If Matthew Rhys was worried that audiences would never see him as anything other than Kevin Walker, the gay lawyer he played for five seasons on soapy drama Brothers & Sisters, it's probably just because he hadn't gotten in touch with his inner badass yet. Fortunately, the producers of FX's The Americans the Cold War-era drama about two married Russian spies (Rhys and Felicity's Keri Russell) living undercover in suburban D.C. knew Rhys had it in him to play a trained killer (who also happens to be a devoted father). ''When the script came along, it was a real shock to be considered for this kind of part,'' admits Rhys, 38. ''I was flabbergasted, actually.''
The show's creator, former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, says it was Rhys' first and only chemistry test with Russell that won him the role of Philip Jennings. That audition scene from the pilot called for Russell's character, Elizabeth, to slap her husband after he suggested they betray their native Russia. The moment was anticipated, but no one expected the whopping blow Russell had planned. ''She hit him so hard, because they were both so into the scene, and Matthew didn't even flinch,'' Weisberg remembers. ''When he took that hit, he just seemed like the toughest guy in the world.'' (Rhys jokes that his straight face was a result of ''shock.'')
The wallop is emblematic of the action packed into the show's first season, which aired its finale on May 1. In 13 episodes, viewers saw it all: gunplay, dangerously close calls (the Jenningses live near a nosy FBI agent), car chases, and intense fight scenes that required Rhys to train in kickboxing, jujitsu, and Krav Maga. Underneath all that sizzle, though, it was Elizabeth and Philip's complicated relationship an arranged marriage that becomes more and more loving that kept the show grounded. Says Rhys: ''I think what they've done is made the key themes universal themes about marriage, about relationships, and about the hardships of relationships.''
With The Americans picked up for a second season, executive producer Joel Fields says he can't imagine another leading man in the role. ''It's often in the in-between moments that he'll find magic in between the lines and reactions, in silent interactions where things are just human and simple and real.'' Rhys is thankful for the praise but prefers not to dwell on the idea that his work may earn him an Emmy nod. ''I try not to indulge in that thought too much because it's all sort of madness,'' he says. ''Beautiful madness.''