“You know,” 15-year-old wild child Kimberly Breland tells her much older friend “Jim” on tonight’s episode of The Americans, “sometimes I think you’re the only one who really cares about me.” Little does Kimmy know that her white knight bleeds Soviet red. This season, as Philip Jennings’s spy games hit closer and closer to home, he’s also been ordered to cultivate his most vulnerable target ever: the neglected teenage daughter of a secret CIA agent. And the harder he tries to keep her at arm’s length, the deeper her affection for him gets. We asked actor Julia Garner (Martha Marcy May Marlene) how it feels to play this pivotal part.
Your character’s desires are 180 degrees away from the audience’s. The whole time Kimmy’s trying to get together with this older man, we’re screaming “Noooooo!” It’s up to you to get us to sympathize with what we recognize as a terrible idea.
The reason why people are like “No, don’t hook up!” is that she’s 15. By the way, I’m 21 in real life. [Laughs.] That would be weird. I would not do this role if I was 15. I don’t even think I could do this role if I was 15. But the way I approached this role is that she has daddy issues. Her dad’s not in the picture very much. You hear a lot of stories where young girls tend to go with old guys because of this. You hear it with men, too — they might go with an older woman because they’ve got some issue with their mother. That’s how I tried to balance it out: by sympathizing with Kimmy. It was obvious that she’s dealing with a lot in her life.
Were you ever tempted to just play her as some dumb kid who doesn’t know what she’s getting into, or were you digging into those psychological issues right from the start?
Honestly, it’s a combination. She has the daddy issues, but she’s not aware of that. She doesn’t think about it. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing, because if she did, she wouldn’t be doing it. She’s talking to him as if he’s her age, like it’s no problem. So it’s a mixture of both. It’s not just one thing, or it’s just one-dimensional.
In tonight’s episode, there’s a moment after Jim brings her home drunk from a frat party where he tells her, “unlike your friends, you’re very real.” You get the sense that as much as anything else, she’s just desperate for someone to talk to who will listen.
Absolutely. He’s kind of the only one, it seems to her, who’s paying attention. That’s huge, especially for someone who’s 15 years old. They’re not a kid, but they’re not an adult, they’re at a really weird age. She’s like, “he’s giving me what I want, and I’m feeling satisfied. It’s the attention that I want someone to give me.” It’s not even attention, it’s care. It’s being acknowledged. If a person feels like “they’re not acknowledging me” … That’s a very important feeling in life, even if it’s not romantic. She doesn’t get that acknowledgment at home.
It’s scary how easy this makes it to manipulate people, and not just with Kimmy. Over and over, Philip and Elizabeth find people who just need someone to talk to them, and they fill that gap in their lives. It’s creepy, because it’s such a basic human need.
It is so basic, but at the same time, it’s complicated because a lot of people don’t understand that it’s so important. People are so wrapped around … well, not wrapped around themselves, but every five minutes, something new happens in life, and they’re preoccupied by the next thing that happens.
Jim and Kimmy’s relationship is a mirror image of what’s going on between Philip and Paige. At the same time he’s fighting the KGB about dragging his teenage daughter into the spy life, he’s doing the exact same thing to some other spy’s teenage daughter. Does that parallel shape how you play the part?
I try to think about it a little bit, just so it can have that same kind of vibe — so you’re like, “oh, there’s something familiar here.” But when I was shooting it, I didn’t want to think about it too much, because Kimmy knows Jim, who’s a completely different guy. She doesn’t know he has another family; she doesn’t know anything else. When I’m on set, I don’t think it would be good if I thought about it too much beyond making it sort of similar, because their stories are completely separate. It’s about balancing.
The scene a few weeks ago where Jim tells the story of the son he’s never met — which is actually a true story about Philip — and asks Kimmy to pray with him about it seemed huge precisely because usually his two lives are kept so separate. Watching Kimberly slide from wanting a romantic relationship with him into this caretaker role was powerful, and unexpected.
That scene was so important, especially for Kimmy, because she was more satisfied with that connection than just having sex. He was saying, “Hey, let’s do something together. I’m being honest with you.” No one’s ever really honest with her, no one tells her what’s going on, even her dad. She’s always wondering. She thinks, No one’s telling me anything, and I know that they’re hiding things.
It’s easy to forget, but she has no more idea that her father’s in the CIA than Paige knew her parents were in the KGB, up until tonight at least. She’s completely in the dark.
It’s funny, because I grew up in a house that was the complete opposite of why she’s in so much pain. There were no secrets in my house. I always knew what was going on. When a child knows there’s a secret, they don’t know what it is, but they know it’s there, and they know they’re being lied to. When you know something’s up, it’s a very uneasy feeling.
The whole show is about noble-cause corruption, the evil people do when they’re convinced they’re working for the greater good. The parents deceiving the kids fits right in with that: “We may be fucking up our children by lying to them, but it’s worth it.”
I thought about that when I started reading the scripts: Wow, everyone’s lying! [Laughs.] But with people in general, a belief is a belief, and that’s very hard to argue with. It does something to your characteristics as a person. That’s what makes a character.
Is living in the ‘80s a perk of the job? It is for me, if only because of the mainline dose of pop classics Kimmy brings with her every week.
Well, that wasn’t me who put that in there. [Laughs.] But yeah, I always found the ‘80s fascinating, because life changed so much. It was a big, big time.
On the surface, the culture’s getting glitzier — the Big ’80s — but the show is about the underside of that.
It’s the everyday ’80s. When you think of the ‘80s, you think of Jane Fonda’s workout videos and Studio 54 or something — New York in the ’80s. This is not about that. This is about Russian spies, and a family hiding a secret. I don’t know any … [Laughs.] Obviously I don’t know any spies, but any decade, any generation, there are families that hide huge secrets. The emotions are very real.