The great hair-chopping fiasco of 1999 has not been easy for Keri Russell to overcome. But you won’t be thinking about Felicity or her worst decision ever when you see Russell in deadly mode in FX’s tense Cold War drama The Americans (premiering tonight at ten). She and Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) play sleeper KGB agents who’ve been posing as happily married couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings for the past fifteen years in suburban Washington D.C. We first meet Elizabeth mid-mission, giving head to a man from whom she needs information. (Deadly and racy!) It’s a bummer for Phillip, who’s fallen in love with both America and his wife. Vulture sat down with Russell to find out if these two crazy Russian kids can make it without being killed, and also talked Running Wilde (her short-lived Fox comedy with Will Arnett) and the eighties.
I’d like to start by saying I liked Running Wilde.
[Laughs.] Aww, thank you.
I figure I might be one of the few people who will ever tell you that. But I really did!
[Lowers her voice.] I still haven’t seen the finale. I have to see it, though! I have to. It was so fun and so different. It was also hard. Mitch Hurwitz and Will Arnett, they’re kind of … of their own world. It’s not for everyone.
Did the experience scare you off of comedy?
It didn’t scare me off of comedy but … I took a break from their kind of comedy. They are fucking fast. It’s high stress. It’s just, like, rewrites, right there on set, five pages, go for it. And you’re like [pretends to gasp for air], but they just live in a constant state of that. Will has an almost photographic memory, so it’s easy for him. Meanwhile, I’m like, “I hate you right now.” I was sweating 30 pounds off my body a day.
So then The Americans comes along, and it’s about as far away from Running Wilde as you can get.
It came around, and I kind of just couldn’t get it out of my mind, what that marriage would be like. Paired with a complete stranger, thrown into this incredibly tense world, living this pretend life. And then, for my character, inching toward really falling in love with this man she’s known for fifteen years. That part really interested me.
Elizabeth is first seen performing oral sex on someone from whom she needs intel.
I know. I was like, Blow job in the hotel room: What? And also, Who are they gonna get to have big boobs? Because it’s not gonna be me! I’m like a boy! Luckily, I was nursing a baby. Sweet. Sweeeet. No, I love that the character is incredibly sexual, but not in an emotional way. She’s devoted to the cause. She’ll do whatever it takes. And when it has to be intimate, she’s so shut off from it. The real emotional battle for her will be in allowing Philip — or, not allowing, we’ll see! — to take care of her and love her.
You make it sound so romantic.
That’s my hope. We’re only on episode four so far. The spy stuff is the fun filler, and it raises the stakes of everything: You’re allowed to sleep with other people; there’s always the threat of being killed, being caught. Ultimately, it’s just this interesting metaphor for a marriage.
Did you do a lot of research for the role?
Oh, yeah. I was reading about all kinds of spy work. The CIA call sexual traps like the one you saw in the pilot “honey traps,” which I love. They’re the most successful ploy. They work every time. Or almost every time. Men do it a lot, too. They’re called “Romeos,” and they prey on these lonely women who are working in offices, people who need affection. I also read some Putin biographies because he was so deeply involved in the KGB, and I needed to know what created that kind of person with complete devotion to the cause. It’s just so different from what Americans know. Americans don’t live in that kind of black-and-white world. There’s so much of every kind of thing here.
You and Matthew actually met several years ago, right?
Yeah, he was drunk.
That’s what he said.
That’s every day for him. We did meet at a kickball party. I didn’t remember until he told me. It was him and his friend Ioan [Gruffudd]. Two little Welsh men. I’m glad we’ve reunited. He is still most often drunk.
Between The Americans and The Carries Diaries, the eighties are back. How do you feel about the Jordache jeans you get to wear?
The high waists continue through the season, I can tell you that. There’s also a lot of beautiful silk shirts with those gold necklaces and a ton of really gloppy mascara. And actually, I think it looks good. I do. When I do my makeup for my own life, I now feel like I’m missing something, and it’s the glop. The period techonology is really funny. Giant tape recorders. Rotary phones. The kids playing our children on the show are like, “What is that?”
Also, any time you can work Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” into a love scene is good times.
Did they keep that in the pilot, or did they take it out?
It’s in there.
Oh, good! They wanted it out. But it’s exactly what the moment calls for. I heard the network was thinking it would remind people too much of Miami Vice, but I don’t think so. And, I mean, who cares? It’s our turn.