The Americans: Alison Wright on Martha’s Surprising Return

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The sight of Martha on Tuesday night’s episode of The Americans was more than sad, but at least fans got what they’ve been waiting for all season — a tiny sense of how the inadvertent spy is faring in Moscow. Four episodes earlier, we caught a glimpse of Martha at the supermarket, a move that shows exactly what actress Alison Wright says she loves about the FX drama. “It’s a typical Americans coming under the radar like that, just assuming that the audience is going to be smart enough, and quick enough, and paying enough attention to get it. I love that about the show. They don’t pander.” Vulture spoke to Wright about Martha’s new life, why the role prompted Ryan Murphy to offer her a part on Feud, and how she’s feeling about her Broadway debut in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.

We knew Martha was alive and taking care of herself. But in “IHOP,” we learned a little bit more about her life in the Soviet Union. How did you feel about that scene?
I think she’s still a little bit of an enigma after this episode. She seems to have some sort of resolve and strength, enough to let Gabriel know how disappointed in him she is, and to basically tell him to not bother coming back. Like she said, she understands it all now. She’s put it all together, one way or another. But it’s still not that clear, I don’t think, how she really is. We can see that she’s getting by. She’s brushing her hair, and she’s making food, and she’s putting on clothes — but more than that, we’re not really sure yet.

What kind of life does she have? It seems very lonely.
Incredibly lonely and isolating. It would be incredibly lonely and isolating being dropped in Moscow today, never mind in 1984 — things are very tense and strained at the moment, with our country relations anyhow. But she’s not able to contact anybody. She can’t check up at all. She’s really, really isolated. She’s not getting any news about her parents or what they know about her. Has it all come out? Do they know everything? She’s still very much in the dark. When she opens that door to Gabriel, I think she’s assuming this is terrible news walking in the door. Does she have to go back? Are they gonna send her back to her death? Him being there is not good news at all, and I think she’s really afraid of what he may tell her.

Martha is such a great character.
I know, right? I mean, how lucky did I get? Who knew? Yeah, I feel tremendously lucky. Couldn’t have asked for it to work out better.

Do people still stop you and ask about her?
Oh my God, yeah. Every day. All the time. People are really excited, and I can see that they genuinely have empathy for her. They have genuinely been affected by her plight and her experience, and really, really feel for her. I see that in people’s faces every time they talk to me about her. The Js [Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] and our amazing team of writers created this wonderful character. It really rings true with a lot of people.

In the beginning, it felt like sometimes she was comic relief.
When you’re watching something, you’re watching it through your own perspective. Whatever we think of people who are maybe a little bit too nice, or a little bit gullible, or don’t really have defense mechanisms, it’s easy to laugh at them. It’s not the right thing to do, but it’s easy to laugh at someone who you think is less than yourself. But I think she has definitely proved her worth, and that idea has completely changed about her.

When you started playing Martha, did you know she’d turn out to be such a strong lady?
I knew that she and Clark would get married and have a long relationship. I knew that, very early on, she was gonna be completely taken in by this honey trap, and it was gonna take over her whole life. I didn’t know that she was gonna survive — let me put it like that — because in all of the reading that we were able to do about the times when this really did happen to women, the majority of them committed suicide when they found out the truth. So that was always hanging over it. The majority killed themselves immediately when they realized, not that they’d been spies, but that none of the love had been real. That they’d been played the whole time; that the guy was always working. So that was always the massive ax that was waiting to drop. The fact that she didn’t fall apart, the fact that she kept it together and survived, I didn’t necessarily know that was going to happen. I thought I might be jumping out of window somewhere in Gowanus.

We all thought the worst when we saw her leaving on the plane.
Yeah. In a certain perspective, she’s lucky, I guess. Doesn’t really seem like it when you see her sitting all alone. But she’s alive, right?

Can you tell me if we’ll see her again?
Of course I can’t, and you wouldn’t want me to anyway.

You’ve been very busy with Feud and Sneaky Pete, and now you’re on Broadway in Sweat. Is it true that Ryan Murphy offered you the part of Pauline on Feud? You didn’t audition?
That’s right, yeah.

How did that happen?
Martha, I’m sure. I’m sure I have Martha and The Americans to thank for that 100 percent.

Were you floored?
Absolutely. I didn’t believe it. I’m a big fan of Ryan Murphy and all the shows that he’s created. I hope I’ll get more of that in my future. I knew all about it because I had read about it in the trades. I’m a big fan of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was a camp classic when I was a teenager hanging out on the gay scene. It was what all the drag queens were doing, so as soon as I saw he was making something about that, I knew all about it.

Pauline wasn’t a real person, but she was interesting because she was so ahead of her time.
It ended up being even more timely than Ryan could’ve ever assumed, you know, talking about wanting to be a woman in charge. She was a great character to play and very different from Martha, and I loved every second of it. I hope he invites me back for anything else in the future. It was immense!

How did you feel about Pauline’s story?
I was really happy, you know. Because she was a composite character, there were a couple of options for how Pauline would turn out in the future, and I was very happy with the option that the writers chose — that she hadn’t quit, and she just made her own way and that hadn’t worked, but she was resilient enough and she bounced back. She didn’t just get lazy, and just get married and have children instead. She found another way. She was a successful filmmaker and I was really happy about that. I think it’s a great message to put out there.

It’s interesting that the main theme of Feud was to show how women, especially those of a certain age, were treated in Hollywood. It makes you realize that things haven’t changed that much, but then the show itself is an agent of that change, with all of the women who were cast in it and worked on it behind the camera. What was it like to be part of that?
I’m a part of that phenomenon in two ways. The play that I’m doing is very much of the times. Sweat is about what’s happening outside of our doors in America right now, and Feud is about what’s happening for women in America and across the world right now. Same thing. The election that happened right in the middle of this proved that point perfectly. Never underestimate misogyny and sexism. Never underestimate it.

It feels really great to be a part of two projects that are actually part of the cultural conversation that we’re having at the moment. They really are the comment on our times. That’s always what you want to have as an artist. It takes it to a much deeper, more resonant level, if you’re really holding a mirror up to society and hopefully effecting change. But that’s the thing about women working in the business, whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the camera, and in the workplace in general: I think it’s time that we realize it’s not gonna just evolve naturally. We’re not just gonna become equals naturally. We’re not just gonna be paid the same or be treated the same. We proved with Feud that 50, 60 years later, all the struggles that we have are so similar. We have to actually effect change by putting our money where our mouth is, like Ryan Murphy has with his whole foundation. If Feud helps a few more people realize that, it will have done a tremendous service to society.

Did having so many women on set and behind the camera affect your performance? Did that bring anything different to the process for you?
Well, I’ve never seen a woman on every camera unit. I’ve never seen that before. I think we were all very aware of the story that we were telling and the message of the story. That was a collective consciousness, but none of that stuff went by unnoticed. It was just a privilege to be on a female-centric project that shows women in such a generous light, and I would say, gives us our due. We were all very aware that was the essence of the project.

The Americans: Alison Wright on Martha’s Surprising Return