The Americans’ Matthew Rhys on Philip: ‘I Always Want Him to Be Pushing Toward His Goal’

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This interview contains spoilers about the entire fifth season of The Americans.

The penultimate season of The Americans came to an end with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) in a familiar place, leaving Philip in an even more difficult position after coming so close to leaving the spy life behind once and for all. The season closed with the acknowledgement that the Jennings aren’t going anywhere, but are closer than ever to accomplishing their career goals. Rhys spoke to Vulture about the tough challenges Philip faced this season and what he would have done differently with the recording that forces the Jennings to stay.

Let’s start with Philip’s dilemma. Do you think he should have thrown the tape into the river?
That’s a loaded question! Yes, I think he should have.

I wanted him to throw it away, too. Why would you have preferred that?
Playing the martyr is always great. But I always want Philip to be pushing towards his goal. He wants out. He wants to get out of this life. He wants to secure his family, his future, and get out. And I think that the greater that is pushed, the closer he gets to his life’s goal.

Yeah, and he knows that if he doesn’t throw it away that there is no way that Elizabeth is going to go through with leaving.
But that’s what makes for the great five seasons of drama – this conflict between these two every time that they try and figure it out. They’re so bonded and unified in so many ways other than just love. And then they’re at odds because of their own personal mandates and doctrines.

Philip’s been struggling for a long while, but he really had some tough moments this season. He had to kill the guy in the lab in episode three. That was a particularly brutal moment for him. What was it like shooting that for you?
When he killed the guy? To be perfectly honest about it, the filming of that was very funny. A number of things went wrong. When we were cracking his head against the glass, I fell a number of times. It was just one of those comedy days where nothing’s going right. So it just makes everything slightly hard because it’s meant to be this crippling moment when, really, you’re trying to mask laughter.

Later in the season, with the Nazi collaborator, we really see how he’s unable to carry out these missions anymore. Even though he knows she’s done horrible things, he still can’t get himself to kill her.
I think it shows where Philip is really. He’s kind of winging it emotionally, which is very raw. It’s now taking over; he’s really governing his whole self. You saw him in the lab operation. He could still do what was required of him, and I think by the time you get to the old couple, he’s actually no longer capable in that moment to do what’s required of him. It’s taken over his whole self, really.

What do you remember about filming that scene?
That one was definitely one of the most intense things of the season, if not the whole series. In that respect when it’s just, you know, four people in a room — those kind of scenes, and that kind of dialogue, it can’t help but make for a very intense day. Sometimes it’s the reverse. When it’s that heavy, sometimes your subconscious makes an effort just to be a lot lighter. But that was just a very intense day. Very heavy subject matter, and a fantastic guest star (Irina Dubova) who came in and knocked it out of the park as they say here.

And then at the end Elizabeth is like, “That’s it, we’re done.” Did that surprise you when you saw it in the script?
Yes, it did. And I love it that the writers do give you this big juicy payoff, where you kind of think you’re down one half, especially with Liz, because she’s so set in her ways that when they do these kind of 180s with her, I think that it’s that much more powerful. We joke — we call Philip “Shaky Phil” sometimes — because for three seasons now you’re seeing the metaphorical bottom quivering lip. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but when Elizabeth does something like that, it really pays off right then because you’re not expecting it.

It’s a bit of a heartbreaker at the end of the season when Phillip tells her about the tape and she says she can’t go. Earlier we saw that she was having second thoughts, but when she says it, it takes them back to that same place they’ve been for a long time, and you can’t help but feel bad for Phillip.
Yes, very much so. But that’s kind of great. You’re on this roller coaster all the time where you think you’re headed in one direction and then it whips you the other. They’re so good at doing that.

That tape represents them reaching their life’s goal, right? This is what they’ve been working toward.
Yeah, in a way, all their dreams have come, and all their nightmares have as well.

This season we also saw them have to be with other people again for the mission, which hadn’t happened in a while. And it seemed like nobody was excited to go.
No, they’re not. And it’s kind of great, and their relationship gets stronger. That element of the operation becomes that much harder and that much more conflicted.

The proposal was so sweet too. For a long time, their secret was that they’re not officially married. Now their secret is that they are.
It’s just great layering. They have something that’s only theirs, and in a very romantic way. All the other secrets by which they are bonded — and the secrets between the two usually are operational and fear-based — but, for once, you this very lovely and romantic secret which appears to warm them a bit.

Do you think Philip is really going to be able to stay out of things in the way they talk about in the finale? She tells him, “We won’t leave, but you’ll focus more on the travel agency, and not so much on these missions.” Do you think that’s really possible?
I don’t know, I don’t know. It’ll be interesting. You hope that what’ll happen is that it won’t be possible and it will be very difficult for him, and he’ll probably attempt that and it won’t work out, but your guess is as good as mine at the moment.

So have you had any conversations about how the story ends — not that I’m asking you to tell me — but do you and Keri know where the story ends for the Jennings?
No, we’re going to be briefed very soon, so we’ll know very soon. They’re in the rooms now breaking the arc of the season, so we’ll hopefully get some tidbits soon as to what our fates will be.

Are you excited about the last season?
Yeah, I’m excited. It’s a bittersweet experience because of a number of things. I’m excited to see how the incredible journey is going to pan out. I’m excited to see what the end of all this will be. It’s just been such an incredible journey, so the end to such a great journey does have a degree of sadness.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Americans’ Matthew Rhys on Philip: ‘He Wants to Get Out’