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Most of the characters on The Americans have to bury nearly all their emotions to get the job done. That is, until the arrival of Dylan Baker’s William Crandall this season, a sardonic undercover Russian agent who had spent 25 years in America and accomplished, in the words of his supervisor, “literally nothing.” But in Wednesday night’s finale, William did accomplish something, even if it wasn’t all that heroic. Instead of surrendering to Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, he infected himself with a deadly virus and died in the hands of his American captors. Vulture caught up with Baker to talk about his character’s increasingly tragic backstory, what might have been waiting for William back home in Russia, and what it’s like for him and his wife, Becky Ann Baker (who stars on Girls as Hannah’s mom), to shoot in the same New York neighborhood.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get involved with The Americans? Had you watched it beforehand?
The two producers [creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] came to my agent and said, “We’re possibly interested in working with Dylan for this character we’re developing.” I didn’t know the show at all, so my wife and I started binge-watching the first season, which, as you know, was really easy to do. We just got totally wrapped up with it in no time, and by the end of the day I think we’d watched half of the season and the next day we watched the other half. Once I started talking to Joe and Joel, I was devastated — well, devastated isn’t the right word — I was really excited, and so I thought, “Okay, this is fantastic.” After I agreed to it, I watched season two, and then season three wasn’t available yet so they got me some DVDs, and I was watching it like crazy. I was floored, I just thought it was an excellent program.
Your character has a specific tone that you don’t see a lot in the series — he’s a little more aware. Did they talk to you about what they were looking for in the character?
It was interesting, they talked about a guy who had been here for quite a while — and, you know, it’s so hard to think of 1982, 1972, ’62, ’52 — of getting, at that time, a person who would go and set up their life, and have to find a job, get training. To report back or get any kind of information could take weeks and weeks, and would just be perhaps a message or a quick meeting between someone, and you’re not even sure who they are. What they felt was that William was a guy who had been there for over 20 years just setting himself up to be in a position to work in this facility, that perhaps the Department of Defense would turn to them and outsource some work. Indeed, they did, so all of the sudden he was in a position where he could get his hands on some of these deadly viruses. The thought of the commitment to that, and the total frustration of being someone that really has succeeded not at all up to this point.
There was something wonderfully sardonic about the Russian character of a person who just kept beating their head against a wall. By now, he’s seen it all, and done it all, and nothing’s worked. So meeting Philip and Elizabeth one night, it all just comes spilling out, like, “I don’t trust you, you don’t trust me. We’re not going to help each other. This is not really going to accomplish anything.”
Then there’s the fact that William is alone, while Elizabeth and Philip are at least in their mission together.
He clocks into a certain feeling that he had at one point with his wife [in “The Rat,” William mentions his wife was sent back to Russia], which was that there was a certain inability to have a real relationship because you’re both continually working for the Centre, and you’re both competing with each other to work for the Centre. Finally, it came to a head in some way or another, we decided, and the wife was sent back to Russia. Very soon, William realized that meant he had no one, and no ability to have anyone. There’s no way he could reach out to anyone. There is a jealousy there [in meeting Philip and Elizabeth], but there’s also just a delight that somebody could be in this profession and have someone to talk to.
There’s the scene in the second-to-last episode where Frank Langella’s character says that if you do this one last job, you’ll get to go back to Russia. Who would he see? Who would he come back to?
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? To think that after 25 to 30 years, he must still have family who have no idea what’s happened to him. His wife is back there, has she got a whole new life? Or is it just that you’ll come back and be able to talk to people? The thing that stuck out to me was hearing them say, “You’ll be a hero. If you get this, if you accomplish this, you’ll be lauded as a hero.” I asked Joe and Joel, and they said there’s real truth to that. When someone came back and had worked that hard, the Soviet state did laud them, they really gave them hero status, because you have done this for the state. There’s a modicum of possibility that this could happen, and William is loath to believe it, but he also is this far in, and so maybe it would happen. [Laughs.]
In the finale, as he’s captured, William decides to infect himself with the Lassa virus. Did you know that that was going to be the fate of William’s character going in, that he would essentially commit suicide?
No, I didn’t know that. I did know that I was going to be finished off in the last episode, but I had no idea how. I have to say, I was just flipping pages going forward thinking, “What in the world is going to happen now?” When all of the sudden I took the stuff and injected it, I was as blown away, as hopefully the viewers are. It was such an amazing arc they wrote for the character, and I have been blessed to be able to play it.
The threat of these weapons coming out was very real. Did you talk about the biology of the virus?
We did. None of us quite understand it. We all have the same grasp on it that Noah Emmerich’s character has, which is “stay the hell away from him, I know that there’s something really bad going on here and we don’t want to spread this around.” All of us have a rudimentary knowledge of what something like that would be like, but it’s really into the land of what-if, and what would it be if your internal organs started boiling and then found a place to secrete through your legs? You have to get to the magic land of “if” and go with it.
I remember reading interviews when Nina died on the show and the showrunners knew all the details of the execution, that it had to be a burlap sack for instance. In the scene where they’re all in the contamination chamber, how specific was that setup, and how much of it was speculation?
With the props, they had to be right. We would start a scene and then we would say, “No, no, it’s got to be right with this…” Early on in the season, we had that whole thing where we got infected, and I had to do a lot of injections [with] rubber gloves. All of that had to be approved and proper to the time period and whatnot. It’s a fascinating show that way.
Initially, it seems like William would be the kind of character who would get back at people and be snarky, but then there’s this whole sad backstory and his sympathy with Philip. How much of that did you discuss with the creators as you went along?
He never could have had that relationship with Keri’s character. I still am glowing over that episode where she turned on her daughter and said, “This is your fault and you are going to go to those church meetings.” It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, and in that moment you say “no American mom would ever do that, ever.” It was a Russian sensibility. This is the hand you’ve been dealt, and you’re going to play it out. You see her daughter get that.
In order to commit to this life of desperation for 25 years, would Will have to have that very Russian upbringing?
Yeah, very strong sense of duty, and of staying the course. But he sees in Philip somebody who is also chafing at the bit, and therefore they can connect.
Then, in that final scene, William reveals a lot about Philip and Elizabeth to Stan. Do you think he’s closer to piecing everything together?
Stan got some crucial evidence there. Can he put that together, or is that just something that does not compute in his head? It’s not possible that all these years the spies he’s been looking for live right next to him and is his best friend. [Laughs.] It’s just too crazy. I also loved when Pastor Tim all of a sudden says, “What do you do? … You’re an FBI agent?” [Laughs.] It’s just amazing.
With the finale of The Good Wife, do you imagine any future for your character, Colin Sweeney? They’re talking about a spinoff.
Whoever does the spinoff, they certainly need Colin as a client. You never know. He’s out there watching his wife perform She Loves Me eight shows a week. Currently, I think Laura Benanti’s character is still alive. It could happen.
Living in New York, you get the chance to move between doing stage performances and these guest stints on TV shows. Did you make the choice to say in the city?
I had a job that was in Los Angeles about ten years ago. It was a TV show, Drive, that was very short-lived, on Fox. When that ended, I said to my agents that I really wanted to pursue work in New York because I wanted to be in New York for my daughter’s high-school years. And in those ten years, there has been a huge upswing of work in New York in television and film. That, I think, went along with a tax incentive and really smart economic management of the city and of the state in terms of TV and film. Because of that, Becky, my wife, and I have been able to pursue things here. She of course has been doing Girls all these years.
Girls, which also shoots in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, like The Americans sometimes does, and The Good Wife.
We keep bumping into each other. Well, Greenpoint’s big enough that you don’t actually bump into each other, but you never know.
It would be a strange crossover episode.
William on the set of Girls, that would be strange. I think he and Adam Driver’s character would get along well.