The third season of The Americans got off to a big start with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) fighting two agents in the street, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) having Kama Sutra sex while undercover with Martha (Alison Wright) and the breaking of poor Annelise (Gillian Alexy)’s bones to dispose of her body. Add to that the introduction of Frank Langella as Gabriel and Phillip and Elizabeth arguing over whether to include their daughter in their spy activities, and season three of The Americans has a lot going on.
I got to speak with Joe Weisberg, creator and writer of The Americans, and writer/producer Joel Fields before their panel for the Television Critics Association. This is a good point in the third season to talk about what’s happened so far and what’s coming up. The Americans airs Wednesday nights at 10 on FX.
Nuke the Fridge: Is Gillian Alexy, who played Annelise, a contortionist?
Joe Weisberg: No, but there was a contortionist there. It just wasn’t her.
Joel Fields: There was a contortionist involved. We had the actress, we had a contortionist, we had a dummy, we had a prosthetic and we used visual effects. So that was a complicated sequence to make real.
Nuke: You certainly sold it.
Joel Fields: Well, we’d like to publicly apologize for it.
Joe Weisberg: For the sound effects.
Joel Fields: Yes, we’re sorry about those too.
Joe Weisberg: But you know, people should feel sorry for us because we had to watch it, like, 150 times.
Joel Fields: There should be some sort of campaign to benefit us.
Joe Weisberg: We’d like to start a fund.
Nuke: Is this season really all about the kids?
Joel Fields: Well, I’d say it’s all about the family, and it’s all about marriage as it related to parenting. That’s new thing for the show. The show dealt with marriage really exclusively in the first season, in the second season about marriage and family. This is really about marriage and parenting. It’s about what happens to two people who love each other, who want the marriage to work and are committed to each other, but who find themselves in impossible conflict over the most important thing in their lives.
Nuke: Does it further complicate things that their children are different ages, and one might be more ready to hear the truth than the other?
Joe Weisberg: That’s right. You really couldn’t, I don’t think, contemplate telling a kid Henry’s age because the odds of him going off and telling his friends would be extremely high. That being said, what are the options? The options are to have one kid or to have twins, so that’s how it goes.
Nuke: Phillip and Elizabeth began the series so far apart, did you bring them back together just in time to tear them apart again? Was it time for another conflict?
Joe Weisberg: It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between what you just said, which is wanting to keep the story active and full of conflict. We didn’t even know in our own minds what the difference is between that and then just following our own story. I think there are probably elements of both.
Joel Fields: I would say there’s a third component too, if we’re just going to talk honestly about it, which is there’s a big unconscious element to this work. Some of our most fun moments, Joe, are looking at each other in surprise and realizing that our collective subconscious has brought us somewhere. That we had set something up that was part of that storytelling.
Joe Weisberg: We talk a lot about this season, when you’re in that kind of conflict with somebody you love, how do you handle that? So the idea for all of it is to be like a real marriage so that hopefully it won’t feel like we’re here, we’re here, we’re here but will feel more like just the flow of a real relationship which is hard to capture. I think we’re getting closer to it now than we’ve ever gotten.
Nuke: What made you decide the extent to which Phillip is having Kama Sutra tantric sex with Martha?
Joe Weisberg: [LAUGHS] We spent a lot of time on that. It’s funny, that was one of the times when we thought to ourselves, “This is a weird job but a good job.” You can spend a lot of time reviewing pictures of different positions to try to think about what would be the funniest one. But then even then, even though together with our director we picked one that we thought was going to be funny, I think the magic really happened on set because on set, working on that position, they came up with this.
Joel Fields: With the hands up in the air.
Joe Weisberg: Which is I think what made it really funny. That wasn’t in the original picture.
Nuke: How did you broach the subject with Matthew Rhys and Allson Wright?
Joel Fields: I think we just sent them a script and then ducked.
Joe Weisberg: Let the director handle it.
Joel Fields: Dan Sackheim, you should bring this script to Matthew and Alison. It is a funny progression because we wrote that scene and some things are super duper specific when you write them. In that case, we just wrote “doing a position from the Kama Sutra.” Opening up the book afterwards with the dialogue and doing a checkmark or folding the page over and so forth. Then once they started prep, it started to get very specific with photos and e-mails and discussions of positions.
Joe Weisberg: And there are so many different books with different types of illustrations. Some of the positions are just not funny. Some of the positions are funny but inconceivable that two people could reasonably get into that position. So it really took a lot of thought.
Nuke: I love the Clark and Martha relationship. Do you think if it weren’t fake, Phillip might have actually wanted kids with Martha?
Joe Weisberg: I’m just going to go with yes.
Joel Fields: I would go with yes too and I would also say there’s maybe a different way of answering the question. I think Clark would be very happy in that marriage. That’s a very good marriage. Clark, I said Clark, would be very happy in that marriage. She’s a very loving and supportive wife. She knows how to be married and to love. You’re right. The only problem with that marriage is that it’s based on a massive lie. But really, you can’t have everything.
Joe Weisberg: I would say that Phillip, not Clark but Phillip, although he probably would not be a guy who would be attracted to a girl like Martha, nevertheless Phillip is being nurtured and finding things in Martha that he really loves. There’s no question.
Nuke: I don’t get why anyone wouldn’t be attracted to Martha. I think she’s lovely.
Joe Weisberg: I agree with you. There’s a substantial group of us. Yes.
Nuke: Is teaching Martha how to shoot a gun laying the groundwork for getting her more involved in the action?
Joel Fields: Well, we’ve come to call that Chekhov’s gun but we don’t really say any more than that.
Nuke: Is this a big year for Stan’s marriage?
Joe Weisberg: I guess really all the marriages.
Joel Fields: All the marriages. It’s a big marriage year but it’s always a big marriage year on The Americans. Listen, here’s the bumper sticker. “It’s always a big marriage year when you’re married.” I guess it’s unavoidable.
Nuke: Did you know in season one when you created that relationship that you were going to break them up?
Joe Weisberg: No.
Joel Fields: No.
Joe Weisberg: N-O. No idea.
Joel Fields: We blame Stan. My God. Did he really think there would be no consequences?
Nuke: Are you guys John Le Carre fans?
Joel Fields: Yes indeed. Only if you mean we love his work.
Nuke: Is that a benchmark you aspire to or is he an influence in doing a Cold War show?
Joe Weisberg: Most people would say he’s the greatest spy novelist of all time, but he’s his own thing. I don’t think that his way of approaching spy stories really is that connected to what we’re doing. On a certain level, there’s probably no way to do anything in the spy genre without on some level thinking about him and being influenced by him. Truth be told, we find ourselves talking about him a lot.
Joel Fields: And rich characters. A few year ago I read Our Kind of Traitor which at the time was his new book. It was so rich and good, contemporary and relevant. The fact that he’s still producing that kind of material is pretty amazing.
Nuke: Did Frank Langella’s character come from him being available, or had you conceived that character before?
Joel Fields: It’s the latter. We had written several scripts before we went out to Frank. However, in a way, that character was alluded to in one of the early episodes of season one when Claudia’s introduced.
Joe Weisberg: But it was a name in our head. We didn’t know who the person would be, but certainly we wanted somebody who was very different from Claudia. The sense being from the center that sending a tough person who was going to be in conflict with them had been a disaster. So it makes sense for the center to send somebody who would nurture, who could fundamentally get along with them. So let’s bring this guy out of retirement who for years had a really good relationship with them. It’s interesting because that’s not the type of character Frank has typically played, but it’s very close to who Frank Langella is.
Nuke: I feel he has. As Bill Paley in Good Night and Good Luck, or if you’ve seen Starting Out in the Evening. Maybe he’s grown into that role.
Joe Weisberg: Maybe you’re right. I didn’t see those.
Joel Fields: I saw Good Night and Good Luck and yes. I also loved Robot and Frank which wasn’t the same but had such nuance to it.
Nuke: How many episodes is he in?
Joe Weisberg: Most of them.
Joel Fields: Almost all.