Matthew Rhys stars as Soviet spy Philip Jennings in FX's "The… (Frank Ockenfels/FX )
Matthew Rhys was slightly hesitant to play a Soviet spy working undercover in the U.S. on FX's "The Americans."
"I'm not the big, macho, butt-kicking person," the Welsh actor said, "but I think as a cover we work well in that we blend into Americana suburbia, and therefore there's a sort of twist to it."
The "we" of which Rhys speaks is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the married spies played by Rhys and Keri Russell. He needn't have worried. The 1980s drama garnered critical acclaim and audience approval in its first season, and its Season 2 premiere at 9 p.m. Wednesday is one of the most highly anticipated returns this season.
According to Rhys, fans won't be disappointed.
"I think the writing is more muscular in the second season. The onset of imminent danger is greater, the tempo and beat -- the drum to which they walk -- is sort of louder and faster," he said during a phone chat with reporters last week, adding that the show's writers are "ticking all the boxes."
Last season, fans learned the KGB had thrown the two strangers into marriage for the greater good of Soviet Union. The Jenningses were sent to the U.S. to live as a suburban couple, carrying the ruse so far they now have two children, teenager Paige and her younger brother, Henry.
The pressure to live that lie weighed more heavily on Philip than on his defection-is-not-an-option wife. Needless to say, Season 1 was a rough time in their marriage. The new season will see a different Philip and Elizabeth, Rhys said.
"They're a much stronger front as a unit," he said. "We see them as a family -- as a unit in that respect -- face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that's encroaching on the Jennings' household."
That danger comes from outside the house -- they still live next door to FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) -- and within: Teenage Paige's growing curiosity leads her to snoop into her parents' business. That mix of spy thrills and family drama is a delicate balancing act for the show, Rhys says.
"One second you can be assassinating or honey trapping or whatever and the next you're making PB&Js for the kids, and both lives have to be credible," he said. "It's that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does."
Going from a highly successful first season, did you have any special concerns for Season 2?
To be perfectly honest, and I know this is a monumental buck pass, but I think it's the writers that feel that a lot more in a second season. They feel the pressure to deliver sort of more muscular, punchier scripts that have more bang for their buck and more pizazz, power and punch. I hate to say it, but it's their storytelling that will be the compelling magnet to draw an audience back. I think they certainly have achieved that.
Philip really busts out the disguises early the season. Will we see a lot more of them?
The disguises -- I don't envy the unenviable task of the hair and makeup department that feel with each new disguise they have to be different or bigger or better, because the reality is with the CIA they tended to use two or three sort of disguises and round-robin them. But you know it's television and we're a little more heightened and dramatic, so therefore they do need to kind of have a little bit possibly more dramatic impact. But that feeds into what the more general storyline for the Jenningses is: There is this greater feeling of danger. [It] is a lot more palatable and a lot more present, and I think they take their role of not being recognized and not being caught that much greater now, because the intensity is sort of closer on their doorstep.
Do you have a favorite?
I do. I've named him; he's called Fernando. He has longish hair. We actually saw him in the first episode of the first season when he beat up someone who was being rather lascivious with his daughter at a department store. He has, like, a mustache and long hair and a little goatee, and he feels very Latin to me.
When Philip scolds Paige about snooping around and some of the things she does in the third episode, is he doing it as a father or more as a spy who's afraid of getting caught?
One of the things I love is how layered that is. I think primarily for me what was the bigger driving force is that Philip has lived a life of lies his entire life, and I think, as a result, it had this reaction or effect on him in that he doesn't want his daughter to inherit that element to his life, which he kind of loathes now. I think there's a huge part of him that hates the fact that he has to lie bare-facedly to his children, and has done his entire life. It eats away at him. And lies become a sort of louder thing in his head when he desperately doesn't want his offspring to follow in what he had to endure.