by Mike Ayers
(CNN) — On a recent January night near the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, Keri Russell was shooting FX’s new Russian spy thriller show, “The Americans.”
She’s receiving praise from Margo Martindale about some recent espionage work she’s done as they go for a nightly stroll in a secluded park. Planes are flying overhead, along with a few lingering high school kids interrupting her train of thought, but Russell rarely wavers. She’s stoic and serious, and her brow often looks slightly furrowed, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone playing a KGB spy.
In between takes, she’s out of character, talking about her kids, the Sundance Film Festival and how tired she thinks she ought to be. A call of “action” rings out, and just like that, she’s back in spy mode.
‘”The Americans,” which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on FX, takes place in the early ’80s in the Washington area. The show comes from Joe Weisberg (“Falling Skies”), who trained to be a CIA case officer from 1990 to 1994. In 2010, when the arrest of a Russian spy network broke (including Anna Chapman), his bosses at DreamWorks Television were inspired and thought of him and his former undercover life, and “The Americans” was born.
But right from the start, it wasn’t going to be a rehashing of Bond-ian gadgets and crazy-named villains. The creators wanted to tell the story of two Russians who were brought up and trained to be undercover KGB agents and would pose as Americans to gather intelligence during the Cold War.
The twist is these two agents, Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), would be married. They’d have kids. They’d buy American products, such as high-waisted Guess Jeans. They’d do everything a typical nuclear family of the times would do, except it’s all a coy cover.
“I’d just had my second baby and a week later, people called and said, ‘We’re so awful to do this, but if you were at all interested in doing another series, this is the one,’ ” Russell recalls. “I said no a couple times. I have a baby. … I can’t be playing a spy. But it had so many different elements that were complicated.”
That’s not to say that “The Americans” doesn’t employ classic spy techniques. There’s a bevy of costumes, people sleep with each other for power and information, and there are a lot of brutal fights. In the pilot episode, Russell kicks a guy’s head through a wall, while co-star Rhys stabs a guy in the crotch with a large fork.
But Weisberg said he didn’t want to make a show that treaded familiar territory. He was more interested in the familial dynamics.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do a show was about the family and not just about a KGB spy who comes to America,” Weisberg said. “It’s about a couple with kids who don’t know what (their parents) do. This is an emotional show about a marriage and raising children. I think my interest in that came from working at the CIA and seeing those people.”
Both Russell and Rhys echoed those sentiments.
“The marriage part is the most interesting to me,” Russell said. “I love the idea of this arranged marriage, how they are a couple. I love the idea that (Elizabeth) is stunted emotionally, and after all these years, only now, she may be ready to open up and be in a real relationship with him. You get to see her so dominant and adventurous sexually outside of her marriage, but at home she’s so reserved and pulled in. I like the complicated aspect of her in that way.”
Rhys added, “That was the great attraction to the pilot, as much as any boy wants to do a spy thriller. The potential for this incredibly layered dynamic … when you first meet (Philip and Elizabeth), they’re in this brittle place. It makes for a great springboard into a series. That’s where the journey is over the season — this roller coaster of them trying to figure out what their path is, what the present is and what the future is.”
Russell’s last series was the short-lived Fox comedy “Running Wilde” in 2010. “The Americans” marks her return to dramatic television, with her last big role as Felicity Porter in J.J. Abrams’ WB series, “Felicity.” Russell is older now, with kids of her own, but she still relates to Felicity much more than her new role as Elizabeth.
“(Felicity) is much more like me,” she said. “Embarrassed all the time, super-emotional, nerdy, absolutely socially awkward. But in a way, what’s great, Elizabeth is socially awkward, too. She does have to be forward and sexual at times, but she’s doing it to get something. Her having sex is much more informative about her character; it’s not to get intimacy.”
“The Americans” will likely be compared to Showtime’s “Homeland,” mainly because both shows’ plots center on enemies of the state. But in many ways, the similarities end there. By being set in the early ’80s, there’s an inherent technological aspect about “The Americans” — or lack there of — that’s very noticeable. “It’s old school,” Russell says. “There’s no technology; there’s no phone. It’s all personal intel. It’s not like ‘I got the text!’ “
There is another parallel between the two series, but it’s up to viewers’ perceptions and how they greet the anti-hero aspects of Russell’s and Rhys’ characters.
“If you look at ‘Homeland,’ the way you find yourself feeling about Damian Lewis’ character, you catch yourself saying, “Oh my god!’ ” Rhys said about rooting for the bad guy. ” ‘Breaking Bad’ (is like that) in the same sort of way. Your reaction to those characters will be human.”
Weisberg agrees: “(Viewers) will be rooting for Philip and Elizabeth and hoping they succeed, and all of a sudden, they’ll think ‘Oh my god,’ they just did this horrible thing. How could I have been rooting for them?”
Back in Brooklyn, as the temperature drops, Russell and Martindale continue going through takes.
At one point, Russell gets a break because the crew has to readjust the lighting. “Thank God, there’s not a lot of Russian speaking,” she admits, while walking back to start. “We’re just juggling a lot of things. You’re doing sneaky things, but the whole point is to not be sneaky.”
Moments later, she demonstrates how to kick someone’s head through a wall. Like a true spy, she’s able to turn it on and off — just like that.
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