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Three Rounds With 'The Americans'

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play the consummate spies on the Addictive FX Drama. But even they can be broken...with beer and tacos.

Image credit: BEN WATTS for EW

The Americans' Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell

Marriage has its share of challenges, but it's safe to presume that government espionage, brutal torture, and hand-to-hand combat aren't issues that affect typical couples. For The Americans' undercover KGB agents Philip (Matthew "Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), though, those things are all on the daily to-do list. The thrill of the series, created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, is in watching the Jenningses maintain their 1980s suburban charade while living across the street from an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) whose job is to uncover the Russians in our midst. Plus, they get to wear elaborate costumes and kick serious ass — it is a spy show, after all. The second season of the FX drama, premiering Feb. 26 at 10 p.m., will find the couple struggling to protect their two young children from their increasingly dangerous jobs.

Viewers know Philip and Elizabeth are tough nuts to crack, even under torture, but it turns out Rhys, 39, and Russell, 37, are much more loose-lipped — especially after you get some beer in them. During a break from filming, the pair threw back a few at Brooklyn's Gran/Eléctrica, where they talked about donning disguises, learning spy moves, and who's a better fighter.

Entertainment Weekly Matthew, you were late because production ran over. What were you shooting?
Matthew Rhys I'm shooting [a scene] with our handler.
EW Were you wearing a mustache?
Rhys No, because she knows who we are.
Keri Russell We kept waiting for you and all these workers from the kitchen kept walking in. And I was like, "There he is," like he's in disguise.
EW I wish you would have come in with, like, a ponytail.
Russell We name all the disguises. He has way better ones than me. He transforms very easily.
EW Give me some names of the disguises.
Russell Our favorite, the one that all the ladies like, is Fernando. [Laughter] And Fernando is Spanish. We decided he's a flamenco teacher and he's incredibly sexy.
EW For season 1, did you go to spy school?
Rhys No, we had a little seminar with our show creator, Joe Weisberg, who showed us how to countersurveil each other. Very unsuccessfully, I would hasten to add.
EW How does that work?
Rhys One of the exercises he had us do was trying to discover if you're being followed. So I think actors would be very good, especially television actors. You spend your life with a camera, this large object next to you that you're supposed to ignore but also incorporate in every sense of what you do. So you would think it would be second nature for us to sort of ignore but engage with something. Not for me. She was better.
EW Keri, you're a better spy?
Rhys She's better at everything.
Russell No.
Rhys She is! She does everything to an A-grade level, including modesty.
EW Which one of you is a better fighter?
Russell It's a toss-up because I have a dance background so I can remember choreography, but he's actually done Muay Thai and jujitsu.
EW But you also had to learn how to stick-fight Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III.
Russell Which is no small feat.
Rhys He has small feet?
EW Weisberg used to be in the CIA. Have you ever tried taking him out for drinks and getting him to reveal secrets?
Rhys I am unashamedly asking him things like ''Tell me something you're not supposed to say.'' He's like, ''No.''
EW Do you use these spy skills in real life now? Like, Keri, can you tell when your kids are lying to you?
Rhys Yeah, because she hooks them up to this machine and they have to answer ''yes'' or ''no.'' They start sweating.
Russell The 2-year-old gets really nervous.

Round 2: Three Sixpoint Bengali Tiger Beers, Pork Shoulder And Beef Brisket Tacos
EW Margo Martindale is fantastic as your cold-blooded handler, Claudia. What's she like to work with?
Russell She's so boring. [Laughs] She has nothing to say, no personality.
Rhys She's just dull. And no sense of humor. She's lucky she has that hair, or she wouldn't have a career.
Russell She's so great, my God. I just want more and more and more of her.
EW Keri, you had a brutal fight scene with her in season 1. Was it weird to punch her repeatedly?
Rhys It was like any other day. Just the cameras were rolling.
Russell When I see her I just want to punch her in the face. It was really a stuntperson. That stuff is so physical. I always feel so much better working with stuntpersons because you can let loose. They're so in control of that stuff.
Rhys Also, if you really punch them, they don't care. They actually don't. They're like, ''I'm good, keep going.''
Russell Last night, [one of the stunt guys] clocked me in the mouth. I was bloody.
Rhys I'll say this much: She is tough as old s---, Russell. Oh my God. Like an old leather shoe. Maybe not the best description!
Russell Thank you, Mr. Rhys!
EW Who's a better fighter, Margo Martindale or Tom Cruise?
Russell Well, Margo has some zingers that would lay you out.
Rhys But Tom would keep coming. He's tenacious, you can tell by his acting.
EW You both wear so many wigs. Are you a fan of wigs now?
Russell No, but I am a fan of him in a mustache.
Rhys The mustache is good because more often than not it's always coming off. So you tend not to move your top lip and all of a sudden you have an instant character. They call me the Japanese geisha because when I laugh I go like this. I go [puts his hands up to his mouth and emits a high-pitched laugh].
EW What were you two like in the '80s?
Russell [He was a] break-dancer in Wales.
Rhys When children hit a certain age, parents look out into the community to see what kinds of classes they can pack children off to do for two hours on a Wednesday evening. And there was a local community center called the Rubicon. So yeah, there was a lot of break dancing.
EW Keri, what were you like in the '80s?
Russell Probably just lots of big hair and braces. I was probably listening to really sad, sad love songs.
Rhys Cyndi Lauper, ''Time After Time.''
Russell I stand by that one. It's a classic.
EW So what secrets would surprise us about the two of you?
Russell He can make amazing sound effects.
EW What's something surprising about Keri?
Rhys Probably the burping.
Russell Well, I eat a lot.
Rhys She does; you'd be surprised. Keri ''The Horse'' Russell. She eats like an Iowa farmer.

Round 3: Churros And Chocolate Sauce, Three Sixpoint Bengali Tiger Beers
EW Matthew, Brothers & Sisters featured lots of scenes with characters drinking wine. What were you all actually drinking?
Rhys On a Friday night it would be wine. And then if, say, there was a lunch scene there would be wine, and then we'd get to the point where we were asked not to drink anymore, and then we'd go back to Welch's grape juice.
EW Who could drink the most and still act?
Rhys There were drinkers on that set. Ron Rifkin, Rachel Griffiths. [Calista] Flockhart, surprisingly — loves a glass.
EW Sally Field?
Rhys Loves a white wine. No stranger to a sauvignon.
EW Veronica Mars is being brought back as a movie thanks to Kickstarter. Keri, would you ever do a Felicity reunion movie?
Russell I don't think that's up to me!
Rhys Wouldn't it be great if Felicity is, like, a streetwalker? That would be interesting.
EW Did you know that Sara Bareilles is scoring a musical adaptation of your film Waitress?
Russell What?! Fascinating.
EW Would you ever do a Broadway musical?
Russell God, no. No one needs to hear me sing.
EW The Americans is shot in Brooklyn, where you both live. Do you guys ever run into other Brooklyn productions, like Girls?
Russell I see them on the street a lot.
Rhys We shout things.
EW Like "Get out of our decade! It's the '80s! Get out of here, Lena Dunham. You're not conceived!"
Rhys Not even a twinkle.
EW Your show was a bit of a slow burn — are more people coming up to you now to tell you how much they love The Americans?
Russell More than anything I've ever done.
EW Really? What do they say to you?
Russell Most of what they say is ''I like how you beat the s--- out of that woman.''

Originally posted Feb 06, 2014 Published in issue #1298 Feb 14, 2014 Order article reprints