Russell and Rhys play Russian spies in the ‘burbs

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NEW YORK (AP) - It all started with a slap for Matthew Rhys. Trying out for “The Americans,” he took one in the puss from Keri Russell.

This new FX drama, whose third episode airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST, focuses on two KGB spies posing as an ordinary American couple shortly after Ronald Reagan became president.

As Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, they have a comfortable home in a Washington suburb, two sweet kids, a travel agency they run and, by all signs, a solid piece of the American Dream. No one would suspect that they are Russian-born plants bent on burying the United States with subterfuge and brutality.

No one, that is, unless it’s their new neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich with an infectious mix of cunning and dorkiness), who has recently moved in with his family across the street. He represents just one among the many threats of exposure, imprisonment or death they face daily.

“It’s an incredible balancing act to portray: the domesticity of their suburban lives and the struggle of their relationship as an arranged couple, and then the extreme spy stuff,” says Rhys.

“The balancing act is very difficult,” echoes Russell in a separate interview. “We’re spies, but how much do you play that reality? And how do you play the masquerade that you’re NOT a spy? There are so many layers to it.”

“The Americans” is a good old-fashioned thriller, set in a pre-cellphone, -Internet and -PC world where gumption counts as much as gadgetry in the espionage game, and where the world is a very anxious place yet handily divided between Good and the Evil Empire (as Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union).

Meanwhile, the series calls on viewers to root for Philip and Elizabeth as they risk everything to advance this “Evil Empire.”

But however driven in their partnership, they are butting heads. Elizabeth despises American values. She is fiercely devoted to the cause of Mother Russia. But Philip is torn: He doesn’t think the U.S. is such a bad place.

“That kind of disagreement is something I understand as someone who is not a spy, but as just someone in a marriage,” says Russell with a knowing smile.

For most viewers, Russell, now 36, needs no introduction. In 1998 she burst on the scene, complete with those flowing pre-Raphaelite curls, in the title role of “Felicity,” then followed up with the miniseries “Into the West,” films including “Extraordinary Measures,” “Waitress” and her upcoming horror flick, “Dark Skies,” and, alongside Will Arnett, the short-lived sitcom “Running Wilde.”

The script for “The Americans” arrived at Russell’s door just days after the December 2011 birth of her second child, Willa Lou, with carpenter-husband Shane Deary. Understandably, she wasn’t eager to rush back to work.

“But this show was so strange and complicated I couldn’t really figure it out, and I thought, `That could stay interesting and fun to do,’” she says. Besides, it conveniently substitutes circa-1980s Washington with New York locations. “It shoots near my house in Brooklyn. I can ride my bike to work.”

Still sylphic and long-haired, Russell makes an ideal Elizabeth Jennings, who, by turns, is a lovely wife and mother, a fearless operative and a rock-‘em-sock-‘em brawler.

And to hear her talk, Russell seems thrilled with her leading man.

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