Welsh-born Rhys was first introduced to many as the sensitive reliable gay attorney Kevin Walker, in ABC’s hit drama, 'Brothers & Sisters'. But for other fans, Matthew enthralled them as the opium-smoking John Jasper in the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', or most recently as the iconic Mr Darcy in the retelling of the classic ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’.
Most recently, the inherently British Rhys has been assuming the identity of Russian-born spy, Phillip Jennings in the FX hit series ‘The Americans’. Posing as an all-American husband and father alongside Keri Russell, Rhys’ character finds himself torn between his loyalties to Mother Russia, the mother of his children and his heart.
In reality, the man behind the myriad of masks is modest, charmingly down-to-earth and witty. In anticipation of the release of the show’s second season on DVD and Blu-Ray, Rhys talked with us about parenting, politics and about how, with seemingly little effort, he tackles such a multifaceted role.
How do you like your character/characters since you play so many?
I love Phillip. I have an enormous amount of empathy for him. I can relate to him incredibly easily. His storylines are very clear; his storyline has been clear from the very offset. I think in the first episode, in the first season when he said, "I want to defect." It was the only real way in my eyes you can safeguard his children's safety. And that comes more and more into the forefront as their lives become increasingly more dangerous and he's always edging towards that.
Do the kids come before Mother Russia?
I think so. Definitely. I think, you look back when they were recruited (if you look at the flash backs) they were recruited when my character was 16 years old. I don't think anyone can really know what they want to do at that age or who they are but your indoctrinated in that way and raised in that impassioned way about communism and the party. I think he's now at an age where he realizes, it probably wasn't what he wanted to do. You know there are these grey lines within -- when they were recruited - about the lives the children will play and you sort of as a parent, you go, "no! My kids aren't to be used as pawns; this was never agreed."
Do his kids affect the way he does his job?
One of the things he's always done, is to do his job as best he can, to his best ability in order to keep them safe. Because, if he gets caught, that's it. So he has to be the best he can be in that moment in order not to be caught; in order to keep all the plates in the air; keep them from looking at the man behind the curtain.
Do you know how many seasons there will be?
I mean, a standard television contract you sign on for is five to seven seasons; whether or not five to seven seasons get made is an entirely different question and has to do with worldwide sales and audiences and things like that.
Do you like reading the scripts? Are you enjoying being on the show? *SPOILER*
Absolutely. I don't know of another show that has this. In my opinion it works because there are a number of very relatable elements to it. The spy element is sort of great but those spy elements are extreme versions of universal themes that are relatable. The arguing about whether Paige should be recruited or not (the cliff hanger of Season Two) is like an extreme version of parenting. You know, you're watching it and I think, as parents, you can still relate to it because you clash about where your children's future lies; how they should be raised. So even the more extreme versions, I think, are relatable.
So Joe didn't sit you down and talk to you about his days as a CIA operative?
No he did, very much so. We did do a lot of that sort of talk. And we discussed it - it's a hard difficult line because for Joe who was a CIA operative, some lines are very black-and-white and then you sort of go, "well, not everyone is in the CIA." I'm sure, there are those who work in the Secret Service and say, "well that wouldn't happen or you wouldn't react that way." But if you did react in a way that they would, the majority of the audience will go, "oh God, he's a machine." You know, so there is that fine line of trying - keeping human elements and making them real operatives. But also I enjoy the moments where they're not cool, calm and collected. I like the moments where there's panic. These are extreme situations. They're not day to day. The human cracks I think is where the interest lies.
What surprised you most in Season One and Two? *SPOILER*
One was: the moment where (and you know it is a big surprise for Phillip in that moment) when Elizabeth confesses that she told their handler that he enjoys this country too much. And I think that's a moment for him to go, " This is a very sobering moment." Especially when you're trying to reevaluate the relationship. And they're meant to be finding their way to each other, and that sets you back enormously and then in Season Two when she said, right at the very end; the dying moments of Season Two when she says, "I think Paige -- this is what Paige might need..."
In Season Two he buys a “fancy” American car. As a communist why does he do that?
He still enjoys certain trappings of a good Capitalist country. But yes, he enjoys the finer things. The angles of research I took for that was as a 15-year-old growing up in Russia post-second world war, the poverty was enormous so to enjoy these things is something I can relate to. You sort of go, "yes, this is amazing." I always think, for Phillip, what's the option? They're not going to take two grown-up American children back to Russia; they're never going to go back, so he goes, "how do I get out of this." So I think defection is still in his mind.
How do you see the end of Elizabeth and Phillip?
In a way, it's a good thing because you think, "how is that mess of a car wreck going to play out for the two of them? How's it going to end?"
How do you want it to end?
I think it heads towards a certain way in Season Two, when they get into danger… they realize "this is real now. Our kids could die." And I think that Phillip hopes that it would crack - In an ideal world I think - it would crack Elizabeth somehow and she would go, "actually this is too much now." And I think if that moment comes he'd jump on it and go, "let's talk to Stan about a $6 million payoff. Set ourselves up, buy a house in Montana."
But she's much more convinced to remain loyal to mother Russia...
How have you changed personally through this show?
What I've taken from it is that there's no one clear way; there's no one right way. And that to me is the interesting element. And I think it's quite good like that - it's fair in its even-handedness of opinions and points of view. It's not just good and bad; it's the shades in between that are interesting and maybe I approach life a bit more like that.
So you feel less polarised after playing an agent in politics?
Yes, absolutely. You see the pull in both - in the two of them: you see the pull in Phillip about what's good about capitalism. Elizabeth presents what's good about communism.
Have you been to Russia?
I haven't, no.
Other than Joe who was a former CIA operative - do you have more FBI or CIA consultants on the show that you talk to?
We don't but Joe tends to do the consulting and he'll liaise back with us. He does talk with a number of different specialists who are counterintelligence, but we don't get to find out who they are.
Can you talk about the evolution of Phillip’s relationship with Martha?
Initially Clark was just meant to be for the pilot and then it was "oh, actually this guy could be a staple - a staple part of the diet." And he has been, and it's a real kind of tricky one for Phillip; it's a tricky line for him to walk because he always has to keep her engaged enough so that information can be gleaned and he can do all these kinds of things but has to keep her at arms length. But there is a part of Phillip that hates doing it; this sort of manipulation of someone in great need and want. There's a real innocence to Martha; she wants romantically what so many of us want, and he's manipulating that and I think there's a part of him that sits incredibly uncomfortably with all that.
And how does Elizabeth feel about it?
I love the push and pull of it because in the first season she is this cold operative. And as their relationship evolves, it's duplicitous in that, yes Phillip is doing his job for the motherland, which she agrees with. But he's having to sleep with another woman and keep up a fake marriage in order to do so. I enjoy watching the conflict within her especially in Season Two.
What is the most fun part of being on the show for you?
The most fun we have is when we're doing, the disguise process, when we're trying on different wigs and glasses and mustaches, we kind of go through different voices and characters. And then the characters themselves - the disguises we come back to - they begin to have other personas that, when the cameras aren't rolling we like to give them back stories and biographies and give them names and everything.
So what names are coming up?
Fernando is the Spanish assassin, as I called him. He's the one with the mustache and the long hair. Gordo only appeared for one episode but everyone wants Gordo back because he was like a weed-smoking ski instructor. He's spoken of fondly.
The Americans Season 2 is out on DVD now from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Watch the trailer below...