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The 38-year-old Welsh-born Rhys is best known from ABC’s drama “Brothers & Sisters,” where he played lawyer and gay man Kevin Walker. His credits also include the indie film “The Scapegoat” and the BBC miniseries “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

“He’s a real actor! I’m in awe of him!” says Russell. “We’ll be doing a scene and I’ll go, `Matthew’s doing all of THAT, and I’m just doing THIS! Arggggg!’ Between Matthew and Noah Emmerich and me, I’m the most boring TV person in the show.”

When those words are shared with Rhys, he bursts out laughing.

“She’s INCREDIBLE! She’s the total package!” he declares. “Her work ethic is huge, she takes the right things seriously and most of the other stuff, not. I wish she had a little more awareness of how good she is.”

Rhys was asked to come test opposite Russell based on his impressive off-Broadway debut in the 2011 revival of the modern classic “Look Back in Anger.”

“I was brought in for the infamous `chemistry read,’” he chortles, meant to see how he and Russell would mesh.

He was one of several prospects.

“In between them, I was pumping in the bathroom because I was nursing a new baby,” Russell laughs. “And then I’d come out and test with the next stranger. We were reading the scene in the laundry room from the first episode, where Philip presents the idea of defection.” (Philip tells Elizabeth: “We could get relocated, live the good life, and be happy.”) “My character is outraged that he would even consider it.

“Basically, there’s a slap in that scene,” Russell adds. “But when the first guy came in, I didn’t do it.”

Then it was Rhys‘ turn. “The director said, `Slap him.’ So I went for it.”

Rhys picks up the story: “Strange as it may sound, she slaps incredibly well. In the same place every time, and never near your eye. The swing of her arm was incredibly violent, but her wrist remained soft, so there wasn’t much force behind it.”

Clearly, he and Russell connected.

“And now it’s become this ongoing joke,” he says. “Keri will slap me _ not hard _ just before a take, just to see how I react. I feel like Inspector Clouseau and she’s Cato. It’s a surreal feeling to have the demure, angelic Keri Russell wallop you across the chops at any moment. But it’s great!”

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