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"The Americans": Gathering Intel from Alison Wright

Now in its second season, the chilling FX drama The Americans is one of the most talked about shows of 2014. We talked to actress Alison Wright who plays the tough, resilient, and ambitious Martha.
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Photo: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Set in the early years of President Ronald Reagan’s first term, The Americans depicts the lives of two KGB spies, who are living a manufactured life just outside Washington, D.C. as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), married travel agents. Crucial to their spy work on behalf of the Soviet Union is cultivating connections in the U.S. government who can provide vital information. Philip’s most valuable source is Martha Hanson, executive assistant to Agent Frank Gaad, head of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence division. Alison Wright portrays Martha whose craving for love has made her vulnerable to the attentions of Clark, a persona Philip assumes to gain her trust. They even had a fake wedding at the end of season one. With U.S./Soviet hostilities heating up in 1982, season two finds Philip putting Martha in increasingly risky situations as the FBI is growing closer to uncovering the covert KGB agents living among them.

DivineCaroline: What are your thoughts when you see a finished episode of The Americans?
Alison Wright: When I watch the finished product, I’m experiencing it on a completely visceral level. I’ve read the script months and months prior, but they go through so many changes in production. When I watch it, I get to see it with fresh eyes every time.


DC: Do you get wrapped up in it?
AW: I absolutely do. I just experience it.


DC: There was a scene in season one where Martha asks Clark/Philip “Is this real?” Of course, he lies. It was such a poignant moment. What did that scene feel like to play?
AW: When I read it and I was first working on the script, of course I was aware of the irony of that question in the bigger picture. But it can only serve me to think from Martha’s point of view, and she was asking the smaller question in that moment of “Is this real? Our relationship, are you really invested in it? Are we really going to do this? If we are, then stop with this stuff and stay with me.” It can only serve me as an actor to think of things and play them from her point of view rather than trying to reach for an idea of the theme of what I think the writers were trying to say.


DC: The Americans is set at a time more than 30 years ago. How much research did you do into that era in U.S. history?
AW: I did quite a bit. That’s one of the really fun parts of our job. That’s one of my favorite parts. I concentrated on the relationship between the FBI and the CIA, how information travels around the Bureau, how you would get a leg up in the Bureau and what working conditions were like. Most of the stuff that I read about the spy activity hasn’t happened yet. Season two is in 1982, and the spy activity came to a head in 1984. Everything goes bananas at that point. I focused on a couple of secretaries to powerful men in Washington in a position similar to Agent Gaad’s. I took a lot of information from a woman named Millie C. Parsons, who is actually the longest continually serving FBI employee ever. (Parsons worked at the FBI for nearly 63 years, retiring in 2002.) She was secretary to the man in charge of the Washington field office. I based a lot of Martha on her.


DC: Martha Hanson is like many women of that era—career conscious and doing important work—but stuck in the secretarial role. How do you envision her and endeavor to portray her?
AW: I endeavor to portray her with a lot of empathy. I think she’s done well to get out of her small town and work at the FBI. I think she’s done well to climb through the different jobs that I imagine she’s had before she got this position. I think she’s hard working and earnest. I don’t see her as being stuck in the secretarial role. I think she’s doing quite well for herself and she’s going to want to move onward and upward in season two.


DC: What is it like to be part of this dynamic cast?
AW: I feel so, so lucky. Blessed to have a job. It’s fantastic. Work is fun every day.


DC: The show depicts the technology of the early 1980s. How does it feel to step into that world in terms of dress, surroundings, and lack of technology?
AW: I’m a huge fan of art directing. It’s what I would like to do if I wasn’t performing. Stepping into that world is amazing. All of the props that they have and, of course, the hair, makeup, and costumes that Martha wears, it immediately takes you to a different time and place. The technology is fantastic. I was too young to remember everything, but I do remember having a Commodore 64 (an early home computer first introduced in 1982) at home that was my father’s computer.


DC: You are English and Matthew Rhys is Welsh. Do you ever find it hard to stay in American accents when you’re around each other?
AW: Never, we are consummate professionals. However, we do like to chatter away really fast in random British dialects so no one can understand what we’re saying.


DC: FX is a network with complex and off beat dramas. What is it like to be part of this show and this network?
AW: Tons of the shows that I love are on FX, so I feel really privileged to be with a network that’s making such exciting material. Archer, American Horror Story, of course, and Sons of Anarchy—all of these things that I watch. So I love that I’m a part of that. I think television is really exciting at the moment.


DC: Obviously, you can’t reveal any plot details, but on a theoretical level how incredible would it be if Martha discovered Philip and Elizabeth’s true mission and one-upped all the macho men she works with at the FBI?
AW: I imagine all it would take for her would be to get into the vault and see the information they have pinned up. She would see those sketches of Philip and Elizabeth. How long would it take her to think, “He looks a bit familiar. She looks a bit familiar.” It’s all right there. She’s a breath from the truth.


DC: The Americans is looking at a very interesting and integral time in U.S. and world history.
AW: For me, it’s brought home the seriousness and the ever present danger that everybody lived through in these times. Fingers were on buttons and things were ready to happen should the slightest slip or mistake happen on one side. It brings home the seriousness of that for me. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

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