Matthew Rhys won an Emmy last year for playing an undercover KGB agent in Season 6 of The Americans but he still doesn't know why.
"I look back at 6 and go, 'How did I get an Emmy for that?' " Rhys said in a recent chat.
Still, he ranks his performance that season — the show's last — way above Seasons 1 and 2, when he reckons his acting was, in his words, "at its worst," because at the time he wanted to wow Keri Russell, his co-star and soon-to-be-romantic partner. "You know when you're trying too hard?" he said. "I was trying to impress her by overcompensating, and that never serves you well."
Clearly he wasn't that bad: He and Russell have been together for about five years now, and have a son, Sam, who is 3. Rhys' work on The Americans also impressed writer and director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) enough to hire him to star opposite Tom Hanks in the forthcoming A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, about a sceptical journalist who profiles children's television host Fred Rogers. (The film is set in the late '90s; Rogers died in 2003.)
The casting of Hanks as Mister Rogers was almost too perfect; America's dad playing America's dad. Casting Rhys as the journalist was more of a gamble. He grew up in Wales watching British children's shows, and the first time he ever heard about Mister Rogers was in a voice message from his agent telling him about Heller's film. "I said to Keri, 'Who is Fred Rogers?' " Rhys, who will soon turn 45, recalled. "And then she launched into a two-hour monologue about how he influenced her life. That he was, and so many people said this, almost like a third parent or a baby sitter."
In the end Rhys, like his character, Lloyd, found himself in Rogers' thrall, partly because of the soothing effect the show had on Sam, and partly because Joanne Rogers, the host's widow, said he was not a living saint. "He chose to work incredibly hard at being nice to people, being empathetic," Rhys said. "When you understand that element of him, my respect and admiration increased tenfold."
The film, due in New Zealand January 23, 2020, has received warm early reviews, and at a recent screening in New York City, audience members stayed glued to their seats, sniffly and rapt, after the credits rolled. Discussing the movie and more, Rhys, who lives in Brooklyn with Russell, spoke by phone from Los Angeles, where he is working on an HBO series about Perry Mason. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: There's something I find, not disconcerting, but almost unbelievable about Mister Rogers when I've watched him. It felt too slow. What was your first reaction after you first, I assume, YouTubed him?
A: Kind of the same. What's going on here? I didn't even know what's going on. Who is this person? If you get right down to it, the format, you'd go, "Well, that's never going to work." The longevity of the show proved it absolutely did. His whole deliberate point of view and pauses and the pace of his voice were so children could ultimately listen and follow and process. It was incredibly thought out. And not working at a frenetic custard-pie-in-the-face pace that kids are so used to today. I've gone through this a lot with my own son. We've been watching Daniel Tiger (an animated spinoff of Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood), and believe me, it has proved like an armchair psychotherapist. It's a cartoon that works on kids' feelings and treating them with maturity and helping them deal with their feelings. Then we started him on (the original) show, and that was revelatory. He's an incredibly energised, high-energy kid and it absolutely worked. One of the first things he said was, "He's talking to me."
Q: Did not knowing about Fred Rogers serve your character's scepticism about him?
A: I'd no connection to this person, I did have that scepticism in the research, and I could tap into it very easily.
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Q: What was your reaction watching the film? It must be odd watching yourself on-screen, but, then again, you must get used to it.
A: It's terrible. You don't ever get used to it.
Q: Is it terrible? What's it like?
A: Horrific. The irony is, actually it's not ironic at all, is it actually gets worse. I've stopped doing it because it's gotten far worse for me now. Because I get hung up on the wrong things. I get hung up on vain little idiosyncrasies, like, I'll see something I did with my hands, and I'll go, "I didn't know I did that with my hands." In the next job I find myself literally not doing anything with my hands, kind of sitting on them, until the director goes, "What's wrong with your hands?"
Q: Was it horrific watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood? Which might be tough to answer because you're here to promote the film.
A: Listen, this isn't some journalistic ruse of mine to say, "Oh, I could never watch myself, but I was suddenly drawn to the movie." But I genuinely was. Part of that was Hanks. Marielle said, "I'm going to make you watch the movie." I went, and there's some moments like you're kind of electrocuted, you wince so hard. But genuinely part of me was really bewitched by Hanks in a strange way I wasn't expecting. All my scenes were about 2 or 3 feet away from him, but I still found myself so drawn in by him. You forget sometimes why Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks. Because he's kind of seamless. He comes on-screen and you go, "Oh, it's going to be OK now." But that takes an enormous amount of skill. What he does in the film was kind of like alchemy. How's he doing that? He's doing something else that I don't even know what he's doing.
Q: Is asking you what it was like working with Tom Hanks the most obvious question ever?
A: No, because when I have friends who act with big movie stars, my first question to them, you go, "What are they like?" It was incredibly nerve-racking. You're placed in front of the loveliest person in the world, but I was really tongue-tied for a long time and really scared to be acting in front of him. Acting for me is getting over so much anyway, magnified then by the fact that you're doing it in front of a true icon of your time who's really formed an enormous part of your life. What he does effortlessly is he puts everyone at ease, his joking and his questions and his demeanour and on-set behavior just cannot but make you feel relaxed and kind of good.
Q: You show why Lloyd was so shut down and angry and had every reason to be suspicious of a father figure. Lloyd realises he needs to be a more present father. Did it bleed into how you saw yourself as a dad?
A: Of course. I'm not saying my parents were in any way bad, but you just think, "I won't parent the way my parents did. I'll be a modern parent." And then you realise you're absolutely not. I realise I was, you know, having no patience with a 2-year-old. And then Mister Rogers reminds you that they're 2. So yes, it's like a check-in. When I watch the show with Mister Rogers, I'm learning as much as (Sam) is. That was one of his great skills, being able to empathise with children because he could see their point of view
Q: How do you say A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood in Welsh?
A: This is where tragedy befalls, and I go, what's the word again in Welsh, and it starts to slip away. Ah, "diwrnod hyfryd yn y gymdogaeth."
Q: Since you wrapped The Americans, do you miss working with Keri?
A: Of course! Our stages were a 10-minute bike ride away, we were working with each other, and the writing we were given, especially the parts we were given, were kind of manna from heaven. It was this perfect little bombshell of a job.
Q: It must've been painful, but all good things, right?
A: We did six incredible years, and there is always the danger of wringing the towel dry. I was very pleased with the way they closed it out. It felt right. In many ways, it was right to end it.
Q: I'd like to go back to when you were amazing peroxide blonde in Titus.
A: Yeah. I had a lot more fun then. Blondes generally do.
Q: Was that your first big movie role?
A: It was my first time coming over to Los Angeles, and one of my first auditions was Titus with Julie Taymor, and I got the job. And I was like, "Oh, Hollywood's great. You just turn up and get these massive films, with these movie stars, it's really perfect." And then I couldn't catch a cold in Los Angeles for the decade that followed.
Q: I imagine The Americans was the real turning point — or are there so many turning points?
A: I honestly don't know. I've genuinely stopped saying there are turning points. Because every time I have I'm usually out of work.
Q: Did playing a Russian for six years change your view of Russia?
A: We did a great amount or research on the KGB and Russians and who they were. It was startling what they did. Consequentially nothing to me is a shock. They've been doing this for decades. There is nothing new. All they want to do is win, that's it.
Q: You've played Daniel Ellsberg (The Post) and Dylan Thomas (The Edge of Love). Do you treat playing real people differently?
A: Dylan Thomas, I tell you what was hard about him. Wales as a nation holds him in an incredibly dear place to its heart, reverential. With him, because it means so much, I kind of look back and go, "I wish I could do it again." So much so I'm still trying to make another film about Dylan Thomas with a friend. I literally want another crack at it.
Q: Seeing male vulnerability on-screen is also part of the power of this film. Is that new for you?
A: Certainly in my formative years growing up, that wasn't on the table or encouraged or nurtured in any way. I have chosen a profession where the exploration of that is encouraged.
Q: You just said something that I missed — was it that modernity is bringing in the whole-feeling male?
A: The all-feeling male. That's a terrible line.
Q: No, it's very good. That'll be the headline. The All-Feeling Male.
A: Hahhahhaa. I'll get so much (flak) for that.
Written by: Cara Buckley
Photographs by: Erik Carter
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