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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.”

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