The Americans’ Keidrich Sellati on Playing the Neglected Jennings Child and the Time Matthew Rhys Made Him Cry

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Keidrich Sellati, a.k.a. Henry Jennings. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for tonight’s episode of The Americans.

Henry Jennings has always been the neglected child on The Americans. For several seasons, his parents were never quite sure where he was — at Doug’s? At Stan’s? Sleeping? — but now they at least know he’s away at school. Unless, of course, he comes home to visit, at which point, Elizabeth and Philip will have a work emergency that takes them away from him.

That’s what happened in this week’s episode of The Americans, which also, for the first time, addressed the mix of resentment and resignation that Henry has been feeling toward his parents, probably for years. Keidrich Sellati, the 16-year-old actor who started playing Henry when he was 10, spoke to Vulture about what it was like to film the scenes that finally allowed Henry to share some of his emotions, how Matthew Rhys once made him cry for the sake of his art, and what he learned while spending part of his actual childhood pretending to be the unwitting son of Russian spies.

Throughout the run of this show, there have been times where Henry is conveniently not in the picture or it seemed like his parents weren’t paying as much attention to him as they were to Paige. How do you think that made Henry feel? Was it something that you don’t think he really thought about much until he got older?
I honestly think Henry didn’t really care too much about this, and then he started to do questionable things, like breaking into his friends’ houses and spying on the neighbors, which showed that he was getting bored and looking for attention. Until that point, he didn’t really care, and then he started to realize, “No one’s really here for me.” Throughout the rest of the series, he’s shown as more of an independent person.

Obviously he has his friends and other interests.
Yeah, yeah. And then he went to school. He even said, “I just want to get out of this place,” and he did. He was successful. At the end of last season, he was fed up with being around his parents and being in that house all alone, so he went, “I’m out.”

The first big scene in episode seven is when Philip comes over to Stan’s and has to tell Henry that he’s also leaving town in the middle of Thanksgiving. Henry’s response at first is very understanding, but you can see as soon as his dad leaves the room that he’s not feeling so great about it. Can you talk a little bit about filming that scene and what Henry’s mind-set was?
That scene was actually, for me personally, really kind of sad because I remember having times where I’d really want to spend time with my mom or my dad and they had to go leave and do something besides hang out with me. I definitely understood it. I think most kids would.

I feel like Henry understands that his parents have this job — as travel agents, mind you — that requires them to run out very often, because he has seen it his whole life. But now, so close to Thanksgiving, and when he’s barely ever home, and then the one time he is home, they have to run off — that really, really got to him. That leads to him feeling insecure about his parents and then going and telling Stan a little bit of information.

Right. He’s unhappy about it, but he doesn’t seem suspicious. Like, why do my parents, who are travel agents, have these constant emergencies?
He says something about it, like, “They really take their job seriously” He says, “They’re like brain surgeons. When work calls, they go, even if it’s in the middle of the night.”

Paige was actively suspicious of what was going on for a long time, but Henry doesn’t seem to be suspicious. He may be resentful and find his parents’ jobs weird, but he never seems to think, “Maybe there’s something else going on here.”
Henry’s not around enough anymore, and when he was around, he was too young to really notice anything. Now that he’s older, I definitely think he could tell something, but because he’s always in school now, he doesn’t really have the time. When it comes to his parents always being gone, it’s all he’s known his whole life, so it doesn’t bother him too much. Of course it bothers him emotionally, but it doesn’t bother him in any other sense, if you know what I’m trying to say.

So tell me about shooting that scene in the car with Noah Emmerich. How many takes did you have to do? Were you driving on a real street or doing that on a set?
We were driving on the real street for hours. We were working at — [calls out to his mother] “Mom, was it like 3 a.m.?” Yeah, it was like 3 a.m. or something stupid that we finished working that night. I was exhausted. I actually ended up taking a nap in the car in between takes. It was very late, and we took a lot of takes of that one, and a lot of different camera angles. A lot. It was cool. Like, no problem with that. It was fun, nice, and good to spend time with Noah.

Was that because they were trying to get many different angles on it?
That and because also, we were on a real street with real cars and real stoplights, so we had to stop and start and stop and start, on and off, and they didn’t want us talking too much during the stoplights because they were trying to sync it up to what they wanted to see. So when we’d get to the stoplight, we’d have to wait or go through it, and then they’d go, “All right, let’s actually go back a little bit.” It was a long night, and that was after a whole day of school, too.

I was going to ask you: you go to regular school and work this around your schooling?
Yeah, actually, I school around my work. I know that sounds really bad, but I promise it’s okay.

Some young actors do that, but they’re home schooled or they have a tutor.
No, I go to New York City public school. It’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle that’s very worth it for me.

Obviously, you’ve had more than one scene with Noah Emmerich over the years. What it’s like working with him? I imagine you guys must have developed a rapport over these seasons.
Yeah, so working with Noah both as someone in my scene or as the director, he’s been just fantastic. I mean, Noah — everybody really — but Noah especially, along with Matthew and Keri, has helped turn me into the actor I am currently. They taught me, not everything I know, but a good amount of it, and they’ve always been welcoming, especially when I was 10 and obnoxious. They were helping me from the very beginning when I was an annoying little brat, all the way to an old brat.

Why do you call yourself a brat?
Oh, because — okay, quick little story: This was two seasons ago, I think. Obviously very different from now, but you know how, like, big dogs can still think they’re lap dogs? I thought, as a five-five, 95-pound boy, I could still continue to jump on people when I was four-nine and weighed 60 pounds. I could not do that! I actually jumped on someone that I was good friends with on the set, knocked him over, and that’s when I started to realize, Oh, I’m turning into a teenager, and now I’m like, Oh, I’m turning into an adult. Like when I make a childish joke and people go, “Wow, I didn’t expect that from you,” and I’m like, “Oh boy.” But I try my best to be fun to work with. Sometimes a little bit of kid comes out and you’re just like, Oooh, can’t do that.

Do you think working on a series like this has helped you mature in ways you might not have otherwise?
For sure. I was hanging out with some of my friends who are in my grade and I gotta say, I love my friends and everything, but — woo! — they get kind of annoying quick. It’s not because they’re not good people, but it’s because I’m used to working with adults. Because of what I do for work, I’m constantly surrounded by adults. When I go to premieres and parties for actors and actresses — not high-school parties, professional parties — I’m only around adults, especially being around FX. So it’s a very, very weird transition, but I think I’m more adult now.

You were saying before that you’ve learned a lot from working with Noah and Matthew and Keri. Are there specific things you feel like you learned? I’m sure that they have different acting styles.
I honestly didn’t really take from their acting styles. [But they did] bring out some really good moments and emotion in me. One of the scenes we did, me, Matthew, and Keri, I’m crying and I’m saying, “I’m a good person, I’m a good person.” I actually was not crying. I wasn’t even that emotional that day, and then Matthew just started talking to me and he kept saying, “Oh do you want to do this? Oh, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?” And for some reason, I just started crying. And he was like, “Okay let’s do the scene, fast, fast, fast!” And he rushed everyone to get back to their position. So we did the scene and it was the one we actually eventually ended up using. It was really great to work with him and for him to be able to pull out, you know, me crying, while he’s just asking these random questions. I don’t even know how he did it.

Do you remember what the questions were?
No I don’t! And they were random, too. They were just like, “Oh, what do you feel about this? What do you feel about that? Do you know how to do this? Do you know how to do that?” And for some reason, it just got to me. Honestly, it overwhelmed me, because I was younger, and I didn’t know what to do or what to think so I just started crying. It was really awesome and I thank him to this day for that.

So you’ll graduate from high school not this year but the next?
2020. That’s my senior year, yeah.

Are you thinking you want to act full-time or go to school or do you not know yet?
Okay, so I do want to act full-time, but I also want to do online college, but for something completely different than acting. Because, as great as acting is, acting is very unstable. So I would like to have a backup plan that doesn’t revolve around acting. I’m going to be going in for cybersecurity in college.

Oh, interesting. Last question for you: when we started this conversation, we talked about how there were times when Henry wasn’t around. Did you ever want to be in more scenes and wish that Henry was like actually around more, or were you just happy to be in the show?
Definitely a little bit of both. I would have loved to have been on set a lot more, because I love what I do. But it’s very fun to also watch people tweet or, you know, talk about, Oh, where’s Henry, where’s Henry? It makes me feel like a favorite! Which is nice. But I think they used Henry the perfect amount.

Americans’ Keidrich Sellati on Playing the Neglected Henry