Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans. Photo credit: FX
Chatting with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the masterminds behind FX’s new hit series The Americans, can get confusing. It’s not just that there are two voices on the phone, but also that their names sound so much alike. Before I get around to asking them to identify themselves when they’re speaking, Joe says, “You probably want to know who’s Joe and who’s Joel. We don’t usually tell, but in this case, we’ll make an exception.”
This leads to them joking that they’re quoted interchangeably in the press, and sometimes even in the office. But Keri Russell has cleverly come up with a solution to the problem. “Keri has started referring to us as The J’s,” Joel says, “and it’s taken to everyone on the show. Now we’re just kind of collectively known as The J’s.”
The Americans debuted in late January to buzz and acclaim. The pilot episode was a carefully crafted introduction to a world of complex characters and themes that have continued to run throughout the course of the first season. Set in 1981 during the Cold War, The Americans stars Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings, KGB agents who are posing as a married American couple in Washington, D.C. Fifteen years and two children later, the marriage is starting to feel real as opposed to the arrangement that it initially was. The danger factor has also ratcheted up a few notches with an FBI agent (Stan Beeman played by Noah Emmerich) moving in across the street and President Reagan’s new policies and stance on the Cold War.
The J’s chatted about how lucky they are to work with FX, how much of the show pulls from Joe’s personal experiences (he worked at the CIA in the early 90s), amazing performances and even a little bit about what to expect in the coming episodes.
Don’t miss the last two episodes of The Americans, on Wednesday, April 24 and Wednesday, May 1 at 10 p.m. on FX (ch. 248).
The Americans is a great show. FX has been knocking them out of the park with what they’re picking up.
Joel: They are and it’s not an accident. They challenge us all the time to go deeper, to be richer. They are supportive and they are so encouraging of our artistic exploration. It’s amazingly fun to work with executives who care about art.
Joe: We were talking about it this morning on the subway. You sometimes hear stories about different networks and problems they create and whatnot and we were talking about how lucky we are to work at FX where the only thing that ever happens is they make the show better.
Joel: They’re deeply respectful and supportive of our artistic instincts. On the one hand, they ask provocative questions and they encourage us to dig deeper into the characters. They also add the following caveat to every thought, suggestion and provocation: “But it’s your show. You follow your instincts. These are just our thoughts.” And they genuinely mean that too. We feel very safe and encouraged.
Do you think that this show would work as well as it does on another network?
Joe: I really don’t think it would have been on another network. I think just that very issue of doing a show where the heroes of the show are KGB officers, where the heroes of the show are actually the enemies of the United States – I don’t think another network would have really made that leap. In fact, I know it [laughter from both]. I know for a fact that there was only one that was willing to do that.
How many networks did you pitch this to?
Joe: A lot. I don’t remember the exact number but it was a lot. You go into the development process and you never know what a show would have turned into or would have become at different places. But I can tell you that as we developed it at FX, that we developed it in such close creative partnership that…it’s not just that it has their imprint on it, it’s something that we really built together. It’s not just that it’s different because it’s on FX, it’s really their show.
Joe, you were in the CIA. Is any part of this series autobiographical?
Joe: I was in the CIA in the early 90s, so a lot of the tradecraft and espionage type stuff that’s in this show is based on stuff that I learned at the CIA. The tradecraft is period. So the dead drops and the communications protocols and the way that the agents are handled is all based on the training that I received rather than how things are done today.
I never served abroad but I worked side-by-side with people who did and I was struck by a lot of things including their stories about what it was like to live and serve with a family and spy abroad. Particulary, I was very moved by what it was like to raise kids while not telling the kids what you really did. And then, to sit down with those kids one day as teenagers and have what was called “The Talk” with them and tell them what mom or dad really did for a living because they were finally old enough to keep a secret. I was very interested in bringing that to TV – the idea of a family of spies, not just a single spy.
While you were at the CIA, were you planning to write about the experiences that you had when you left?
Joe: No. I like to tell the story that when I took my polygraph – the entrance exam polygraph – you have to take a number of polygraphs when you’re there but the first one is to get in because if they suspect you’re lying or holding back or if there are things they find suspicious, they don’t hire you in the first place. One of the questions they ask is “Are you expecting to join the CIA in order to gain background knowledge about the world of intelligence so that you can write about it later?” If they find out that that’s what you’re doing, they don’t hire you. They don’t want people who are joining for that reason. I was able to answer that question with a clear conscience. That was not what I was doing. I was really there to be a spy. After I left the agency, I didn’t tell anyone that I had been working at the CIA for many, many years and I did not write about it for almost ten years. So, no.
I still haven’t told anybody. [both laugh]
I feel kind of bad for Phillip. He’s always been in love with Elizabeth and just when she’s finally starting to come around, he hurts her and she’s back to being the ice queen.
Joel: Joe and I were just talking about this issue of Elizabeth being perceived as an ice queen this morning. I think Elizabeth is rightfully defended emotionally. She is a rape victim who has had to trade on her sexuality for her career in order to do her mission for her country. She lost her father and was raised as a single child in a lonely, cold world. There’s nothing lonelier – well I can imagine – than being a spy. You live in a world of lies and in a strange place where no relationship can be genuine. And here she is finally trying to open up to somebody and being deeply hurt after [giving] herself for the first time.
Was that something that you planned to do? Have her start to warm up and then pull back?
Joel: We don’t really build the show in that kind of architectural way of wanting to do something and then pull the rug out. It’s more of an organic character process. What Joe created in this show is already so fundamentally rich and dense in a good way that things are functioning on so many levels. It’s just the natural consequence of the lives that they lead that they’re exploring what marriage is. What’s arranged marriage? What’s romantic marriage? Ultimately, what does it mean to be true to yourself, to be true to each other. All of these things that they’re forced to address because they’re spies, we also deal with – just in a smaller scale – in ordinary relationships. As someone said in our writer’s room and I’m sure they weren’t the first person to say it, “We’re all spies in our own lives.” We can’t really know other people. We have a hard time knowing ourselves. So the show is, in a lot of ways, about identity. Who are we? What matters beyond what we do? Does it matter what we feel? Their feelings were warming up for each other and then what blew things apart was really, in the case of Phillip, the exposure of the truth about an action.
Is their separation temporary?
Joel: Sometimes you need to separate in order to find each other. These are two people who were forced to be together and maybe there’s something very liberating about realizing that they don’t have to be, and once they realize that they don’t have to be, then they can figure out if they want to be. But as long as they feel like they’re together because that’s the charade they’re forced to put on, they can never have a real relationship. In realizing it’s their choice, when they make the choice, then they can really start to explore things.
These characters are so richly drawn, even from the pilot episode you had a good idea of who they were and that’s hard to come by in a new TV show. How did you create such rich characters right off the bat?
Joe: We spent two years developing the show and a lot of that was exactly what you’re talking about. So much work went into the characters and the relationships and who they were, what their back stories were, where they came from, how they relate to each other. Also, in terms of the script, for every scene [we asked] what was real. What would these people do? What would they do in these situations? How would they connect with and relate to each other?
When you spend that much time on it and put that much attention to it, it gets more real and you can get a depth and reality to the characters. I think it’s helped us in the series because as we began to write multiple episodes it always felt like there was a richness and reality to the characters that we could draw – that they felt real.
As the viewer, they feel real too, and as it goes along and they get more fleshed out they feel even more real.
Joe: The other thing I can say about it is that the actors are so extraordinary and they breathe this life into them and the life they breathe into them is different than what I imagined and different from what was in my head. Even as we write, and I don’t know if I’m speaking for both of us or just myself, I think it’s different than what I tend to see in my imagination when we write the scenes. These actors just inhabit these people and become these people and they’re just so fucking good.
Stan got involved with Nina, beyond her being his informant, which I think everyone saw coming.
Joe: Don’t drink and spy. [both laugh]
Should we be worried about Stan?
Joel: I think it’s fair to say you should worry about Stan. This show takes place during the Cold War. And that was a war and these characters are essentially soldiers in that war and you should worry about everybody in a war. And everybody should worry about their moral barometer in a war. We should all worry about it every day in our lives – we don’t. But all of that is amplified in war time and these people are living in war time in a world that’s pretending to be at peace. In 1981 America, everyone is walking around excited that new Atari games are coming out and these people are at war.
His marriage is on the rocks. What’s going to happen with it? Are they going to work on it?
Joel: You’re going to see a real struggle growing inside Stan. And that’s something that we’ll explore beyond this season too.
Margo Martindale is amazing. How long can you keep her?
Joe: Ha. That’s a good question. We hope a long time, but we’ll have to see.
Can you tell the top FX executives that she should be on all of their shows, for at least a couple of episodes?
Joel: No. No! Just The Americans. Just The Americans. She’s ours. [Joe laughs]
I’m still heartbroken that Mags Bennett isn’t on Justified any more.
Joel: She’s dead. She is ours now and we love her. She’s fantastic. If we killed her, I think there’s a good chance she’d wind up on anther FX show, but we’re not going to make that mistake.