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'The Americans' creators vow not to put a young KGB-era Putin in the series

The FX drama “The Americans” is about two KGB agents masquerading as a married American couple with kids in the suburbs of Washington DC.

The lead actors are Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Although the series is set during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, it has new resonance as U.S. intelligence agencies are currently investigating Russia’s involvement in the recent U.S. Presidential election.

Joe Weisberg, the creator of “The Americans,” says:

The show was conceived at a time when we were not having any major struggles with Russia. Even a year or two ago, I might have scoffed at the idea that the Cold War was coming back. Now that doesn't seem so funny anymore.

We asked them whether they'd thought about putting a young Vladimir Putin-like character in the series (Putin was a member of the KGN during this time). However, Weisberg and Fields promised that was not going to happen. 

Weisberg, who runs the show along with Joel Fields, is a novelist who had been a writer on “Damages” before creating “The Americans.” The inspiration came from his own understanding of the CIA having worked for the agency in the 1980s, himself.

“The Americans” is currently in its 5th season. The 6th will be its last. The Frame's John Horn recently spoke with Joe, Joel and Chris Long, a director on the show, in their Brooklyn writers’ room.

Interview Highlights

On Weisberg’s time at the CIA:

WEISBERG: When I took my polygraph to get into the CIA, they — believe it or not — give you all the questions on the polygraph ahead of time. They ask you when you're not hooked up to the machine and they ask you again when you're hooked up to the machine and that's how they check if you told them the right answers in the first place. None of the questions are a surprise until the very end of the polygraph when there is one question that you haven't been prepared for... at least in the case of my polygraph. And then they said, are you joining the CIA to gather information to write later about the CIA? I almost fell out of my chair. I was completely shocked. I was a writer. I wrote novels and short stories ever since I was a kid. As soon as they said that I thought, that's a great idea. I should totally do that. I was afraid that I was then going to fail the polygraph because my brain was going, what do I do? What do I do?

When I was there, I believed I would never write a word about the CIA or about intelligence and I didn't intentionally collect any stories, ideas, themes or beliefs when I was there.

On showing empathy toward KGB officers:

WEISBERG: That was essentially the premise of the show. After the Soviet Union dissolved, a number of KGB officers wrote memoirs. It was very interesting to read these memoirs because, at least what I saw, was people who were very relatable who seemed a lot like me and also the people I worked with at the CIA. They didn't seem at all like the sort of crazy, evil, bloodthirsty KGB guys who I had always imagined. So having a TV show where you could have protagonists who were in the KGB but fought hard against that stereotype where we showed them, as you say, as real people was a very appealing prospect. 

On why they wanted to include historical events:

FIELDS: It's very important to us that the show feel real and feel real to us first. If it feels real to us, we believe it will be a real experience for the audience. We try to make the show in a hermetic bubble of whatever year, in this case 1983 or 1984, and any public events that took place at that time, we replicate. Our characters are living through those events. And then there's our secret story and we try to tie that at least to some of the known history. And then we speculate as to what these spies might have done here behind enemy lines.

On filming on location in Russia:

LONG: We went to Moscow this year to shoot some of the Oleg scenes which opened it up and added to the credibility of the piece. We also went to Washington D.C. to shoot some stuff as well. We haven't done that previously. We've managed to do it with a combination of visual effects. But actually taking those characters into that environment really pushes the frontier of that.

I'd been to Moscow in 1984 and I was absolutely blown away with the Red Square. I was a very naive 21 year old who hadn't been very many places in the world. Actually the biggest disappointment for me, stepping back into it in 2016 was how much it had changed. The Red Square is covered in neon

Would they ever put a KGB-era Putin character in the show?

I think it's safe to say that we won't. We do do period references, but we don't want to do any that would pull the audience out of the show. The last thing we want to be caught doing is intervening in the show, we want it to be a seamless experience for the audience. As fun as that would be, that would probably disturb the show. 

On how the show resonates with Russian audiences:

FIELDS: We always were aware that we would, at least hopefully, be watched in Russia. So we made it for that audience, too. And to see that it was working for some people over there meant a lot. I think one of the best moments of the whole experience was when one of the former illegals, who was arrested in 2010, gave an interview to a Moscow newspaper and talked about what the show meant to him and that it was hard for him and his family to watch because it was so close to their experience. He was very specific in that he was talking about the emotional component of it, that it captured a lot of their feelings. That felt great because a lot of that stuff we have to guess at...To hear from the horse's mouth that we got that right.

To hear this conversation click the play button at the top of the page. To get more interviews like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.