“Oh my god,” says Keri Russell, hazel eyes wide and mouth agape in shock. “Wow.” Pause. “Holy crap.” She shakes her head and looks up at the ceiling for a moment, doing the math in her head. “Is it?”
Yes, this year really is the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Felicity, the show that rocketed Russell and her mass of curls to stardom when she was just 22. Sitting across from the actress at an Italian restaurant in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on a foggy February afternoon, I can’t help but think it is a bit of a shock that Russell is 41 now. Her creamy complexion is smooth enough to get her carded (just a few fine lines around the eyes) and she’s just as tiny as she was when Felicity followed Ben across the country to enroll at a New York university. She looks bike-ride ready today in a red-and-white striped linen T-shirt and white jeans, and, although her hair is fairly straight now (she does Keratin treatments, shhh), wisps at her forehead are fighting to curl again on account of the humidity.
Suddenly, a lightbulb moment. “Oh yeah … maybe that’s why they’re asking about a reunion!” she says with a laugh, explaining that she had been invited to this summer’s ATX Television Festival, where, in the past, the casts of Gilmore Girls and Battlestar Galactica came together for much-publicized events. “Huh. That’s crazy.”
You could forgive her for not being aware of such a milestone. Since Felicity’s four-year run—which also helped launch the career of creator J.J. Abrams—Russell has had three kids, appeared in 14 movies, and spent the last five years trying to bring down the U.S. government as an undercover Russian spy on The Americans. Last month brought the sixth and final season of the critically adored FX drama, which has nabbed Russell two Emmy nominations for her role as the fiercely loyal, ruthless KGB operator Elizabeth Jennings—not to mention a baby daddy. After the series’ first season in 2013, she and her on-screen husband, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, started dating, and in 2016, she gave birth to their son, Sam. (She has two children, River, 10, and Willa, 6, with her ex-husband, Shane Deary.)
Now, she says, when people stop her on the street, it’s not to ask her why Felicity got that awful haircut (which, oh man, they used to ask her all the time), but rather to talk about what a badass Elizabeth is. “But that’s probably just because I’m so much older now,” she says, “now that you’ve just reminded me that it’s been 20 years!”
But although fans and critics may define Russell by these two roles, she thinks of them much more pragmatically. Yes, The Americans is the most culturally relevant show on TV right now (Russia! Russia! Russia!) and, yes, Felicity was a touchstone for an entire generation of young women struggling to figure out who they were. But for Russell, they were jobs. She has always taken a workmanlike approach to acting. When I mention this trait to series creator Joe Weisberg and showrunner Joel Fields, they agree immediately.
“I think one of the things that makes her such an incredible artist is that she does the work part of the work,” Fields says. “But because she’s so easygoing and because she’s so hard-working, it’s easy to either ascribe her genius to the hard work or kind of forget about it because she’s so easygoing, and then it always winds up surprising you.”
“You know what she is?” Weisberg asks. “She’s a low-key genius.”
Perhaps Russell’s workmanlike approach to acting can be explained by the fact that she never meant to be an actor. Her first venture into Hollywood was a total fluke. When she was 15, she and a gaggle of “dancer friends” showed up for an open audition for The All New Mickey Mouse Club because why not?—there wasn’t anything better to do in Denver that day. But then she ended up getting cast and spent the next three years performing cheesy skits and choreographed dance numbers (along with Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera) for a live studio audience. For 10-year-olds watching at home, it looked like a blast, but the work was hard. Besides memorizing her lines, making her marks, and nailing the dance moves, she had to create a version of “Keri” who was always confident, always happy, always on.
She remembers, years later, being in New York and going to see the documentary Spellbound, about kids competing in the national spelling bee, and spotting one of her best friends and fellow former Mouseketeers, Ilana, in line for the next showing. “And I said, ‘Call me after you see this!’” she recalls. “There was something about the stress on those kids. I understood it. When you’re a kid, you’re not supposed to do everything right. You’re supposed to mess up; you’re supposed to fail. And there’s no room for that in the professional world.” She pauses to take a bite of her salmon. “I think we were having fun while we were doing it, but it’s creepy. It’s strange to put kids into that world. I wouldn’t want my kids to do it.”
When The All New Mickey Mouse Club ended, she stuck with acting because that was all she knew and “because it seemed like that was a fun life to continue.” But after Felicity, she took a break. “I think I needed to reassess if I wanted to still do it,” she says. So she pulled her own Felicity and left her LA life behind, moving to New York on a whim. Today, she admits that she was jealous of her fictional character’s freedom. “I wanted that! I wanted to be that! I thought, Why am I in Los Angeles on a bad sound stage wearing a big coat and pretending to be cold when I’m sweating? New York is so romantic.”
So she spent a year having fun—hanging out with friends, going to concerts, drinking beers on her stoop—and vowed never to move back to LA. Slowly, she waded back into acting: She did an off-Broadway play, appeared in a handful of TV shows, and started doing movies. Abrams cast her in Mission Impossible III, which showed audiences that there was more to her than those dimples and curls, but mostly she landed sweet, wounded roles, such as those in Waitress and August Rush.
In 2007, she got married and started having babies and realized that was the job she wanted to focus on, so acting again took a backseat. When The Americans came along, she had just had her second child, and the last thing she wanted was to jump into a long-term project. But Weisberg and the team at FX were adamant. They knew Russell was the perfect choice for Elizabeth Jennings. They needed someone audiences loved, trusted, and related to, and who was believable as a suburban mom who wears silk blouses and bakes Duncan Hines brownies for the new neighbors. They needed that so when Elizabeth then killed an innocent security guard in cold blood or beat her female handler’s face into a bloody pulp, eyes wild with anger, viewers wouldn’t look away—they would cheer.
Season 6 of The Americans, which premiered March 28, jumps forward three years to 1987, when Gorbachev is the leader of the Communist Party and on the cusp of taking over the entire Soviet Union. Rhys’s Philip Jennings has mostly gotten out of the spy game, and the result is remarkable: His skin is radiant, he gives inspiring pep talks to his employees at the travel agency, he even goes line dancing wearing those cowboy boots he bought in Season 1. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is at her breaking point. She looks haggard and sleep-deprived and chain-smokes cigarettes in her Oldsmobile while staking out a mark. She’s shouldering the entire spy load by herself, and she can’t handle it. Turns out the advice she gave fellow spy Tuan in the Season 5 finale—a spy will fail without a partner—applies to her too.
The Americans is ultimately a show about partnership. When the series begins, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have been married for almost 20 years, but they’ve only just started to love each other. They respect each other and need each other to do the job that they’ve dedicated their lives to. But without that common goal, without them working together for the love of their country, can they really love each other? Is their love real or just circumstantial?
Circumstance, of course, led to Russell and Rhys falling in love while they filmed that first season. The show continues to benefit from the spark. Their on-screen relationship crackles with realness—the way they look at each other longingly one moment and with utter disgust the next—like any real relationship. “There are obviously pros and cons to working with your partner,” Russell says. “There are really great moments, where you’re so happy that they’re there. And there are moments when it would be really great if they weren’t there.” She laughs deeply. “They’re so annoying or every little thing bugs you or you had a big fight about something at home and you don’t need it to carry over when you’re working. It’s not as clean-cut a relationship.
But then there are those moments when, because they know you so well, it makes it that much, well, better because you trust that person and you know how to have fun with that person. There is a shared personal intimacy, and it does come across.”
Weisberg agrees: “Whatever pieces of [their relationship] went into the art, they sure come through. What we have there is two great human beings who work incredibly hard and are deeply respectful of everybody. And it just created this fantastic environment that made everyone do their best work.”
It’s difficult not to draw parallels between Russell and Rhys’s real life and on-screen partnerships, which in turn raises a question: When Elizabeth and Philip stop working together, their relationship falls apart, so is Russell at all worried that her dynamic with Rhys will change once they’re no longer scene partners? “I think there will probably be great relief from his point of view,” she says, dimples blazing as she laughs. “He’ll be like, ‘Finally! I don’t have to spend every moment with her!’”
“I joke with her about being greatly relieved, but the truth is, I’ll miss it enormously,” Rhys tells me later. “The juggle and balance isn’t easy, but the good far outweighs the bad. Learning lines together in bed speeds up the process.”
The two have made a life for themselves in Brooklyn, first raising Russell’s kids together and then adding baby Sam to the mix two years ago. Filming in New York has made it easy to balance work and family. “Even if we have a night shoot until late, we can still wake up and walk the kids to school,” Russell says. “And on long lighting setups, I used to be able to bike home, nurse the baby, and come back.” Rhys is teaching everyone Welsh, his native tongue (Russell’s favorite word is pili-pala, which means “butterfly”), and the family has traveled to Wales a handful of times over the past few years. Russell shows me the necklace she’s wearing, a gold medallion with a dragon on it. “It’s a Welsh dragon,” she says, explaining that she actually had it made for Rhys as a good-luck charm to wear at the Emmys last year. “On the back, I put a Hemingway quote: ‘To hell with luck, I’ll bring the luck with me.’” She pauses. “He didn’t win,” she says and bursts out laughing again.
While it’s a big deal to close the book on the show that reinvigorated her career and introduced her to her love, Russell, ever the professional, remains unsentimental. “I think it’s a good time to end it before, you know, Elizabeth’s running a hair salon in Jersey or something,” she says. “It’s the right time. Six years is a good, long run in TV. I’ll be sad to see it leave for some reasons, but at the same time, I’m ready for anew adventure.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean another show or movie. Russell has nothing lined up, and that’s how she wants it. “I could probably read the best script right now and I’d go, ‘I don’t even know what to do with this,’” she says. “It’s too much. I need to decompress a minute and start again.” No, she wants a literal adventure—to Portugal, maybe, or Copenhagen or Snowdonia in the mountains of Wales—just with Rhys. “That would be my biggest luxury,” she says, “going on a trip without the kids.” All hard workers, after all, deserve a vacation.