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Matthew Rhys knows exactly how his “The Americans” alter ego, Philip Jennings, would be holding up amid the coronavirus pandemic… not good!
“[He’s] probably fighting for his life in an apartment in Moscow as we speak,” he told the latest issue of emmy magazine, which debuts on June 30. “They probably are holed up in an apartment in lockdown, which I think is possibly the worst thing that could happen for Philip and Elizabeth because then they would just start picking apart all the things when they look back and go, ‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘Why did you betray me?’ Well, because you didn’t believe in Mother Russia. ‘Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?’ And then the dangerous thing: It could escalate to a physical fist fight with the two of them who were so well trained.”
Added the Welsh actor, who won an Emmy for his work as the undercover KGB agent in 2018, “I would put my money on Elizabeth Jennings winning.”
Gavin Bond/Copious Management/emmy magazine
Things are faring much better for Matthew and the actress who brought Elizabeth Jennings to life — his partner on screen and off, Keri Russell.
The duo, who took their relationship to the next level the same year “The Americans” debuted, have been in quarantine in New York (first in Brooklyn and then in the Catskills) with their three kids: the 4-year-old son they share, Sam, and her two kids from her first marriage, son River and daughter Willa. So far, their biggest challenge is teaching math while homeschooling their brood, the “Brothers & Sisters” alum told emmy.
“It might as well be brain surgery in front of me, because I have no idea what’s going on,” he said, adding that he’s far better at teaching English lessons — “I enjoy the storytelling and creative writing. But I’d leave it to the professionals,” he said.
“My parents were teachers, and I’d be such a glib little brat to them,” he continued. “If they’d ask about my Plan B if acting didn’t work out, my offensive retort would be, ‘Well, I could just teach.’ But now my respect for them has skyrocketed.”
Fortunately, Matthew hasn’t needed a backup plan since “The Americans” sealed his fate as one of Hollywood’s finest — and he has his real-life leading lady to thank for that.
“We really hit the ball back and forth to each other in a way that rarely happens,” he said of their working relationship. “I know it all came to a natural end, but in hindsight I realize that we had a real moment in time.” (He then joked that they’d love to work together again on a remake of the 1979 series “Hart to Hart,” which centers around a wealthy married couple moonlighting as amateur detectives.)
Their palpable on-screen chemistry led the actor to an Emmy for best lead actor in a drama series, but the victory was bittersweet, he said, because Keri, who earned three Emmy nominations for her work on the show, never took home top honors.
“I know I’m saying this for obvious reasons, but Keri deserved an Emmy enormously for all the work she did,” he said. “So that night was tinged with those feelings in a way.”
(Apparently, the night was also tinged with terror: “When I got on that stage, I was blinded with fear,” Mathew said of accepting his Emmy, which he now keeps in his office. “The greatest focus I had in that moment was to stop shaking. I was so scared I was going to forget to thank someone, because there’s a giant clock in front of you ticking down and a sign that says, ‘Stop.’ I remember seeing Ed Harris out of the corner of my eye and thinking, ‘Jesus, there’s Ed Harris!'”)
During breaks from homeschooling, the couple caught up on the David Attenborough BBC docuseries “Seven Worlds, One Planet” and the Netflix drama “Narcos.”
“We keep saying we’re going to do ‘Game of Thrones’ at some point, but it seems like Everest to us!” Matthew said.
He also spent quarantine gearing up for the June 21 debut of “Perry Mason,” the HBO miniseries on which he stars. He took over the role from Robert Downey Jr. — who’s still on board as an executive producer — after the project was reenvisioned as a miniseries rather than a feature film, creating scheduling conflicts for the “Avengers” alum.
“I was very lucky to take the cut of meat from his table, as it were,” said Matthew. “He’s a true hero of mine. I remember seeing him in ‘Chaplin’ and being mesmerized by him, so I was very starstruck when I met him — I still am when he calls and things like that. I go, ‘Ahh!’ … He was incredibly generous as a producer. He said, ‘Look, the part is yours. You’ve got to do with it what you will. Now it’s up to you.’ It was pretty unbelievable to work with one of your heroes. … As regards to working with Robert Downey Jr. again, sadly he has no choice in it — I said, ‘Look, Robert, we’re best friends now. We have to work together.'”
When it came to developing his take on the iconic criminal defense lawyer, Matthew knew there was one thing he’d avoid: the 1957 TV series starring Raymond Burr.
“When I knew I was going to play the part and I started researching, I specifically didn’t look at Raymond Burr because I know consciously or subconsciously, unconsciously, I would’ve mimicked or stolen or imitated something from him, and I really wanted to really reinvent this character from the boots up and redefine him,” he told emmy.
“The jacket and the hat really helped me for some bizarre reason,” he continued. “I developed these little kind of strange suspicions and superstitious idiosyncrasies that I had to do — so much so that I wouldn’t let my wardrobe person put the jacket on me. He always very kindly offered it to me, but I was always insistent I put it on myself — and the hat.”
Matthew was only familiar with the character because his grandfather watched the long-running CBS series: “He watched it, and all I remembered that there was always some big confession at the end. My grandfather was like, ‘He did it again!’ I was very reassured when I heard this version would be HBO-ified,” he said.
“I loved that there’s an aimlessness to him and that he’s not committed to anything,” he added of his version of the character, who first appeared in a 1933 Erle Stanley Gardner novel. “He fought in the war, where he suffered a great injustice. So now if he sees something that’s unjust, it rankles him, and he has to do something about it. … He has an overriding virtue that he will do the right thing, regardless of how he does it.”
The magnitude of the gig isn’t lost on the actor, who’s never received top billing on a series by himself before.
“I knew there was a great degree of pressure that was squarely sitting on my shoulders,” he said.
Reflecting on his career trajectory, he marveled, “Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine a life like this. I still have those moments where I think, how did this happen?”
For more from Matthew’s chat with emmy magazine, watch the video below and pick up a copy on June 30.