“The Americans” has taken quite the Tolstoyan journey on both sides of the camera since the pilot for the FX espionage drama was shot in the spring of 2012.
Since then, Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, have donned countless disguises, killed dozens of fellow travelers (and a few innocents), and raised two kids under the cover of being a typical American family in suburban Washington, D.C.
As the show prepares for the launch of its sixth and final season on March 28, Variety spoke with showrunners Joe Weisberg (creator of the series) and Joel Fields and a host of other key players about what made the show unique, how it evolved over 75 episodes, and how they are bringing it in for a landing.
Here are highlights of those conversations:
Joe Weisberg: It all goes back to the marriage. It started out as a show about a marriage and it stayed that all along. It’s about a couple in a very odd and unusual situation. Despite that, everything they experience and felt and went through we always thought could be relatable to everyone. Everybody involved in the show was drawn to this couple and to their marriage and drawn to the idea as it started out that he was more in love with her than she was with him. But from the very beginning in the pilot something happened and she started to soften and pull back to him. We talk a lot about history and politics and what it means to have enemies that are not that different from you. it is an important part of the show. what makes you feel in this show is that marriage.
Joel Fields: I remember reading this book on Israeli startup companies and one of the things it said is that the Israeli Army has a policy that every day, even if they’re at war, they all stop and talk about how the battle’s going. Even if they’re in the middle of the battle, they stop and discuss how it’s going and they think that’s one of the reasons why the companies are successful. That first season for us was not a battle by any stretch. No real people were being killed but a lot of fictional people were being killed. We were working very hard and crazy long hours. We traded sleep sometimes for talking about process. It’s really served us well. It’s served our friendship well and it’s really served our working collaboration well.
Eric Schrier (FX Networks /FX Prods. president of programming): I’m so proud of Joe & Joel and what they’ve done, and Keri and Matthew. They’ve created something so unique and special in terms of process. The amount of care and attention the happiness that is in that place. Even though it’s really hard work never any drama. Joe & Joel have been fantastic leaders from a managerial standpoint. The fact that Joe & Joel have this marriage and were able to work together. It is such a rarity in our business that something like that happens. It’s a tribute to both of them. Joe as the creator had the humility to know that he needed a partner like Joel who really knows how to run a TV show. They perfected it down to a science.
Keri Russell: The biggest physical part of it is just the New York cold — shooting nights in New York in the winter. That is so physical. You’re out there with a tight hunched shoulder, clenched jaw, it’s late, you’re angry and you’re tired. It’s certainly not a backlot in Los Angeles with people pretending to wear coats. One of the strengths of the show is that we got to shoot in Brooklyn and it never felt like this giant budget show. That saved it. We were never an overly popular show. And we kind of had this little anonymous show for a long time and we could find our way. It always felt like we were making an independent film. We were always short for time, trying to make our day. There was not a lot of luxury involved. Sometimes I think that keeps things exciting, motivated and creative.
Mary Rae Thewlis (executive producer): One thing stands out the most to me. I’ve never worked on a show where we got the scripts not in a timely fashion but way ahead of time. That helps enormously to plan when you have so many recurring storylines and recurring locations. I had outlines (for season six) last summer. No show does that.
Daniel Fisher (property master): Their scripts come in way ahead of time. I tend to get a good heads up on what they’re going to need. When they change something it always comes with an apology (from Weisberg and Fields). When somebody at that level is humble enough to say ‘I’m sorry to bother you’ that’s a tremendous testament to the atmosphere the Js foster on this show.
Justin Falvey (Amblin Television president): They run a finely tuned machine. In the 22 years I’ve been at this company it is the best run and the most efficiently run show I’ve seen.
Bert Salke (Fox 21 Television Studios president): This show is never over budget, it is never over schedule. Somehow based on a real desire to please Joe and Joel, people are doing the best work of their careers on this show.
Falvey: The first conversation between (FX Networks’ John) Landgraf and Joe Weisberg was fascinating. To watch Joe and John volley back and forth about what the show could be — it was above everybody’s head in that room. It was quite something to witness.
Schrier: It was such a huge thing for Joel Fields to move his family to New York. He’d just bought a house — it was complicated. And Joel is John (Landgraf’s) best friend. When I told John that Joel was interested in working on “The Americans” it was a bit sad because it meant his best friend had to move.
Thewlis: My first interview with Joe and Joel, they looked at my resume and saw I had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. Joel said ‘You were a spy, weren’t you?’
Noah Emmerich (co-star/director): I read the pilot and thought that I didn’t want to be somebody who carried a gun for five years. (Pilot director) Gavin O’Connor told me to read it again. I sat down and read it carefully and realized this is not about guns, it’s about relationships. I learned later that Joe and I went to college together — we went to Yale at the same time but we didn’t know each other. … I first saw Stan as a jocular happy family man. His world got turned upside down pretty quickly: His marriage fell apart, his lover got killed, his job was incredibly frustrating and he kept getting boxed in to a tighter and tighter corner.
John Landgraf (FX Networks CEO): We explicitly made the decision to tell this story with the female character in the traditionally male role. The woman is the more physically and emotionally tougher of the two. She’s more rigid, more ideologically dedicated and pure. He’s the one more emotional and sensitive. (Russell) got to play all the things. We chose a very feminine, open, all-American actress and turns out Keri is literally one of the toughest, hardest-working, most stoic people. She has Elizabeth Jennings’ steel and spine right in her DNA. We didn’t know that when we cast her. But we knew we wanted that all-American girl next door to be given the opportunity to play the brooding man, anti-hero part.
Holly Taylor (co-star): I got this show from a traditional audition. I just sent in a tape of myself. I didn’t hear back from them for a long time. I had trained myself to forget about things. Then I got a call back. Keri and Matthew are the nicest people you could ever imagine in your life. It’s crazy working with them. The biggest thing I’ve larned from the show is watching them and how they treat people on the set and how cooperative they are with everyone. When anybody comes to set as a guest star or a new lunch crew person or the people taking out the trash. Everyone is treated exactly the same.
Darryl Frank (Amblin TV president): When we were casting, Matthew Rhys was just coming off (ABC drama) “Brothers and Sisters” with Sally Field. Steven (Spielberg) had just done “Lincoln” with Sally Field. We ended up sitting next to her at a charity event. One thing she said about Matthew was that he was a favorite of the writers — everyone wanted to write scenes for him. That was a nice ringing endorsement.
Josh Brand (consulting producer/writer): The big change was the episode in season one where Amador, Stan’s FBI partner, is murdered. There was concern is that was too soon and didn’t we want to save our bullets. What Joe and Joel realized is this is exactly what the show is supposed to be. What it should be. When (Joe) saw it something clicked in his head. He was over the moon and I kept saying “Joe, calm down.; He thought it really made sense to him and the story was about the power of the bureaucracy and how there really weren’t any good guys or bad guys. It was all very ambiguous and tragic for both sides of the equation. It was all f——d up. He liked that.
Emmerich: I was so sad when Amador died. (Actor Maximiliano Hernandez) was my real dance partner. We got close. It was such a pleasure to work with him. Then when they said he was leaving I really was a little heartbroken. He was a great dance partner.
Landgraf: At the end of the first season having been disappointed with the ratings we had a very long postmortem/ pregame conversation about the second season. We really went through and debated. We know of course that there’s a commercial spy genre that tends to portray the business of spying as a sort of fun, videogame-like thing generally lacking in moral, emotional, and spiritual consequences. Then there’s a school of writing where you have a Graham Greene spy novel as literature. The conclusion we came to was that anything we would do to intentionally make this show overtly sexier or more exciting in a (genre) way that was lacking in consequences would literally make it less good. We had to embrace its intent. We had to make it more serialized more dense, more truthful and emotionally darker.
Fields: We came to feel from the whole organization (at FX) that it’s OK if we fail. That is rare. If we try to do our best and it doesn’t go right, even if we talk through something and they think A and we think B and we go with B and A turns out to have been the better choice — it’s OK. That’s quite a feeling. I think it’s because they genuinely want people to make things that are different. If they tried to dictate everything the shows would all be more of the same. And that’s a good thing for us.
Schrier: The Russian characters and the Russian side of the story really grew over time. It was never contemplated that we would be telling stories in Russia. That has been a really brilliant thing for the show. We fond there was a lot more story to tell in Russia.
Chris Long (executive producer/director): I love the scenes in Russian. You don’t need to understand the words to understand the emotionality.
Weisberg: We already knew that we wanted the balance to be heavily weighted to the relationships over the spying. But doing the episodic stories (in season one) didn’t allow us to accomplish that because the spy stuff took up so much space. If you had to tell a complete spy story in every episode it just didn’t leave much room. We finally had the realization along the way that nobody ever said that this was something we had to do. We just started writing these scripts and there was an assumption that the way to do it was to tell one of those stories each week. What happened that we realized as the season went on that best parts of the show were Philip and Elizabeth connecting with each other. (After season one) we were sort of freed from a chain that we only put on ourselves.
Taylor: My favorite period was either season three or what we’re shooting now. I like season three because there’s so much that went into (Paige’s) parents telling her what they did and how she reacted. That was really challenging to play. This season I really loved — it’s kind of like my dream come true for Paige. She’s joining the family business to some extent and getting closer to her mom. That’s what I’ve always wanted since season one. I didn’t think it was going to happen.
Fields: Joe and I got to a place in our creative collaboration where it was just totally obvious to us that if both of us didn’t feel it about a story or a character direction then it just wasn’t there yet. We could talk about it or debate it. There would be a sense of openness and exploration. But if we were really stuck on something and one person felt one way and one felt the other, no matter how strongly the person felt about their idea, that feeling of surety was superseded by the fact that if Joe didn’t see it that way it could not be the best solution. It just couldn’t be — if it were he’d see it too. I’d have to have a bizarre blind spot not to see that if he didn’t see it the same way, how could we move forward on this and take the audience along with us. … Sometimes we’d get to the end of (a discussion) and the person who had the idea would say “Oh my god now I’m not feeling it” and the other would say “No, no, no let’s keep going.” We’d take a walk and by the time we’d hit Prospect Park we’d be into a different story. We’d never have gotten there if we weren’t willing to go on that journey.
Long: Going to Russia last year to shoot some material with (co-star) Costa Ronin in Red Square was a win. We shot with a Russian crew, very much on the DL. We tried to shoot the Kremlin and various places. It required a lot of connections. We couldn’t get permits for much. So at 4 in the morning by the Kremlin we’re with our guide who says “You’ve got five minutes.” We know we’re being watched on closed circuit TV. The guards came out and tried to move us along. There were guys that came out and started to “fix” the street lamps. Our location guy gave them money to go away.
Fisher: We have a very strong dedication, and it comes from Joe and Joel, to getting the period elements correct. We’re not just making it 80s. If a scene takes place in 1987 and some specific element didn’t come out until 1989 we cannot use that. We have to let that go. I might have a merchant who offers up a beautiful car but if it was two years too late we can’t use it.
Long: The storylines (in season six) are converging. Everything is careening into each other. Before we had at certain times an American side of our show and a Russia side. Stan Beeman was the only one who worked in the both worlds. Now all that’s gone, it’s one big snowball rushing down the hill.
Lori Hicks (makeup designer): In the beginning we were just trying to come up with disguises and be a little more entertaining about it. Then we were starting to understand that it’s about blending in. That’s harder to do. This season (six) there’s a crazy amount of disguises. I think we did more this season than all others combined.
Salke: They really want the ending here to be satisfying and also a little provocative in that it’ll make you think a little bit. About the right things. i think that like everything they’ve done here there’s that special care and handling, but it’s a little bit more this year.
Emmerich: The timing is right to end. We’ve told our story. You don’t want it to wear thin. But we all have grown quite attached and accustomed to each other.
Russell: When I finish something it feels like you’ve had this marriage with somebody. To jump into another series would feel like getting married again. I want to have that moment of getting to show up to friends; dinners again, taking my kids to school and having a moment of relief and filling back up personally. Before I become a baker or something (in a new project). I think I’ll look for something that has a lot less night work than a Russian spy.
(Pictured: Chris Long, Keri Russell, Joel Fields, and Joe Weisberg)