×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Breaking Down the ‘Reel’ CIA of ‘The Americans’ With Real-Life Former Agents

Gathering the creator and cast of “The Americans” together with real-life former CIA agents just ahead of the series finale of the spy drama on FX gave a chance to dissect the realism of the show’s practices. And naturally, it didn’t take long for creator and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer himself, to address the biggest question on many’s minds — the show’s use of wigs for its characters’ disguises.

Star Keri Russell shared that she always “loved” the wigs because “it’s so much easier to become a different person when you look so wildly different.” Former CIA officer Martha Peterson pointed out that she felt they were “the best-looking disguises” she’d ever seen. But former chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence center Mark Kelton added that “they were too well put on” for the real-world field work.

“When you’re actually working…you’re putting them on yourselves most of the time. You’re always worrying about the damn thing falling off,” Kelton said.

And similarly, he noted that those wearing such disguises would normally want to stay at a distance from those they are talking to because “frankly, you’d appear like you were in disguise.”

“If somebody’s sitting across the table from you, that’s not sustainable, I don’t think,” he said.

“Six years I’ve said that and nobody listened to me. Vindication!” “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys exclaimed.

Sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and the Central Intelligence Agency and held on UCLA’s campus in Los Angeles, the panel, titled Reel vs Real CIA, featured Weisberg and his stars Rhys, Russell, and Costa Ronin, alongside the real-life former agents.

Kelton noted that like many things in life, for those in the CIA, “he who adapts fastest wins” and stressed the importance of not having a problem with lying and adapting into different personas and roles for the work.

“It’s not a job, it’s a calling, and it’s not suitable for everybody,” he said. “We don’t lie to each other, but lying for a higher cause…ethics and espionage is a big issue. How somebody deals with it is something the CIA takes very seriously.”

As Ronin pointed out, actors have to adapt into different personas for their various roles, but the added level with “The Americans” was that actors often had to portray a character playing a character themselves.

“As we take on the character, we step into different parts of ourselves, but with spies, every single part of the day you have to step into somebody else and yet remember who you are and come back home and you cannot share with anybody,” he said.

Peterson shared that she always thought of this process as compartmentalizing as “right brain, left brain.” “One side was my secret place and one side was my real place,” she said. But unlike Kelton, she admitted she did have moments in her career where it was tough to lie about her story.

Peterson lost her husband when she was in her late-20s, and when she returned to the United States, she had to lie about how and why her husband died, and why they were even overseas in the first place.

“There was an emotion inside of me that was screaming,” she admitted. “I’m 27 and I just lost someone and he died for a purpose and a cause — but I could not do that. I had to downplay…and even deny that that was part of my life.”

The strain on family life is something both Kelton and Peterson thought “The Americans” depicted “quite well” — as was the level of emotion characters expressed in affecting the life around them in general. Both noted that telling children what parents in the CIA really do for a living often comes from necessity, but Russell added that intuition comes into play, too.

“They feel it, they smell it, you tell them in other ways,” Russell said of the children.

Even the idea of “Romeo spies” — men who married secretaries to gain access to intelligence — was pulled from real life, as Weisberg noted that “you can’t write stories as good as [what happens in] real life.” Kelton noted that what was key was for the agents not to fall in love — not just physically, but also not to get to the point where they can’t see flaws in the other person or they wouldn’t be able to carry out their true, full duties.

Where Kelton and Peterson admitted the show took liberties, though, was in how little time was spent on agents documenting their activities, while the Jennings were able to complete far more operations than would normally be possible in a short amount of time.

“We would never be able to sustain that pace,” Kelton said. “Operations require hundreds of hours of preparation [and feature] a lot of what ifs.”

While Rhys pointed out that “guilt, for drama, is an incredible vehicle,” Kelton added that even in the real CIA, emotions often drive actions, especially because you often don’t know the end result of the operation because it takes such a long time to play out.

“Professionalism takes over but just underneath, that is fear,” he admitted, “and fear can drive you in a positive way. You want to do everything you’ve been trained to do just right.”

More TV

  • Outlander 406

    'Outlander' Recap: Jamie Encounters William Again in 'Blood of My Blood'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Blood Of My Blood,” the sixth episode of “Outlander” Season 4. The action in “Blood of My Blood” picked up almost immediately after the previous week’s episode, as evidenced by the fact that Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) was still staying with Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and [...]

  • The Flash -- "Elseworlds, Part 1"

    'Elseworlds, Part 1' Recap: Barry Allen and Oliver Queen Swap Skills, Visit Superman

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Elseworlds, Part 1,” the first part of the 2018 “Arrowverse” crossover, which aired Dec. 9. After past crossovers that introduced beloved characters’ doppelgangers, a wedding and death, “Elseworlds,” the fifth annual “Arrowverse” event, had a lot to which to live up. Unlike previous years, [...]

  • Stranger Things

    'Stranger Things' Season 3 Teaser Reveals Episode Titles, 2019 Release

    Netflix dropped a new teaser for the upcoming third season of “Stranger Things” Sunday, confirming that it will land on the streamer in 2019. The teaser also revealed the episode titles for the third season, which are as follows: “Suzie, Do You Copy?,” “The Mall Rats,” “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” “The Sauna Test,” [...]

  • Kyzza Terrazas Joins Garcia Bernal, Diego

    Kyzza Terrazas Joins Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna’s La Corriente del Golfo (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — Launching their new production house, La Corriente de Golfo, last April, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna have tapped Mexican writer-director Kyzza Terrazas as the company’s head of development. The appointment will certainly help build the company appointing an old-rounder capable of overseeing and implementing development, writing and directing, and a longtime [...]

  • Michael Che Defends Kevin Hart on

    Michael Che Ribs Academy Over Kevin Hart Controversy on 'SNL'

    Kevin Hart may have alienated some in Hollywood over his recently resurfaced homophobic tweets, but that didn’t stop “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che from cracking some jokes in support of Hart on Dec. 8’s “Saturday Night Live.” After briefly recapping that Hart stepped down from hosting the Oscars after the 2011 tweets came to light, [...]

  • THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY

    'The Umbrella Academy' Superheroes Series Premiere Date Set on Netflix

    The dysfunctional-family superheroes of “The Umbrella Academy” are landing on Netflix worldwide on Feb. 15, 2019. The live-action series is based on the “Umbrella Academy” comic books created and written by Gerard Way and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, published by Dark Horse Comics. The Netflix original series comprises 10 one-hour episodes. “The Umbrella Academy” stars [...]

  • SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Jason Momoa"

    Robert De Niro Appears as Robert Mueller in 'Saturday Night Live' Cold Open

    Robert De Niro made a surprise appearance as special counsel Robert Mueller in “Saturday Night Live’s” cold open. De Niro popped out of a closet in a sketch that skewered President Donald Trump and the mounting legal pressure Mueller’s investigation has put on many of Trump’s associates. Alex Moffatt played Eric Trump in a bedtime-story [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content