Keri Russell on 'The Americans' & More
by elizabeth thorp
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When you think of Keri Russell you might conjure The All New Mickey Mouse Club and, especially, her role in Felicity as the sweet girl-next-door with shiny brown corkscrew curls. Within 60 seconds of the pilot episode of The Americans, it’s clear Russell has not been typecast. She and Matthew Rhys (of Brothers & Sisters fame) play sleeper KGB agents who have been posing as happily married couple Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, living in suburban Washington.
Set during the Cold War, the series includes episodes that have Elizabeth Jennings kidnapping assets, subduing enemy agents, subjected to rape by her KGB trainer, tortured for information, coercing a US official with sex, and getting shot—all while raising two children and playing house. Not to mention that she and her “family” live in the DC suburbs next door to FBI agent Stan Beeman, played by veteran actor Noah Emmerich. Russell’s character can bash a bad guy’s head through a wall, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and then calmly do homework with her children.
A mother herself to two young children with husband, Shane Deary, Russell explains that when she first had kids, she was determined to do everything alone. “I tend to think I can do everything myself. I don’t even like the word nanny, so I call them babysitters. Is that weird?” she says laughing. “I recently read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, documenting a time in Paris when Hemingway and his wife were just starting out. They were totally destitute—literally, they had no money—and even they had a sitter!”
Russell admits she does appreciate having help for the family and even enjoys a little “me time” when she has to travel for work, but after one or two days she dearly misses her children—6-year-old son, River, and daughter, Willa, who is 2. But how does this low-key, hands-on, Brooklyn-based mom reconcile dropping the kids off at preschool, then heading to work to film a racy fellatio scene in black lingerie? “All in a day’s work,” she replies, giggling.
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Despite the spy setting, The Americans in truth is a story of a marriage. The arranged, covert union between KGB agents Elizabeth and Phillip has had them in the United States for 15 years. The twist is while Elizabeth is the hardened Russian agent devoted to the cause, her husband begins to enjoy life in America and is falling for his faux wife.
Trained as a dancer, Russell remembers her days on The All New Mickey Mouse Club alongside Hollywood A-listers Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears. “Growing up in Colorado, I had a scholarship to a professional dancing school. The hours were 4 pm to 9:30 pm every day after school,” explains Russell, “Because we were on scholarship, we had to first clean the studio before we danced. It was definitely grounding.”
Clearly she has retained her dancer’s strength and flexibility as evidenced in her fight scenes. Before filming the series, Russell had to train with an Israeli instructor. “This hot-chick trainer totally kicked my ass,” Russell jokes. She mostly learned Krav Maga, a defense technique developed in Israel and the Slovak Republic, because,” Russell says, “it’s the type of fighting most aligned with the type of KGB fighting of that time.”
Creator of The Americans, Joseph Weisberg worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations from 1990 to 1994 and tried to make the series as close to reality as possible. Weisberg has said that he was most inspired by stories from deep-cover CIA operatives that lived abroad with families. Weisberg based the series’ story lines around his CIA experiences, while integrating real-life events from the 1980s into the show: the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the recession, and the oil crisis. Since the show is set before the creation of the Internet, the iPhone, PDAs, etc., one of the most fascinating aspects of the show is an authentic look at CIA communication protocols and dead drops. Public phone booths, disguises, park benches, and classified ads are the methods du jour.
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“Keri does such an incredible job of making Elizabeth a cold-blooded killer with a warm heart that’s straining to break through,” Weisberg says. “You can feel it all in motion inside of her; I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The clothes are an important element of the series that sets the Reagan-era stage. Russell’s character makes “mom jeans” look good. Elizabeth wears high-waisted Guess denim, tailored pants, silk blouses, knee-high boots, and the ubiquitous trench coat. (Fortunately, the early ’80s time line means you won’t see big hair, shoulder pads, or jazz shoes.) Gushes Russell: “Our costume designer Jenny Gering is so amazing. Doing wardrobe with her is so much fun.”
The costumes, ’80s-era décor, and big cars are enhanced by timely music from Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, The Cure, Roxy Music, and other iconic acts. Remember the group Quarterflash? Nor do I. But you will recognize its quintessential song “Harden My Heart,” which opens the pilot and provides the ambience for Elizabeth’s sexy seduction of a federal official. Well, that and Russell’s blonde, Marilyn Monroe–esque wig and leather dress.
After reading the treatment for The Americans, did Russell immediately know the FX’s series would be a hit? “Honestly, you never know,” she says. “There are so many factors that go into the final product: the actors, the chemistry, the script, the setting, dialogue—you just never know until you see the final product. The show has been a delightful surprise.”
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Her Welsh co-star Rhys, who first met Russell years ago after a kickball game, says, “I opened her beer using a key. She still regales socially how impressive it was. I remember her having a mouth like a sailor—which hasn’t changed.” Indeed, in our interview Russell did drop an F-bomb or two, which immediately made me like her that much more. On working with Russell, Rhys says that she is incomparable—and incorrigible: “I’ve never worked with anyone like her. She hits me a lot.”
Industry watchers believe that The Americans has unjustly been overshadowed by other DC-centric shows like HBO’s Homeland and Netflix’s House of Cards. Even with some stiff competition from these big players in the genre, The Americans was nominated for two Emmys and four Critics’ Choice Awards, and led the nominations for the 2013 Television Critics Association Awards, ultimately winning its best new program award—beating out House of Cards and three other freshman series.
Season two is currently filming in Russell’s hometown of Brooklyn. “I ride my bike to work,” says Russell, “It looks a lot like Washington, DC, and is much closer to my family. It’s the perfect job for a working mom.”
The Americans’ second season will debut on FX in February 2014. And like a good asset, Russell will only divulge that the upcoming season is very focused on “family.” Paige, the Jennings’s teenage daughter, starts to ask her parents pointed questions. Russell embellishes: “Questions from her daughter, Paige, make Elizabeth start to think about the safety of her family and whether she can stay pure to the [KGB] cause. It gets very, very complicated.”
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After I pump Weisberg for information, he will only say, “In the second season, all the forces that push her political consciousness into conflict with her responsibilities to her family and her love for her children are going to become more intense. It’s not going to be easy for her.”
Over the holidays, Russell will also have some time off to spend with her husband and their two children. Russell stresses the importance of date nights and not having her entire identity wrapped up in motherhood. She excitedly recommends reading In Praise of Messy Lives, a book by her neighbor and friend, Katie Roiphe. “You’ll love this book. Katie has two kids, and her theory is that we’ve grown boring and conservative, more interested in being parents than in being real people,” explains Russell. “I’m not on Facebook, but one thing Katie says is most moms have photos of their kids for their profile photo, totally forgetting who they are.” (I confess, I bought the book that evening on my iPad.)
Regarding the holidays and her family, Russell says, “Christmas time gets more fun the older my kids get. In fact, I’ve been saving River’s Christmas lists. Last year he asked for a cheetah. Yes, a cheetah. That and a red T-shirt,” she chuckles. “How crazy is the cheetah and how mundane the red tee?” River’s letters will make perfect rehearsal dinner fodder.
There’s a story that Russell, famous since childhood, and her husband are so grounded that they made a communal backyard with their neighbors so the kids could all play together. Truth? “Shane, my husband, is a carpenter, and he built a secret garden gate so the three boys can visit and play together without going out the front door,” explains Russell. “The other boys are older; they’re both 10. River is so enamored with the bigger boys; it’s so cute.”
As if that doesn’t sound like Leave It to Beaver paradise, last year Russell’s husband also flooded their Brooklyn backyard, making it into a neighborhood ice hockey rink. Just like the winter wonderland in Moscow’s Gorky Park or Red Square, nyet?
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Styling by Jeanann Williams at The Wall Group; Set design by Adrian Crabbs; Makeup by Tina Turnbow using Diorskin at Crosby Carter Management; Hair by Brian Magallones at Exclusive Artists using Rene Furterer
We go behind the scenes with the SNL Weekend Update anchor.