Holly Taylor was only 13 when The Americans first introduced the world to little Paige Jennings. In the FX show’s fifth (and penultimate) season, Taylor’s role has expanded dramatically, and the 19-year-old actress now finds herself at the center of the show’s most important questions: Will the Soviet identities of the Jennings family be discovered, and will Paige follow in her parents’ clandestine footsteps?
In an interview with Vulture, Taylor said she hopes that by the series’ end Paige will become a spy like Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys). In tonight’s episode, “The Midges,” the last vestiges of her innocence disappear when she learns her parents use fake identities and forge fake relationships to get what they need in their missions. (If she only knew about Martha!) Taylor, who’s in college studying advertising and public relations, also shared her thoughts about growing up on the show, learning self-defense with Russell, and the behind-the-scenes nickname for the bizarre technique Philip and Elizabeth taught Paige to fend off anxious moments with her boyfriend, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty).
It feels like The Americans has turned into the Paige story. What have these last couple of seasons been like for you?
It’s really been one huge learning experience for me. I feel like being on set and working on such a creative and intelligent show like The Americans, it’s really the best hands-on learning that I could get. So I’m really thankful for that. Because the character started out so minimal and it grew into what it has gradually, it hasn’t been too overbearing. I could ease into it and watch Keri and Matthew and learn from them. It’s really been a lot of fun.
You’ve basically grown up in this world.
I know — it’s so weird. I never thought I would grow up on a TV show. I don’t think anybody thinks that they will. But I always saw Mary-Kate and Ashley or Hilary Duff — kids like that, who grew up on TV. It was kind of weird that I had not as big of an experience as those kind of people, but, you know, a similar one.
When you read the script in which Paige finds out who her parents really are, how did you feel? It was such a great episode to watch.
When I first got that script, I was not expecting to see that scene at all. You always expect a big moment like that to be in the season finale or at the end of an episode. It was so cool how they did it: They just dropped that huge bomb in the middle of the season and in the middle of an episode. It was just so unexpected, even to read it in a script, never mind to watch it on TV. I was so excited for it and I knew it was going to be a big deal when we got it. We even did a rehearsal the day before we shot that scene to make sure we had it all laid out, and then that scene took forever to shoot because we had to cover every angle. It was a crazy day, but it was all worth it.
Nobody warned you it was the big episode? You just found out reading it?
No one warns you about anything on this show at all! [Laughs.] You just get the script and you’re like, “Oh, okay! My mom is murdering someone in front of me next Friday. Cool.”
Oh, we’ll get to that! But first, tell me: Why did you want Paige to know?
I wanted her to know just because I really wanted Paige to become a spy. She’d always been snooping around and I was like, “There’s no way she’s going to be this suspicious and never find out.” I really wanted her to be a spy, but I never thought that they would actually bring her into self-defense training or anything like that. That’s one of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about this season: the self-defense stuff that I’ve been doing.
Do you think she might actually turn into a spy?
I don’t know if she’ll turn into a spy. I actually, genuinely don’t know, never mind not being able to tell you. But this season, especially, Paige is growing a lot. As curious as she’s always been, she’s becoming even more open-minded. Of course, the idea of her parents being spies is still literally a foreign thing to her. But the more she learns about it, the more she wants to hear about it.
Last season, Paige witnessed her mom killing someone. This season, we see her really struggling with that. What was it like to film that scene with Keri?
It was interesting. As an actress going into season five, I kind of forgot about the whole Keri scene because I’m so used to watching the show and seeing Elizabeth kill people all the time; I’ve kind of been desensitized to it. But you have to remember that’s not something Paige sees every week. It’s a really traumatic experience for her — not just to see somebody be killed, but to see someone be killed by her own mother. I thought she would’ve been more angry with her mom about it, just because of how she’d reacted to things in the past, so I was happy that they didn’t go down that road as much. It was more just about her being scared and not being able to sleep, which is such a realistic thing. And I’m so happy that they have Elizabeth teaching her self-defense. I heard someone bring up the other day that you don’t always see a mom teaching her daughter self-defense; a lot of times, it’s the dad. I think it’s so cool how the writers reversed the gender roles.
You mentioned that Paige interpreted the killing in a way that surprised you. What was filming that like?
That was a pretty rough night. Keri was pregnant while she was shooting it. She was wearing heels. We were outside until two in the morning, in the freezing cold, in the dead of winter. It took so long to shoot and Keri did most of her own stunts, despite the fact that she was pregnant in heels. We’re all like, “How’s she doing that?” It was crazy. But it was also kind of a funny day because the guy who was playing the man who got killed, he was doing his interpretation of how he would die on the ground. The director walked up to him and was just like, “Just die already!” We couldn’t stop laughing, because at how many jobs do you hear somebody tell a co-worker to just die already? It’s just so bizarre what we do.
Did it make you wish for a scene like that for yourself, where you get to do a lot of stunts and intense action?
Yeah, I’ve always wanted that since the beginning. It was really cool to see Keri in action and how it works for her and how we work with the stunt doubles. I’ve always wanted to do some stunts and stuff, so hopefully!
Paige has a boyfriend now. And like many teenagers, she’s fighting with her parents about him. Have you ever been in that situation?
I’ve never really had that situation personally, but I’ve seen other people be in it. It’s weird how acting really puts you in that position, because as much as I’ve had friends who had boyfriends that their parents didn’t like, I could never really relate to it. But having to play Paige, I really felt that way. Your parents are the people who you love most, and to have them reject someone who you care about is such a horrible feeling. I’ve had some friends in the past who weren’t bad people, but you know, your parents always know if they’re a really great friend or not. And you don’t want to listen to them. What do they know? They’ve only been alive for 40-something years and have so much more wisdom than me, but they don’t know anything. Paige is feeling that way.
It was such an interesting turn when Elizabeth and Philip decided to start treating Paige like an adult. They even teach her that bizarre technique which she ends up using with Matthew at the diner. What did you think about that?
I loved doing that scene, just because me, personally, I didn’t want Paige to date Matthew. I didn’t want her to further complicate the family issues and stuff. That’s why I was so excited to see that she was actually listening to her parents. I feel like Philip and Elizabeth thought that technique was BS, so for Paige to actually apply it — it was really cool that her parents are that good at being spies. They can even convince their own daughter that this thing works.
When they say they’re going to teach her a technique, I thought she was going to learn some cool spy trick. And then it was like, “That’s it?”
I know! I thought the same thing when I was reading it. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool. She’s really becoming a spy!” And then on set, one of the crew members was like, “We call this thing that you’re doing ‘the little boogie,’” because it looks like I’m rolling around a booger. When I was doing it, I was thinking, Oh, God, don’t pretend you’re a spy, pretend you’re rolling a booger. It was not what I expected. I thought I was going to be beating people up. But nope, I’m doing the little boogie.
You said you liked filming the self-defense scenes. It really looks like Keri knows what she’s doing. Was that a lot of work?
They had us training a lot. I guess she’s been doing more training because she’s had to do so many stunts, especially in the first season. So, yeah, she does know quite a bit. But at the same time, they always choreograph those scenes, and Keri is so good at picking all of it up. We both used to be dancers, so I think it is easier for us because it’s just like learning new choreography. You just pick it up straight away and she adds her amazing acting to it. And she always just looks like what Elizabeth is supposed to look like. She’s so talented.
What kind of dancing did you do?
I did everything: ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, pointe. Everything. Sometimes I take a ballet class here and there. This season’s been busy and I had a lot of self-defense classes when I wasn’t working, so it was hard to fit anything else in there.
Do you still want Paige to be a spy after all this?
Yeah, I think so. The more the season went on, the less far-fetched it seemed to me. So I’m excited about that. She’s working up the courage, but you never know with the writers. They always twist and turn everything. So we’ll see where it goes.
Have you been jealous that you don’t wear wigs?
Sometimes I am jealous, but other times, when I see how early they have to be in hair and makeup just to put a wig on, I’m like, “Oh, maybe I don’t want to wake up that early.”
Do you watch Girls?
I don’t watch Girls. I saw that Matthew was on it, though, and I saw that there was an inappropriate part to it, so I was like, “Maybe I don’t want to watch that episode.”
Is it because you feel like he’s your TV dad? He was fantastic, but it’s a really creepy episode.
That’s what I’ve heard. Yeah, I just feel like I’m so used to seeing him as a father on set. It would’ve been a little uneasy to watch that.
What are your thoughts about pursuing acting as a career?
I would like to be an actress as my career, but you never know if I’ll ever get anything again after The Americans. It’s such an unpredictable career, so that’s the reason I’m going to school for advertising. That way, I’ll have a solid backup plan in case this doesn’t work out.
What can you tease about the rest of the season?
The rest of season five is very different from the other seasons. I haven’t seen the full episodes, but the little clips I’ve seen here and there are a different atmosphere. It’s a lot more about relationships between people, as opposed to beating people up and the crazy stuff that the past seasons have been. It’s more intimate and more of a slow burn. It’s very intense.
You have one more season of The Americans left to film. What have you learned from Keri and Matthew?
I think, if anything, the most that I’ve learned from them is just how to act on set as people, and how to be respectful to everyone you work with: seeing the two of them on set and how considerate they are to every single person around them, all the time; how polite they are, and easygoing, and just so not what you hear from the stereotypical Hollywood people. It’s been so nice to work with them and have that example going forward in this career.
This interview has been edited and condensed.