had to learn for a movie.
So you really did learn?
I did, and those things are almost impossible. The other thing about it is when I saw the first screen and I saw that the camera pans up from my, you know, from where I’m, where my fingering is. So 99 percent of the audience are now going to think, Oh the camera tilts up because he’s clearing not playing. I was so enraged I was like, “You didn’t even shoot me playing it after months of learning! Not only had I learned, I’d also been robbed of showing the audience.”
All that practice …
I know! Annoying my neighbors and Skype sessions with a bagpipe teacher. Oh my God.
Transitioning slightly, congratulations on your Emmy nomination, and all the nominations for The Americans. What has it been like to suddenly get that kind of major attention?
It’s a little crazy because, you know, the show was always doing incredibly well, and critically it’s done incredibly well. We’ve enjoyed being the little show that could. We haven’t been under the spotlight too much — we’ve have some good critical acclaim and we had a decent fan base so you’re not under the scrutiny of those big shows, which has kind of been great. I know FX and people like that really wanted the Emmy recognition for three years, and it never came and by the fourth year we were like, You know we’re never gonna be one of those Emmy shows and it’s kind of great. You just get on with it. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, the nomination came and we were like, "Oh, wow!" Maybe it was just because Mad Men and Breaking Bad were no longer on the air.
Do you and Keri Russell have a game plan going into the ceremony? She already has experience from winning a Golden Globe for Felicity a while back. But going into the whole production of the ceremony must be something to brace for.
There’s certainly no game plan as such. But all those things are crazy and rather hideous, if I’m honest. Keri’s just said we should treat it as a big prom, or the prom that we never went to. We’ll just treat it as a big party and, you know, it is true — the nomination is recognition enough. I get that now. Because once you’ve got a nomination you go, "I’m good, I’m good." The red carpet terrifies me to be honest, this beast that it’s become now, this hideous gauntlet that you have to run.
Philip seems so shaken by the experience of befriending and losing Dylan Baker’s character, William. Is there a point where you think he eventually breaks or is Philip always doomed to keep on struggling?
I enjoy the slow unfurling of his character as the pressure builds and builds and builds. It gets harder and harder to deal with and the reason he can’t snap or break is because he has two children that he’s trying to keep alive. So everything he does is towards their survival — he’s maintaining his job so that he’s not caught, so that he’s not split up from his children. Everything he does is to keep his kids alive and his family together. But the beauty of it is that, with all that inner conflict, he deals with everything they throw at him that is mammoth, and he tries not to break down.
Elizabeth is also so protective but in a much sterner, scarier way in some cases. She has that scene where she intimidates Paige.
She still toes the party line very much and she, you know, is a true patriot. So her belief is so much stronger and unwavering — it gives you strength. Whereas Philip is a little more of a realist and says, “We could be fucked at any day, any minute, and that is the end. If we’re caught, we’re done.” It’s so close, the net is so close. His friends are dying, his spies are dying, it’s all becoming too difficult now.
We know the show is going to end after the next two seasons. Now that you’re working toward the end, is that something that showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have talked about, how the pincers are closing in?
To be given a very firm end date that’s way off in the distance is such a gift for a TV show. You know what you can write for a very specific timeline. It’s an absolute luxury. They have a vague idea of what the end will be — but they’re not quite sure themselves yet. We’re gonna sit down with them this week and they’re gonna give us what this season is gonna be. We have no idea. I know I pitched my ideas to them, which were firmly rejected. So we shall wait and see.
What were the ideas that you pitched that were rejected?
I pitched that we actually we did become double agents or I became a double agent and ultimately Elizabeth becomes a triple agent. I just thought there’s a lot of room for interesting conflict here but they were like … “Yeeeeah, no.” I dunno. I thought it was a rather good idea. Either that or they’d be time travelers or aliens.
Well, this just turned into Lost.
Yes, and add a polar bear.
I think The Americans has some of the most interesting sex scenes. How do you prep and shoot those moments?
What I like about the way sex is used on the show is that it’s very layered and very complex. There’s no gratuity, in a way. There’s secondary and third meanings to everything. So when they have sex with other people, it tends to bring up some very deep-rooted and emotional conflicts, and then when Philip and Elizabeth do have sex it tends to have greater meaning or resolve. It’s emotionally layered. It makes for interesting scenarios.
Philip has this double intimacy with Elizabeth and also with Martha.
That’s what I love is, these relationships may start out as intelligence and information-gathering, but then he gets to a point where he plummets to new depths. It makes for these very interesting moments where the relationship is so laden with different emotions of great guilt. It’s not straightforward in any way, which is what makes it so great.
Now that Stan is a little more tipped off about fact that the illegals are around, do you think Stan and Philip will eventually have to have a big confrontation?
That was part of my pitch. You could have a big standoff between Stan and Philip, and it’s in that moment that Stan turns him and makes him a double agent. I thought that would be great. 'Cause you can’t fool Stan this long, you know what I mean? Otherwise it might become a little too incredulous or unbelievable. So if you get Stan’s story, and instead of shooting or killing them or busting them, he actually starts working with them and turns them. Then, they betray Stan again to become triple agents so it’d be like, Shakespearean.
Well, they are so good at using those personal relationships in so much of the show.
The beauty of doing four seasons and going in for a fifth season is that there’s so much entrenched now, the foundations are so deep — you put in so much work and those relationships are so well-founded that whatever you throw at them now pays off so much greater because the history is there.
I have to know how you and Matthew Goode got such a good gig on The Wine Show, touring the world.
Actually, I’ve made the mistake of reading some of our American reviews this morning and we got absolutely drubbed by the American press. It was very simple: His brother-in-law is a wine fanatic and wanted to make a show about wine. He was like, “You should be in it. We just need two clowns or buffoons who like wine but know nothing about it to be schooled by a wine master.” And then Matthew Goode said, “What about Matthew Rhys?” And he’s like, “Yes, bring him to Italy.” It was literally that easy. It was the jammiest job I’ve ever (a) gotten, (b) executed. I learned nothing about wine because we were too drunk most of the time to remember anything.
Matthew Goode mentioned, when we talked to him at Vulture, that he wanted to do another season and travel to California. Have you talked about that?
I would love to do Napa and Sonoma. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, to be perfectly honest. These things are always hanging in the balance as to whether you get a second season or second permission from the show, you know. The making of it is in the gods of the grapes.
So much of the The Americans is about working with Paige and Henry, Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati. It must be such a gift to have child actors who are that good and can act with that much depth.
It’s such a risk as well. You know these kids — it was their first job — and they were young, like so young, when they were cast. You don’t know if they’re going to be good actors later on and it’s a lottery and a gamble. Gavin O’Connor, who cast them, saw something and went "yeah." He got it right.
This interview has been edited and condensed.