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Canadian-born Graham Yost debuts TV Russian spy drama 'The Americans'

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - When it came time to launch a series called "The Americans," who did FX turn to? A Canadian, of course.
Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), who have two children unaware of their parentsê true identities.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - When it came time to launch a series called "The Americans," who did FX turn to?

A Canadian, of course.

Toronto-born Graham Yost, the executive producer and showrunner of FX's "Justified," was brought in to be the guiding hand on this new spy drama. It premieres Wednesday, January 30 at 10 p.m. ET on FX Canada.

The series is about husband-and-wife Russian spies — played by Keri Russell ("Running Wilde") and Matthew Rhys ("Brothers & Sisters") — posing as Americans in Washington. It is set in 1981, as the decades-long Cold War heats up and then flames out during the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Yost didn't come up with the spy-spouse idea. Credit there goes to an American: Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent who worked undercover in the early ‘90s. Weisberg left the federal agency and turned to writing, penning a book based on his CIA exploits called "An Ordinary Spy."

Yost read the book and found out Weisberg had written a pilot for a spy series. Yost read the script — the first Weisberg had ever written — and found it to be "annoyingly good." As he told critics earlier this month in Los Angeles, he decided to "just attach myself to this guy and hope that something happens."

What happened, eventually, was "The Americans," a series that was put on the front burner when news broke of a real-life spy scandal involving Russians in America in 2010.

By that time Yost had put Weisberg to work in the writers room of "Falling Skies." The former spy credits Yost for turning him into a TV writer.

"Every show should have a Graham," says Weisberg.

He and writer/producer Joel Fields, interviewed on the set this week during the shooting of the sixth episode, explained that the series was as much about marriage as espionage. The two were committed to exploring, as Weisberg says, "what it's like to be a spy and raise a family."

Russell and Rhys play Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, two 30-somethings who have been trained since their teen years in the Soviet Union to infiltrate American society as KGB "sleeper agents." They live with two unsuspecting children in a suburb of Virginia.

A tour of the set shows an ordinary house interior stuck more in the ‘70s than the ‘80s. Burnt orange Formica counter tops and a vintage avocado-green stove give the kitchen a "Brady Bunch" look. Miniature TVs and radios are in every room, all encased in colourful plastics. The lavender wallpaper in the teen daughter’s bedroom competes for attention with a giant Rick Springfield poster.

It is a world free of computers, cell phones and Xboxes. A telescope and a book on chess can be found in the 10-year-old son's room, along with a hockey helmet and a teddy bear.

Weisberg insisted the series be "grounded in reality." He'd hold up an imaginary spy card whenever he felt the writers weren't keeping it real.

Into this world steps Rhys, a Welshman playing a Russian playing an American. The 38-year-old actor says the spy series brings out his "inner seven year old," especially the many fight scenes and car chases in mile-long Lincolns and Chevys.

He's playful on the set, telling reporters that co-star Russell is "fine when she's sober."

Later he praises her as the ideal work partner and leading lady. "Nothing is a problem even when it is a problem," he says of Russell.

His character, Phillip, is getting tired of the spy charade. He likes his relatively affluent American life and is developing real feelings for his fake wife.

Russell says her Elizabeth is more black and white, the cold one of the Cold War duo. Once famous as sweet, innocent "Felicity," the 36-year-old actress is having fun playing frosty for a change.

She's tough in real life, too. There's a reason this series is shot in Brooklyn — it's close to Russell’s home and children. The actress gave birth to her second child just days before hearing a pitch on the series.

As for the Canadian in charge, he's now an American citizen. Yost has spent more than half of his 53 years working in America on everything from "Speed" to "Boomtown" to "Band of Brothers" and obtained his U.S. citizenship five years ago. Like a lot of other Canadians in Hollywood, he's now one of "The Americans."


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Brooklyn, he was a guest of FX Canada.