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The Playboy Conversation: Noah Emmerich of ‘The Americans’

The Playboy Conversation: Noah Emmerich of ‘The Americans’: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Frank Ockenfels/FX

FBI agent Stan Beeman has had a rough go of it. His marriage fell apart. He just found out his old partner is dead. The new guy at work is upstaging him. The KGB tried to blackmail him. He considered committing treason. His paramour cheated on him. Then that same mistress got caught by Soviet officials for being a double agent and was then sent to a prison back in the USSR. Yeah, it’s complicated. “Throughout the course of our series things have gotten worse and worse and worse for Stan,” says Noah Emmerich, the actor who plays Beeman on FX’s The Americans. “Things have never been better for him than they were in the pilot.”

For Emmerich, though, things have been much better. On what has become one of the best shows on television, he has turned in an understated and affecting performance. Early on in this spy vs. spy drama, set in early 1980s Cold War Washington, D.C., Emmerich looked to be the all-American foil to his KGB counterparts. But with great success, he has deftly revealed a fragility to Beeman that has emerged as Stan’s life has unraveled. Then, in last night’s episode, “Walter Taffet,” Emmerich stepped behind the camera to make his directorial debut. We spoke with the Emmerich about the Stan’s lowly state, directing himself in a scene, and what he misses most about life in the early 1980s.


Poor, poor Stan.
It has been a slow burn decline for him. At the beginning of the first season he was newly transplanted to Washington D.C., he had a new job, he was finally back from these terrible years of undercover estrangement from his family, I think he was really optimistic and hopeful about what the future held.

But now he’s at the nadir of his own professional and personal life. I think as happens in life, you hit a bottom and you come up with another approach. I think that’s part of what Stan’s opening up has been. He needs to figure out his life in a new way, things aren’t working out real great for him, so he’s evolving and looking for purchase somehow to claw his way back into a healthier life.

When we first met Stan, he was the “get shit done” guy. In last night’s episode another agent finds a bug, and two seasons ago you’d think Stan would be the guy to seize on that. This time it feels like he meekly walks away.
Right. I don’t know if he walks away from it but he certainly doesn’t figure it out. Aderholt is the one who finds the bug. I’m sure Stan wishes that he had found the bug. But I think it does provide opportunities for Stan to reemerge. He’s working on his own, sort of rogue, plan. He’s tormented somewhat and guilty about Nina’s [his deported mistress] plight, she’s stuck in a Soviet Gulag, and I think he feels responsible for that to some degree. He’s doing all these extracurricular things to try and extricate her from that plight.


I’m hoping Stan comes back stronger and harder once he regroups and is able to exert himself as the go to guy again. But certainly that’s where we are with this season; he’s struggling.

He’s found solace in hanging out with Philip Jennings. This wasn’t always the case; he was suspicious of him early on in the shows run. Is Stan’s guard down or is the suspicion still there?
I think Philip is oddly one of Stan’s closer friends at this point. He’s the neighbor. Just by proximity there’s real affection between them. There’s an instinctive connection that Stan feels for Philip. Of course, Philip knows why and Stan doesn’t. But they are two sides of a coin to some degree. They both inhabit the same world. They both inhabit the same challenges and sensibilities about identity and spycraft and trust and faith and ideals. So there is some mirroring going on there, whether it’s conscious or unconscious for Stan I think it has an impact.

Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Craig Blankenhorn/FX


In terms of trust, there was never more mistrust than the first episode, the pilot, when Stan actually breaks into Philip’s garage to look at his car because Spidey sense is tingling with Stan that something’s off about these neighbors. I think some of that mistrust is assuaged when he finds an empty trunk in the car, but how much mistrust still lurks? I would never answer. In some ways I think it’s best for the audience to surmise that for themselves. But I think there’s an authentic friendship there.

Stan is slowly opening up about his traumatic, three-year undercover assignment. How much did you discuss Stan’s backstory with the showrunners when you first approached this role?
We’ve talked about it a good bit. But it’s not clear exactly. If you ask all of us we probably have slightly different interpretations of what exactly it really was. So it’s not 100% clarified and ready for script, but we certainly have had pretty thorough conversations about the impact it had on Stan and how it affected him and how it manifested in his life now. Hopefully we’ll find out somewhere down the line more details about what actually happened. In this episode we do get a first little window into some more of that.


We do want to be in synch together so we do talk about it a good bit so that we’re all on the same page, of course, playing the same story.

Do you ever go to the writers and say, “You know, this doesn’t feel like Stan to me,” and talk about adjustments?
Yeah. They’re very open and very collaborative. Their door is always open. There are moments along the way where I come to them and I have ideas about Stan or I have questions about what they’re thinking about Stan or maybe there’s a line I don’t understand or I think could be different. They’re very open for the dialogue.

Anything in particular stand out to you?

I can’t really recall exactly a specific line or moment. They were more frequent in the first season as we were all figuring out the character together. Now we’re a humming machine; we’re all on the same page. It’s much rarer this season than it was in past seasons, those conversations. I am hesitant to go into specifics. You don’t want to see how the sausage is made; you just want to enjoy the delicious sizzling sausage.

Did directing this episode change your relationship to the show at all?
I tend to spend most of my time as an actor living in Stan’s point of view. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to see the world through Elizabeth, or other character’s points of view. It wouldn’t make sense for me to do so. I obviously had to dig into everybody equally here, so it did open up my horizons in terms of my empathy and my understanding of all the other characters lives and points of view and relationships. I think it did give me an overall deeper empathic connection to all the different characters.


Then, on a more technical level, as an actor you show up and it’s Thanksgiving dinner— everything’s prepared and set up and it’s your job to show up and have fun. It’s kind of like the difference between being the student and being the head master of a school. By the time the actors show up on set at 6 a.m. to shoot the scene, there’s no concept of the amount of effort and labor and work and sweat that’s gone into setting that up so that everything works perfectly. That the scene is right, that the shot is right, that the location’s right, wardrobe is right, hair and makeup is right, props are right, you know it’s all that massive amount of work that goes into the show.


I think most actors, even though you understand it and know it on some level, you take it for granted on another. As director you’re really aware of the massive amount of work that goes in from the support team and the complexity of the moving parts of the show.

Was it difficult to direct yourself?
It was impossible. I’m a fucking nightmare. I’ll never hire me again. [Laughs]


In some weird way actors are always directing themselves. A good actor shows up on set essentially ready to shoot to some degree, you know? The director that’s there may have a difference of opinion or a different take or a subtle interpretive divergence, but the director always leaves the actor to some degree to themselves.


And in directing, I also have such a home team advantage. It’s a crew I know really well, a cinematographer I’ve worked with for three seasons. There’s a lot of trust and a lot of faith that you’re taken care of. We don’t have playback so I couldn’t go watch a take that I got. But if the DP says, “I got it,” then you know he’s got it. The fact that it was a crew and cast I knew so well made that much easier than it might otherwise have been. In the end I actually had a great time doing it.

When I spoke with [Americans creators] Joe and Joel before the season started, they seem to have a fondness for that early ‘80s era. Is there anything from that era you miss?

I have a weird nostalgia for the lack of technology—the analog life we all lived then. I love technology, I love modernity, but it felt somehow more accessibly human when you couldn’t text somebody. You couldn’t e-mail them. You had to find them to talk to them. Even if you could call them, if they weren’t there you had to call back. There was somehow a more primitive, human, analog reality that I think gave us all a slower paced world. It was somehow more peaceful.

That analog reality adds suspense to the show. You’re not watching someone put a virus into a computer, you’re following an agent as they sneak into a house to cleverly implant a bug.
Exactly. You’ve gotta break in. There’s no virtual reality. It’s all reality reality. It’s brick and mortar reality. I think that’s certainly more visually compelling for storytelling. Take a love story for example; the classic scene of the guy running through the airport to tell the girl not to get on the plane. Nowadays you just send a text message. That’s not very cinematic. Of course it would be more romantic to run through the airport anyway. But technology provides so many shortcuts. It’s sort of anti-cinematic.

In last night’s episode, there was an amazing, wordless scene, where Martha thinks she may be caught with her recording device and has to destroy it in the bathroom. It was really tense. How did you try to convey her dread and how tough is it to do a scene like that where no one is talking?
In some ways it’s tough but in some ways it’s one of the ones I look forward to the most. It’s all picture. There’s no dialogue. It’s all performance from Alison Wright, who I was really excited to work with. She’s just phenomenal.


It’s all how you shoot it to convey that tension. And to have the tension grow and evolve and change throughout the scene is both performance and picture. In some ways it’s a real director’s scene. I was excited about that, to be able to do that. It was a little intimidating to some degree because you can’t rely on the dialogue to carry the story, you have to tell the story visually. But that’s exciting. That’s the fun of directing. 
 I talked, as I did for every scene as a matter of fact, with Richard Rutkowski, our cinematographer, and we came up with some extreme angles: Some very high shots, some low shots. And the production designer created that set for us. We built that bathroom in a certain way that would lend itself to that paranoid energy in that scene. You have a great group of people around you and once you communicate the sensibility you’re looking for, people come at you with all kinds of ideas to help serve that vision. It’s one of the advantages of having a great crew. You’re not alone out there. You have these people that are great at their job and can help realize your vision.


Jeremy Repanich is a Senior Editor at Playboy. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize.


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