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Matthew Rhys Talks The Americans Series Finale, Marriage to Keri Russell and The Wine Show
May 31, 2018
“OH NOOOOOO! I desperately hoped that statement ended better.” Matthew Rhys has just learned that Cocktail—the 1988 Tom Cruise film that’s basically Top Gun, but behind a bar—does not hold up. That it’s bad. (At least, according to me.) And Rhys, by his own admission, is devastated. “Cocktail is an all-time favorite,” he says.
He’s probably joking. Rhys—or Rhysee, as some people call him—has what I’ve learned is a famous sense of humor. His friend and neighbor Adam Driver describes Rhys as having one of the quickest wits of anyone he knows. But Cocktail is also the movie that led to Rhys’s longstanding celebrity crush: Elisabeth Shue. So maybe he’s serious?
Rhys’s in-real-life crush Keri Russell is also a celebrity, as well as his co-star on The Americans. They’ve made a home together in Brooklyn with her two children from a previous marriage and their two-year-old son, whose name is Sam. A typical evening in the Rhys-Russell household sounds incredibly hectic. “It can go any direction in 12 seconds,” the 43-year-old Welshman says.
The most critical hours in the day, Rhys explains, are from 4:30 in the afternoon until the last child is down to bed. “You evaluate the success of the entire day on those hours,” he says. “And if you get all three fed, vegetables eaten, someone’s asked me a question at dinner, bath, Harry Potter’s read, they’re in bed, and all three haven’t cried, it’s an enormous success.”
For the past five years, Rhys and Russell—separately and then, in an explosion of tabloid headlines, together—have spent many evenings away from home shooting The Americans. Now that the show has ended, with its finale airing Wednesday night, the couple are embracing a quieter life. Russell has said she’s looking forward to dinners with friends and taking her kids to school. Rhys is restoring a very old boat.
“I’m a Welshman, so how vulnerable will I ever be is questionable. I was raised on a damn island.”
Living the easy life in Brooklyn comes after a remarkable half-decade run for Rhys. During The Americans’ six seasons, Rhys has earned two Emmy nominations for his role as a KGB officer, played an important part in Steven Spielberg’s most recent Oscar-nominated film, The Post, found his significant other, taken his turn as tabloid fodder, become a father, and, perhaps most importantly of all, made a home.
Few people have enjoyed as good a five years as Matthew Rhys has, and it’s all thanks to a surprising TV thriller about Russian spies.
In a very weird twist that exactly no one on the show saw coming, America caught up with The Americans. The FX series follows two Russian spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who pose as American travel agents in suburban Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. They don wigs and mustaches and snoop around; they fuck people for secrets, kill people who get in their way, and, generally, get into and out of adventures. All of this occurs while they raise two children and navigate a friendship with their neighbor, Stan Beeman, a counter-intelligence officer for the FBI.
When the show debuted in January 2013, Russia was far from the minds of most Americans. But in 2018, it’s a centrifugal force in the nation’s politics, with nearly every event somehow orbiting around the topic. That has meant very little to the show’s executive producers, Joe Weisberg (also the show’s creator) and Joel Fields, both of whom have stayed hermetically sealed in the ’80s—even after our country’s relationship with Russia seemingly turned after the 2016 election.
“We know it changes the audience’s experiences, and we just hope for a day that they can experience the show the way they did in the first season, where one can look back in bemusement that the Russians were ever considered an enemy,” Fields says, rather diplomatically.
I almost gave up on The Americans about a third of the way through the first season, back when Russian spies were the kind of Cold War relics as depicted in the series. Beyond feeling dramatically and stylishly dated à la the ’60s-set Mad Men, it also felt so very formulaic—like Law & Order, but with spies. Those first episodes followed the same narrative: Philip and Elizabeth get an assignment from “The Center,” things get hairy and then—voila—they pull it off.
Rhys and Russell in The Americans.
It isn’t until the first season’s eighth episode—“Mutually Assured Destruction”—that the show revealed itself to be more about the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, and their roles as parents. The Americans was, in fact, a family drama, with some spy stuff thrown in between. And it’s evolved into one of TV’s greatest dramas.
While the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth unfolded on screen, the real-life romance between Matthew and Keri was also blossoming. Seven months after the first season aired, Russell split with her husband; shortly thereafter, rumors began to spread about the on-set romance. The pair denied it for months until, in 2014, People magazine confirmed they were a couple.
I ask Rhys whether the real-life relationship allowed him to take more risks as an actor, to go places as an on-screen married couple that he might’ve avoided with other scene partners. In fact, Rhys admits, it was the opposite. He took fewer risks in those first couple seasons, because he didn’t want to make a fool of himself.
“My acting was worse,” he says. “I was trying to impress her so much I wasn’t doing anything.” (To his credit, Weisberg and Fields insist they didn’t notice any glitch in Rhys’s performance.) And then, as if he’s just realizing this for the first time, Rhys shouts: “THAT’S WHY WE DIDN’T GET NOMINATED FOR EMMYS IN SEASONS ONE, TWO, AND THREE. DAMN YOU, KERI RUSSELL!”
“My acting was worse. I was trying to impress her so much I wasn’t doing anything.”
Once they were together, however, he did begin taking bigger risks. “We could go on this great adventure together,” he says, before reconsidering for a moment. “Listen, I’m a Welshman, so how vulnerable will I ever be is questionable. I was raised on a damn island. But yes, I did become better at becoming vulnerable.” (Rhys was doing something right; he earned back-t0-back Emmy nominations in 2016 and 2017.)
If you haven’t watched the series finale yet, but plan to, this is where you should stop reading. The final episode of The Americans plays out like one extended gut punch thanks in large part to Rhys’s vulnerability. After six seasons, the FBI neighbor finally figures out their true identities, and Philip and Elizabeth are forced to flee the country. In one scene, in a McDonald’s, Rhys looks longingly at a family eating dinner at a nearby table. He wants that ordinary life so badly, and he knows he’ll never achieve it. It’s quite possibly the most heart wrenching piece of acting to ever take place inside the Golden Arches.
Ultimately, Philip and Elizabeth must abandon not only their life in America but also their children. The show ends on a shot of the couple as they look out over Moscow. They got away, but at what cost? For Rhys, this is not a happy ending.
“I don’t think anyone who’s had children and had to leave them in that way could live happily ever after,” he says.
“And,” he adds, “I think the food in Moscow would be shit.”
About that sense of humor: It doesn’t come across in his depiction of Philip, but Matthew Rhys is a funny guy. He’s self-deprecating, easy to make laugh, and quick with an impersonation—including Buzz Lightyear when he’s stuck on Spanish mode and Billy Bob Thornton in an interview discussing the Emmys. There’s a series of red-carpet photos of Rhys at the premiere of mother! in which Rhys is briefly topless. Russell, beside him, is in stitches. (Rhys says he was putting on a Sierra Club t-shirt to show his support.)
According to Joe Weisberg, Rhys frequently helped lighten the mood when the cameras weren’t rolling. “On set, the nights can get very long,” he says. “One of the things that Matthew did was keep everybody laughing.”
Rhys has never been in a pure comedy—there have been hybrids of drama and laughs—although he has auditioned for comedic roles. Born and raised in Cardiff, Wales, by parents who were teachers, Rhys attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and throughout the ’90s appeared in TV shows and movies in the U.K. and New Zealand. There were a couple of times during that stretch when Rhys figured he’d made it. In 1998, he moved to Hollywood at the urging of his agent and quickly landed a role in Julie Taymor’s bloody adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus opposite Anthony Hopkins. “I thought, fucking hell, L.A.’s great—you just rock up and get huge movies with big movie stars,” Rhys told The Telegraph in 2013. “Then that never happened again for years after.”
The same thing happened in 2000, when he got the lead role in a West End stage production of The Graduate. “Well this is it,” he says, thinking back to the role. “This is the big job.” It wasn’t. More jobs came, but he wouldn’t get a big recurring part until 2006, when he took joined the cast of ABC’s Brothers and Sisters, which ran for six seasons.
Rhys alongside co-star Kathleen Turner as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate.
The funniest thing he’s done so far is The Wine Show, a British TV series (U.S. audiences can see it on Hulu) in which Rhys and his friend, the actor Matthew Goode, tour Italy with a master sommelier tasting wine. They are supposed to be the wine dummies, and Rhys lends a much-needed silliness to a show that is, at times, stiffer that it needs to be.
Rhys insists—with a laugh—that The Wine Show is an incredibly hard job. The day begins at 8:30; by 11 a.m., he’s wasted. The producers would tell him: “You’ve got to stop saying, ‘It’s a nice wine’ or ‘it’s a really good red.’ You have to come up with something else.” By about 6:30, they would implore him to not slur his words.
“The genius of Matthew Rhys was very obvious at the start.”
Rhys was mostly absent from the second season of The Wine Show because he got a bigger offer—to appear as Pentagon Papers scribe Daniel Ellsberg in The Post. It nearly broke his mother’s heart. Apologies to Spielberg, but she thinks The Wine Show is the best thing he’s ever done. (Rhys plans to return for a third season.)
Adam Driver attributes Rhys’s sense of humor to him being a good listener. “He takes everything you’re saying and throws them back at you, referencing things you forgot you said.” Driver says. “You can’t keep up with how quick he is.”
Rhys and Driver’s relationship goes back to 2012—before the Spielberg movie, the Emmy nominations, the relationship with Russell and the family they’ve built, and, for that matter, before Driver became an international star with Star Wars—when they were doing the off-Broadway play Look Back in Anger. It was around this time when Rhys was in search of a home. Brothers and Sisters had wrapped up, and Rhys decided L.A. wasn’t right for him. So he thought about going back to the U.K.
Leslee Feldman, a casting director, saw one of the performances and told Weisberg and Fields—who were searching for Russell’s co-star—that they had to check out Rhys. By the time the curtain went up, they thought they’d found their guy. Rhys had displayed the intensity and anger necessary for the role of Philip, so they invited him to read with Russell.
Rhys asked Driver, who had just finished shooting the pilot for Girls, to help practice lines. In the dressing room at the Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street, Driver read the part of Elizabeth Jennings, while Rhys ran lines for Philip. Not long after that, Rhys was in a room with Russell. There was something in the air, Weisberg says of that moment—something true and believable between them.
But they knew Rhys was their man after Russell slapped him.
The scene they were reading takes place in the pilot, when Philip suggests to Elizabeth that they defect to the United States. She slaps him—and during the reading, Russell really hit him. She beat the shit out of him, according to Weisberg. “I wondered whether anyone in a casting session had ever hit anyone that hard,” he says. But Rhys didn’t flinch. “Only Philip Jennings could take a hit like that.”
“The genius of Matthew Rhys was very obvious at the start,” Weisberg adds.
It may have been obvious to them, but for Rhys, all of this came down to a quirk of fate. If Nielsen hadn’t seen that play, Rhys wouldn’t have been in that room with Russell, absorbing the slap as only Philip Jennings could. “It blows my mind that the planets aligned in that moment,” he says.
There are moments in a person’s life when everything changes. Some of these are obvious: a wedding day, the birth of a child, the start of a new job. But there are also the moments that set up these bigger events, and it’s only after a period of time—during which there might be success or failure—that they reveal themselves to be so important. For Rhys, it was in that dressing room with Driver while they read lines for The Americans that the next five years of his life were splayed out before him. But he had no idea—no idea that he was about to land this role and meet the woman who would become his partner and the mother of his child. No idea that he was about to find his home in Brooklyn, where, on a good night, the kids have eaten, asked him a question, read their Harry Potter, and gone to bed without incident.
All of these moments are fleeting, of course. And as much as we try to hang on to them, or recreate them, or lean on them to help color our present, news ones are waiting to take their place, to steer our lives in new directions. The things we take with us are the experiences and the relationships. Wherever the next five years take Matthew Rhys, he has plenty of both to take along with him.