‘The Americans’: Alison Wright on Martha’s Big Moves in Season 4

Alison Wright The Americans
Courtesy of FX

English actress Alison Wright has been one of the cornerstones of FX’s critically hailed drama “The Americans” for four seasons now, but her character — FBI secretary Martha Hanson — has never had a showcase quite like this year. She found out the true identity and occupation of her husband — KGB spy Philip Jennings [Matthew Rhys], whom she knew as Clark Westerfeld — and was forced to flee for her own protection to the Soviet Union. Wright talks us through her standout episode involving Martha coming to terms with those earth-shattering revelations.

“The Americans” (FX)
Season 4 ep. 7, “Travel Agents”
Written by Tanya Barfield; directed by Dan Attias

ALISON WRIGHT: “[Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] were good enough to give me episodes six and seven together — for my character they might as well be one thing. From the very beginning it’s been inevitable that this was how [Martha’s] story was going to play out. I’d been looking forward to this moment for a long time.

“The story written for Martha has been so full and specific. I’ve had three years of all the little things they’ve written — the things she’s experienced and this journey she’s gone on with this man — that’s what I have to fill all those silences. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to pay into the bank slowly as we’ve gone along. Getting to exist in the state that she’s in has been a lot of fun.

“From the moment [Philip] picks her up off the street she never goes home again. She’s arriving in this safe house and I think it’s terrifying to her to not know who these people are or where she is. She is existing outside of the comfort zone we’ve ever seen her in. Getting to use that fear and trepidation is super helpful.

“And they did such a wonderful job with that safe house, such gorgeous attention to detail that it really was a character of its own and was very inspiring. I think it had five rooms downstairs and two upstairs. In the kitchen you could see they had layered four or five different kinds of wallpapers that would’ve been 20 years apart. It was peeling in different places and it was really beautiful. Visually it gave me so much to work with.

“I don’t think Martha’s ever been slugged in the gut before, that was definitely a first thing for her. Between trying to land the punch right and hide Keri’s baby bump there quite a bit of choreography happening. But it was great to have that scene with her because I don’t have very many. That moment is Martha’s last act of dissent until [Elizabeth] hits her and knocks the wind out of her literally and figuratively. She really hears Elizabeth’s words that they’re on to her, they know where she is and they’re coming for her. But ultimately it’s when Elizabeth says, ‘You’re going to ruin Clark’s life.’ That’s the moment she surrenders.

“I feel sorry for Matthew [Rhys], I’ve been crying at him for months now. He must be sick of the sight of my crying face, poor thing.”
Alison Wright

“I’ve had to do quite a few [phone calls] this season but this was the phone call episode for sure. It’s a nice challenge. You have to learn the whole thing, technically if the script supervisor or a PA is reading the lines to me they might be 20 feet away as they were in this case because we were in a park. She’s trying to shout the lines out to me and I couldn’t really hear but I’ve learned them anyway. In all my other phone call experiences I’ve learned that it’s sometimes easier if there’s not somebody reading the lines for you. Not everybody is qualified in line reading. Sometimes it’s better to say, ‘Actually could nobody speak and I’ll just imagine it.’ It’s much easier than somebody butchering it.

“A key thing about the phone calls, one of the juiciest things in the whole episode for me, is when she calls the switchboard and she speaks to Clark. She wasn’t expecting him to pick up, that wasn’t his number. Her very first line is ‘I wasn’t expecting you to pick up’ and that for me is a wealth of information. What was she calling to say?

“Sometimes as an actor it’s really hard to give yourself permission to take your time and move slowly and not feel like you’re holding people up or you should be going faster. That was one of the times I forced myself to take as long as I wanted to take. It was important. She has a million options of things to be thinking, and it was important for me to have enough time to be thinking all of those things in the silences. I consciously did that for myself.

“They gave me some killer lines in there that every time we went through, it would work for me. I feel sorry for Matthew, I’ve been crying at him for months now. He must be sick of the sight of my crying face, poor thing. But it was very exciting. Matthew’s very generous and fun to work with and really supportive.

“When this bomb was dropped that Martha would find out I started doing research, looking for examples of women who had been through anything that could be equally as traumatic as this. There aren’t many stories when it comes to spying and treason and whatnot, but there are stories about women who are the surviving wives of serial killers, which to me is comparable. There was one lady I found who had been a model for Martha for a little while. Her name is Judith Ridgeway and she was married to the Green River Serial Killer. After it all came out she said, ‘I love my husband but I hate the man who took him away.’ That’s something I very much had in the back of my mind the whole time during this episode. In this time of [Martha’s] life she’s seeing [Philip/Clark] as two separate people. That adds to the confusion.

“The only time [the showrunners and I] need to chat about backstory is if they’ve written something and I’m not understanding how she got there. If I’m not making the connection it’s a problem, because we’re thinking different things. The writers aren’t always around and the showrunners aren’t always around when these things are being shot and decisions are being made. But it was important for me to stay on the same page as them in these few episodes. There was more contact now, because I wanted to check in and make sure I was going in the right path knowing what the overall story is.

“They give us complete freedom really. There’s been times when they’re very open to change and suggestions of different options. Collaboratively and artistically it’s a truly wonderful environment.”