Matthew Rhys (‘The Americans’): ‘I was incredibly moved’ by the series finale [Complete Interview Transcript]

Matthew Rhys received his third consecutive Emmy nomination this year for playing Philip Jennings in “The Americans.” This is the last opportunity Emmy voters have to reward Rhys for his performance, as “The Americans” just wrapped up its sixth and final season.

Rhys recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum and senior editor Daniel Montgomery about saying goodbye to “The Americans,” the thought of winning an Emmy and giving a speech, and what he has planned next in his career.

Gold Derby (Chris Beachum): Matthew Rhys, you are back up at the Emmys again for “The Americans,” your third time for “The Americans” and you also had the “Girls” nomination last year. Tell us about nominations morning and also, “The Americans” did not get into Drama Series last year but it’s back in Drama Series so you had a lot to celebrate that day.

Matthew Rhys: We did! More than anything, I hope I don’t over-say this but it’s very true, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who work so tirelessly on that show, who gave their very souls to that show, thoroughly deserve being in that category, because I think what they did especially with the last season was something extraordinary. I was incredibly happy for them that they earned the recognition that they certainly deserved because without their words we certainly wouldn’t be up there.

Gold Derby (Daniel Montgomery): They were nominated for writing that finale episode, which was really highly anticipated, everyone wanting to know how that show’s gonna end, how things were gonna end for the Jennings. At what point along the way did you know what the ending was gonna be and what did you think about it when you read that last script?

MR: I was incredibly moved, for several reasons. I think at that point I was tingling with anticipation. We’d invested six years of our lives, we knew it would come to an end so on a personal level it was incredibly sad but I just thought on a storyline and a humanitarian one, the fact that I think ultimately, yes we did follow two antiheroes for six years, I think in that respect, the Jennings did some appalling things, so viewers wanted some kind of retribution for them but also wanted some kind of celebration for them. So yes, they did escape, but they paid the ultimate price and I think that balance was a stroke of genius on their behalf. I was incredibly moved, is the short answer to your question.

GD (Chris): Ultimate price being the loss of their kids?

MR: Exactly. They gave the greatest sacrifice for their freedom. It leaves you with this feeling, which I always hope “The Americans” did, of if you’re watching it with someone you would turn to them and go, “Oh my god. What do you think? What happens now? What’ll they do?” I always love those endings whereby you’re discussing it with someone else for some time, but ultimately very satisfactorily. I think they covered all bases, deftly.

GD (Chris): I saw you on the night of the finale and I’m wondering for any of you but certainly from your perspective, when you’re sitting on something that’s top secret and you know how good it is and an audience at that theater is about to see it but also around the world is about to see it, what’s that anticipation level like? As things are developing and airing, are you thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait ’til they see this line or this moment or this scene?” What’s the anticipation like?

MR: It’s a number of things. As much as I thought personally what they did was a work of genius, it’s only when you’ve sat in that theater, I wasn’t a hundred percent in my belief. You sit there very worried because you hope that those people who’ve watched this incredibly difficult show to follow for six years will be satisfied also, so I was incredibly nervous going, “Oh my god I hope they like it. I hope they feel as satisfied as we do.” It was nerve-wracking. I never watch my own work anyway but to watch the end of something you’ve worked so long on, in an enormous auditorium with a number of people, it was terrifying for so many different reasons.

GD (Daniel): One of the moments I think everyone had been waiting for on the show for all six years came in that finale episode when Stan finally is able to confront the Jennings about finally knowing the truth about them. What was it like to finally after all that tension  shoot that scene with Noah Emmerich?

MR: It’s kind of amazing. To me there was this one line where I say to him — he’s been pointing a gun at us for a moment — and I just eventually say, “We had a job to do.” I found that line so moving. The simplicity. He was so honest with Stan in that moment that he went, “Look, that’s all it was, was we had a job to do.” He kind of encapsulated the complexity of this mountain that stood between them by just calling it for what it was, which was they had a mandate. That’s all it was. I just think that line was incredible.

GD (Chris): Something you do that’s just masterful in that scene, in that moment, even, is it starts off when you see him walk in and the three of you react and your lies start in immediately. You’re so programmed to just lie to get out of whatever situation you’re in and there’s that beat of time where you just change your whole body completely, your shoulders, your body just drops and it’s a motion of, “Enough with the lies. I’m just gonna tell you the truth.”

MR: Yeah. It was the culmination of so many things and so many years, you just had to believe that moment and it did the work for you, really. There was great relief in seeing it. I think it was an emancipation for Philip in many ways. There’s such freedom in that moment for them that was great relief and I keep going back to it. The writing was incredible.

GD (Daniel): What’s interesting about the ending is that there’s a certainly finality towards it but it also feels like Philip and Elizabeth are alive, their children are alive, so it’s open to imagine what their lives will be like in the future. I guess what I’m asking is will Robert Mueller eventually indict Philip and Elizabeth for what they did in 2016 in the election?

MR: Quite possibly. Quite possibly. You see Elizabeth Jennings training a young agent on how to penetrate the NRA. I don’t know. I go through these daily changes of what Philip and Elizabeth are doing in Moscow and whether Philip has killed himself or killed Elizabeth or he’s just chosen to live a simple life in the country or he’s already making his way back into the United States under a pseudonym, an alias in disguise in order to apologize to Henry. That’s what I loved about the open-endedness of it. It had great finality and it had great scope.

GD (Chris): That scene we just talked about in the garage, you had two big garage scenes this year, maybe more than that. The other one was a couple of weeks earlier and I could hardly keep my hands in front of my eyes on that one. What’s it like shooting such a gruesome scene as you did a couple of weeks earlier?

MR: Classic “Americans.” It was like that scene where we folded that young girl into a suitcase. They more often than not descend into farce, and I remember we were really running out of time shooting that one. We had to get out of the location. It was a real sprint. So the director, who’s an old friend, Stefan Schwartz, just started shouting, “Just chop her head off! Chop her head off.” You kind of catch yourself in those moments going, “Oh my god, this is madness.” As always, the more intense, borderline very extreme scenes, you do find yourself laughing a lot. I was breaking rubber axes, and I was like, “New axe! New axe!” It was crazy.

GD (Daniel): Interestingly this season, even though it’s the last season, the culmination of the show, it was also a season where Philip and Elizabeth spent a lot of time apart, ‘cause Elizabeth is continuing on with the work and Philip has decided to run the travel agency at this point. They’re spending a lot of time apart. What was it like working on the Philip character independent from Elizabeth more-so than in previous seasons?

MR: I think it was shrewd on their behalf. I think there were echoes of the first season where there were real problems between Philip and Elizabeth and you’ve kind of gone this full circle and it was an interesting path to walk down as to whether they would make it or not, whether you would see them either unite and get through it or ultimately absolutely fall apart and truly adhere to the old cliche of united we stand, divided we fall. So it was great. I thought it was a great dramaturgical tool to have us apart like that, two very different forks in the road because in the moment when Philip does say, “I’m on my way,” the payoff is far greater.

GD (Chris): We mentioned the Emmys right off the top of the bat. We have a predictions center and odds and rankings and over a thousand people predicting.

MR: Can you bet money?

GD (Chris): You cannot bet money but the winner of our predictions contest gets $100, so if you wanna enter. But I’ve never seen more people predicting you even though this is your fourth nomination. Lots and lots and lots of people think this is gonna be your time. What would that mean to you if it is? What would it mean to you if you got to walk up on that stage as a winner?

MR: I have to admit, the thought, and this is absolutely the god’s honest truth, everyone loves to win awards since your days in school. Everyone loves an award, so yes. To win an award is amazing. But the very act of walking up onstage, having been to the Emmys now a few times, giving a speech in front of all those people terrifies me.

GD (Chris): One of the Oscar nominees maybe last year or the year before said the only thing more terrifying than losing is me winning and having to walk up those steps and make a speech.

MR: 100%. I remember the first time they were about to read out the names, and I thought I was gonna pass out ‘cause I thought, “Oh my god. If I do win I’m gonna have to walk up and give a speech.” You see so many people do it so effortlessly and calm. I honestly thought I’ll either throw up or pass out. It was weird, when I didn’t win there was this enormous wave of relief in a way. You think, “Oh my god, thank god.”

GD (Chris): Some people follow our odds a little too closely but a lot of people are predicting you.

MR: Oh, well that’s very nice, very flattering. Who was I working with recently who kind of went, “Yeah, you might just get it ‘cause it’s the end of six seasons, so it’s like them just giving you an award for being away from your kids for that long.” You kind of go, “Oh! Right. That’s one way of looking at it.” It’s an odd one. Also, I kind of love what Billy Bob Thornton said in that speech, in the Golden Globes when he goes, “It ain’t track and field.” There’s no clear or defining winner. It’s all still a matter of taste at the end of the day. So if it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, great.

GD (Daniel): It did happen at the TCA Awards recently, the Television Critics Association, where “The Americans” won Program of the Year, Best Drama, Keri Russell won for her performance. The critics have been behind the show since Day 1, have been a big part of supporting the show for six seasons. What was it like to get that recognition for this last season from the critics?

MR: It was incredible. What’s been amazing is that the critics have always got the show. They’ve been so on-board and very much with it. I think they write so well for it. They just get it. So to have that level of support from the critics, I don’t think I’ll ever see again. I was shooting, unfortunately, in Northern Island, so I’m more sorry that I kept Keri from the moment because she throughly deserved that prize enormously. To receive that amount of love from the critics was something very, very special to cap off the run we’ve had with the show. We couldn’t have asked for more.

GD (Chris): It would be amazing if we see the two of you with the trophies at the end of that night, going through the photography room and the press room and all that kind of stuff.

MR: It would, although I’ve been told I’ll be getting straight on a flight back to Pittsburgh immediately after the ceremony. So sadly, whether there are trophies or not, there won’t be any martinis.

GD (Chris): Well as we wrap up, you told us right before we started, what’s this news about “Jungle Book” and also I just think Andy Serkis is one of the best people in the business. What’s it like working with him?

MR: It’s kind of staggering, because I’ve known and worked with Andy way before motion capture came into being, and because obviously the whole film is motion capture, to see him work with motion capture is like someone who has truly found their place on this planet, because he does it so effortlessly and kind of retains all of this in his head, where so often you’re going, “I’m not sure how that would work.” And then you see it and you go, “Oh my god. I get it.” That’s what he holds in his head. He’s an incredible person.

GD (Chris): As you mentioned to us, it’s going to Netflix. It’ll have a theatrical distribution as well but Netflix will own it.

MR: Yes, yes. Obviously I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to say or not but it’s an acquisition of Netflix, which I think is fantastic. There’s a perennial debate about streaming but it is the future, and listen, if more people see it then so much so the better.

GD (Chris): So many of the biggest filmmakers, Martin Scorsese’s next film is with them.

MR: No way.

GD (Daniel): Coen brothers.

GD (Chris): Coen brothers’ next movie is with them. So it’s become not just for television but from a feature film standpoint like you’ve got with “The Jungle Book,” a destination place to go.

MR: It’s the future.

GD (Chris): Well thanks so much. We are so happy that you and so many members on your team are nominated again and we’ll see you there on the red carpet in a few weeks.

MR: We will and I just want to say, you guys have been such incredible supporters and advocates and friends of this show and it’s enormously appreciated, so thank you for the years.

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