We were all a little stunned when Felicity Porter, the University of New York's most famous student (aka Keri Russell), showed up as a gun-toting operative alongside Tom Cruise in 2005's Mission: Impossible III. But the gamble worked. Nobody was talking about her haircut, that's for sure. In a weird way, then, Russell's role on FX's The Americans is a logical progression. She and Brothers & Sisters' Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, married spies who live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, but there's a twist: They work for the other guys, specifically Cold War-era Soviets.
TVGuide.com sat down with Russell to find out why she signed on, what's in store for the Jenningses and how Felicity creator J.J. Abrams had a certain prescience about her new job.
What attracted you to this role?
Keri Russell: I like that it's not such a clear thing. It's not a straightforward procedural. It's so complex, I'm still not sure if I understand it. It could be many different things! [Laughs] Letting the spy stuff fall to the side, it really feels, at its best, like a metaphor for marriage. I know they're fighting about the politics of these giant countries, but really, at the root of it, it's these two people trying to be in a relationship and being at odds with each other.
What is your take on Elizabeth Jennings?
Russell: On paper, Phillip is the more relatable one by far. He's the likable one. She's all jammed-up emotionally. But I like that she's cold. I think it's fun and interesting to play.
Phillip certainly seems to love her, but does she reciprocate?
Russell: I don't think she has been in love with him. When Elizabeth joined the KGB, she was so young and I don't think she had any sexual experience. I think she took care of her mom and they were in an intense environment. She just wanted to succeed and do what she should. I think she sees Phillip as weak in some ways. I do think, in the [first episode], when he crosses the line and does something she knows he doesn't want to do — he wants to defect — she feels protected for the first time.
She also takes the fall for him, telling the general that she's at fault. Is she protecting him because she cares or because she wants to continue the mission?
Russell: I think she cares about him in that moment, but I also think she doesn't want anyone to think that she f---ed up. And that will continue through the whole series. Will she tell on him? Can she remain true to herself and still be quiet about knowing about his thoughts? There are a lot of layers in what's happening.
There's also the question of whether it truly is a coincidence that an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich's Stan Beeman) moved in across the street. How will that cat-and-mouse game unfold?
Russell: That will be ever-present and it gets really fun. The great thing is that Stan starts running someone who works in the KGB Rezidentura, so he has a mole inside telling him stuff and it's all about who's going to tell on who. It gets really good.
How will she feel about Phillip getting close to Stan?
Russell: Phillip, by nature, is so breezy about things and probably gets a little thrill by it because he knows he's so confident about what he does, that he will move further into the relationship. He feels like everything's going to be fine. She's like, "You better f---ing watch yourself and watch this family!" That will be another problem.
What can you tell us about their upcoming missions?
Russell: There's usually a mission every episode. In the third episode, Reagan gets shot, so we're watching that happen. Interestingly, I guess that the KGB knew a lot more information before the American public even knew, so once Reagan gets shot, everything is heightened enormously because there's the threat of nuclear war. We, as Americans, didn't realize how close it actually came.
In a way, we know the endgame: These people were either killed or defected...
Russell: Every 10 years there's a whole new crop of them!
What will the audience find intriguing in their particular story even though we know they don't win?
Russell: I think there's always the threat that someone will find them out and what's going to happen to their kids? If one gets found out and tortured, then the other one is probably going to too. I remember when I did Felicity, J.J. Abrams used to always say, "We just need bigger stakes! Why can't she just be a spy or something because there are only so many tests you're worried about failing!?" [Laughs] It's so true! The great thing about this kind of show is that the stakes can be so ridiculously high. It's not like, "He broke up with me!" There's a lot of high stakes and there will continue to be.
The Americans airs Wednesday at 10/9c on FX.