It’s always a little wrenching to watch The Americans, but it’s even more wrenching this season for a number of reasons. The fact that the series is ending is certainly one of them. Another is Miriam Shor.
Best known to TV audiences as publishing executive/statement-necklace queen Diana Trout on Younger, Shor has a recurring role on The Americans as Erica Haskard, the dying artist who befriends “Stephanie,” the hospice-nurse alter ego adopted by stressed spy Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). In every episode, Shor finds new layers of humanity, dry humor, and heartbreak in Erica, an ailing force of nature who figured prominently in last week’s “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” and imparts some significant lessons to Elizabeth in Wednesday night’s “The Great Patriotic War.”
Shor spoke to Vulture ahead of “The Great Patriotic War” in a wide-ranging conversation about how she was cast on The Americans, what she’s actually drawing in all those scenes, whether Erica and Diana from Younger would get along, and, most importantly, what it was like to throw up, repeatedly, on Keri Russell.
Your work on The Americans is terrific.
Oh, thank you so much. It’s weird to say this: I’m always like, “It was so much fun!” and then people who are viewing it are like, “Wait, what?” [Laughs.] But it was. It was amazing.
Was it jarring to go into this role after playing Diana on Younger?
You know, I wouldn’t say it was jarring. I would say it was wonderful. It was exactly what I wanted to do, you know? I love playing Diana — at this point, she’s like an old friend — but what I love doing is playing different characters. That’s why I’m an actor. To get to play someone who is so different, I get to exercise a different kind of muscle, which is so wonderful.
How did the part come to you?
I auditioned for it. [People are] like, “Oh, you have to audition?” I’m like, “Um, yup. That is what we do.” I don’t mind it, either.
Everyone on the show — by the way, I love saying this because I’m a fan of the show — is an absolute delight. The whole crew, the cast, everyone was a mensch. Seeing a show that’s been running for six seasons, you don’t know what you’re going into, necessarily. It’s like joining a family and some of those families can be a little dysfunctional in our business. But they are an amazing group of people who love each other and who are so fun to work with, from the grips to every director who came in. And Matthew [Rhys] and Keri [Russell], I mean, I have a mad crush on both of them.
I spent a lot of time with Keri, obviously, and she’s one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever been around, which is amazing because the character she plays on The Americans is so intense. When I tell people how we would just be laughing all day on the set, people are always kind of shocked.
I got to spend a day on the set and I observed that, too. I was watching a lot of scenes where it was just Matthew and Keri. As is typical, they were very serious scenes. But then they would stop and start cracking jokes.
Like total goofballs.
She would make me break almost every time. In the scene where I’m vomiting at the party, right before action, she’d be like, “You ruin every party.” I just couldn’t stop laughing. And then Matthew directed the second episode, so he directed me, which was amazing because I actually just finished directing an episode of Younger. It was my first time directing. I was hanging with Matthew and I asked him, “What do I say to an actor while addressing this? Give me some tips. Share your knowledge.”
What did he tell you?
He was just very generous. I would watch him and see how he’s setting up a shot. He’s an amazing actor, so he’s also very good at giving direction to actors as well. I was doing a very emotional scene, and he was gentle with how he would come in and give suggestions and be very open to all I had to bring to it.
Were you watching The Americans regularly before you did this stint?
Yes, I was. You know the episode where he pulls her teeth?
How could I forget?
So I was really, really ill in a hotel. I had the worst fever. It was food poisoning or stomach flu or something, and while I was lying there, I was watching that episode. It was just a blur. For some reason, that particular moment of The Americans has stuck with me forever. Whenever I think of one of the most disturbing things ever, it’s tied to when he was pulling her tooth out of her head.
How fitting, then, that you got to vomit on the show.
I know, exactly. It’s so great. There’s another second time left. But you haven’t seen the whole thing.
Say that again?
No, I accidentally let slip …
Oh, you get to barf again?
I do vomit in the future. Now you know.
Once you were cast, what were you told about Erica’s arc? Or was it just, week to week, go with what’s on the page?
Week to week, go with what’s on the page. Which is interesting. However, I got to meet the artist [Alyssa Monks], who created the art. I got to work with her and talk to her at length about art, about what it means to be an artist, about how she felt as an artist.
I am the worst artist on the planet, but she gave me a drawing lesson and an understanding of how she works. I wanted to see so I could physically, on some level, understand her when she’s creating art, and then I also wanted to understand her relationship, emotionally, to art, because it’s so important to Erica. It was so eye opening. She made me look at art completely differently. One thing that she said to me when I was trying to figure out how to draw, because I am just hopeless, she was like, “Don’t think about it as putting something down on this paper. Think about it as pulling something out of the paper. You’re bringing something out of it.” Which was revelatory. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who understood that concept, but it completely changed how I look at art.
In a lot of these scenes, Erica is furiously sketching. What were you actually drawing in those moments?
A lot of times, Alyssa would have done a drawing. She’d be there on set and they would say, “This is the drawing we want the character to be working on,” so Alyssa would go off and draw it and then hand it to me. But I would still watch her, how she did it, and she had given me lots of pointers in my charcoal drawing lessons. One of the other things she said to me is, “I’m not planning each thing. I’m fixing. So, I’ll start drawing out of the paper and then I’ll just need to fix this little thing and kind of smudge that and erase that. It’s all about fixing little parts of the drawing.” I thought of that every time, just this idea that you’re concentrating on fixing things. It takes you out of whatever you’re thinking. It’s very meditative. I usually would be drawing over her drawing, but there were times when they were just like, “Go to town. We’re not going to see what you’re drawing, so just do whatever you care to do.”
It’s interesting that Erica tries to teach Elizabeth/Stephanie how to draw, especially since she doesn’t like any of the other caregivers. What is it about their relationship that brings that out?
I think the other caregivers get in her way and overly fuss, and so she’s reacting to that. Elizabeth is, even as Stephanie the character — or as Keri and I dubbed her, Steph. We love Steph’s hair, first of all. It’s maybe my favorite wig I’ve ever seen. Her whole look was really working for me. But her presence was very noninvasive. She just let me do my work, right? So that was what initially ingratiated me to her. I’d be like, “Okay, she’s the one I can handle while I’m trying to work. She’s the one I want around because she won’t bother me.”
But I think she wants to impart something before she leaves the earth. She wants to share [her art knowledge] with one more person before she goes, and Elizabeth is that person. Maybe she senses a challenge there. Like, “Oh, you think art doesn’t mean anything? I’m going to show you that it does mean something to you.” I think she gets frustrated with [Elizabeth] because she’s like, “You’re not trying hard enough, and I can’t try any harder and I won’t be here anymore, so you have to try harder.” There’s so many emotions that go through a person when their life is ending and I’m sure the idea that people waste time would just tear you apart.
I do want to ask again about the vomit scene you mentioned, because I just felt so bad for Erica as I watched.
It’s awful, right?
But on a gross level, I was wondering, What is she actually barfing up?
What was I barfing up? It was a delicious casserole. I was like, “I will give $50 to anybody who eats a spoonful of this.” Nobody would. Nobody took me up on it. It was cut-up raisin and aloe juice and a little coconut water. It was delicious. After every take, I would just chew the rest of it and swallow it and everybody would be like, “Ugh!”
So you had to hold it in your mouth until they said “Go.”
Yeah, I would hold it in my mouth and then they would yell “action” and then I would puke all over Keri. Keri would be like, “Really get it on me.”
How many times did you have to throw up on her?
We did at least five takes of the puking, so a good deal. She had costume changes every time. What’s so insane is that she has this whole other scene as a spy in that moment, you know? It’s such an awful, human moment that this poor woman is going through, and then Elizabeth is also dealing with this whole other layer. This bad human moment juxtaposed with this high espionage moment is really what the show is.
What’s amazing to me about both Keri and Matthew’s performances is that you still see Elizabeth and Philip when they assume alter egos.
They make it look so easy — it’s not at all and they make it look effortless. Obviously, I’m in the scene. I’m playing the character and I’m talking to this person I think is this mousey, sheltered hospice care worker. But then I’m also an actor watching these other actors do this amazing work. To be front and center watching Keri Russell work is amazing. It was a joy to get to vomit all over her.
I don’t know if you gave this any thought, but can you imagine Diana Trout and Erica being in the same room? Do you think they would have anything in common?
I absolutely did. I will tell you why — because Diana is a big art fan. She would absolutely love anyone who was an artist and would understand her on that level. And there’s something uncompromising about Erica, right? Diana has that same work ethic, that idea, like, Don’t fuck around with me. I work harder than anyone, so you need to work as hard as I do. That is something, for sure, Erica has.
Elizabeth has that too. Maybe that’s a subconscious kind of connection.
Yeah, like a respect for someone who holds herself to a high standard, and doesn’t go about it in the kindest way. But for Diana, it’s because she’s far too self-involved to realize that she’s acting that way. For Erica, it’s because she doesn’t have time.
As a fan, did you feel satisfied when you found out what happens at the end of The Americans?
I just thought that the writers are so fucking good. Like, wow, they’re so good. I was talking about it with Keri and she was excited about it too. Just the small amount that I got to do is so exciting, to be a part of a creative process that is so well done. And you can feel that from everyone in the show. Everyone’s a fan, you know?
I actually miss being on that set. It was so fun. Even though all I did was sit in my pajamas and think about what it was like to be someone who was dying, it was fun.
That’s not true! You also got to draw and throw up.
It’s true. I got to tell you — you see what I wear on Younger — it was pretty awesome to get to come to work and wear PJs every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.