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Home / Latest News / Matthew Rhys: How I transformed myself into a super-fit KGB spy

Matthew Rhys: How I transformed myself into a super-fit KGB spy

Matthew Rhys is sipping an Americano in his local coffee shop in Cardiff as he fights off any imminent signs of jet lag.

It’s just hours since he touched down on home turf from Los Angeles and he has plenty of plans to squeeze into the next few days – from catching up with family and friends to a costume fitting before filming his latest TV role as the iconic Mr Darcy.

But before he does any of that, there’s just one thing on his mind.

“I’m off to Top Gun for fish and chips – I can’t wait,” he smiles, name-checking his favourite takeaway in Whitchurch.

Despite being based in LA for the past seven years, Rhys hasn’t lost touch with his roots and he’s certainly not adopted any Hollywood fitness fads – well, at least not when he doesn’t have to get into shape for work projects.

As he readily admits: “I’m a junk food junkie.”

Which no doubt made it so much tougher for the 38-year-old as he prepared for his latest role
as a super-fit, gun-toting KGB spy in new US series The Americans.

Matthew Rhys with Keri Russell in The Americans
Matthew Rhys with Keri Russell in The Americans

“It was miserable,” he laughs, recalling the diet he was put on as he prepared to film his action scenes as Philip Jennings.

“I had to eat porridge and sweet potato and no carbs in the evenings. I stuck to it for about two-and-a-half days. Every food that’s bad for you was calling out my name.”

As well as watching his diet, Rhys had to embark on a tough exercise regime.

“I did a lot of martial arts training. For a month I was doing kick-boxing, jiujitsu and (Israeli self-defence discipline) Krav Maga. But I was sparring a bit with the kick boxing and took some knocks to my knees.”

He also damaged his shoulder while trying out some of his newfound skills during a riding holiday in Mongolia.

“I was staying with a horseman and there were six boys helping out on the farm who wanted to wrestle me. I thought that after all the jiujitsu training I would be fine.

“I lost the first match but won the second so incurred the wrath of one of the other boys who picked me up like a sack of potatoes. Now there’s a separation between my collar bone and my shoulder bone,” he says, rubbing his injured shoulder blade.

“I’m going to have to change my ways when it comes to exercise.”

But it seems his dedication has paid off. Even before The Americans premieres in the UK – the first episode was screened on Saturday on ITV1 – he’s been nominated for a Best Actor gong in the coveted American Critics’ Choice TV Awards.

He goes head to head with two other Brits – Homeland’s Damian Lewis, who has Welsh roots, and Andrew Lincoln. American star Kevin Spacey is also among those who will battle it out in the category when the awards are presented in LA on June 10.

“It’s great, but it also makes me chuckle to be nominated alongside two mates and Kevin Spacey,” he says.

Matthew Rhys, pictured back home in Whitchurch, Cardiff
Matthew Rhys, pictured back home in Whitchurch, Cardiff


The Americans is Rhys’ second high-profile US drama following his role as gay lawyer Kevin in the ABC hit Brothers Sisters, which was also screened to British audiences on Channel 4.

Filmed in New York, the 13-part series stars the Welshman alongside Keri Russell as two KGB spies posing as a married American couple in suburban Washington DC.

The action unfolds during the Cold War shortly after Ronald Regan is elected president.

The Jennings have two children who know nothing about their parents’ true identity but while the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth grows more passionate and genuine by the day, it is constantly tested by the escalation of the Cold War and the intimate, dangerous and darkly funny connections they must maintain with a network of spies and informants under their control.

Philip’s growing sense of affinity for America’s values and ways of life further complicate the couple’s relationship.

So how difficult was it for Rhys, as a Welshman, to play a Russian pretending to be an American?

“It wasn’t that big a leap actually as I spent five years on Brothers Sisters pretending to be American.”

He carried out plenty of research into the Cold War era, mainly via the internet.

“When I first left drama school you had to go to the library in town to do your research,” says Rhys, who trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) alongside his best friend and fellow thesp Ioan Gruffudd.

“In this day and age you can lie on your bed and click online and everything is there. I found a series on the Cold War which was narrated by Kenneth Branagh and I read up on it a lot.

“The Americans is created by an ex-CIA operative (Joe Weisberg) and having him on hand for advice was amazing. Before anyone saw our scripts they were sent to the CIA and vetted so that they weren’t revealing any trade secrets.”

Rhys clearly enjoys playing Philip in the series, which was premiered in the States on the FX cable channel earlier this year.

A second season has already been commissioned.

“He’s in a real dilemma about his life. For me, the most interesting part about the series is the strange relationship between the couple at the heart of it. It’s very ill-defined. They are spies but the boundaries get blurred. They are told to have children together to make their marriage seem real.

“There was a real life case in which two spies were put together as a husband and wife team and they had children and that’s what the story in the series is based on.”

Rhys describes his co-star Russell – whose film credits include Leaves Of Grass and Extraordinary Measures – as “a lot of fun”.

“The scenes I have with her are so intense so you always hope that in that situation you’re going to be working with someone you’ll get on with.”

But he admits that she can pack a punch – quite literally.

“In one scene she had to slap me across the face but unbeknown to me, the director said to her, ‘Actually hit him and see how he reacts’. So the scene was going really well and then she walloped me. I was a bit taken aback but I just carried on with the scene – after all, I’m meant to be a tough spy. They told me afterwards that I took it really well. That’s growing up in Cardiff for you,” he laughs.

While the action may have been intense, he says there were plenty of lighter moments during filming as the actors pulled on an array of dodgy wigs, moustaches and oversized glasses as disguises.

“We wore so many false wigs – we took a bit of a ribbing for it but it still goes on in real life.”

Matthew Rhys in Brothers and Sisters
Matthew Rhys in Brothers and Sisters


While it’s now two years since Brothers Sisters came to an end after five seasons, he’s stayed in touch with the close-knit cast, which included Calista Flockhart, Sally Field, Dave Annable and Rachel Griffiths.

“It really had run its course so I wasn’t too sad when it ended. I saw Dave the day before yesterday, I saw Sally the other week and I recently spoke to Calista.”

It seems that his character has left quite an impact on viewers.

“People still talk to me about Kevin all the time. I get quite a lot of mothers with gay sons who say that the story helped them. And young men have told me how it helped them to come out.”

Another character who will no doubt make an impact is Mr Darcy.

It was revealed last week
that Rhys will play Jane Austen’s iconic hero in the BBC prime-time Christmas costume drama.

However, he won’t be appearing in a remake of Pride And Prejudice – instead Mr Darcy features in P D James’ Death Comes To Pemberley, which revisits the characters five years on from the 200-year-old novel.

Rhys will be returning to the UK this month to shoot the drama – which also stars South Riding actress Anna Maxwell Martin as Lizzie Bennet – at a number of stately homes.

“It’s exciting to be part of the BBC’s big Christmas drama but you feel the pressure as there’s always much expectation surrounding it,” admits the actor, whose previous costume dramas include Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“The thought of playing Mr Darcy is getting to me slightly as it’s such an iconic role.”

Matthew Rhys plays Phillip Jennings in the FX drama series The Americans
Matthew Rhys plays Phillip Jennings in the FX drama series The Americans


It also means that the rugby-mad fan is missing out on the trip of a lifetime – following the British and Irish Lions in Australia.

“The publicity people for The Americans said, ‘If you go to Australia to do press we will sort out tickets for you to the Lions games’. But Mr Darcy won out. I’ll just have to watch the rugby on television in my breeches. I don’t think my friends will let me live this down.”

As he waits for filming to start, he will read Pride And Prejudice but he won’t be watching the 1995 TV mini-series in which Colin Firth, as Mr Darcy, famously emerges from a pond in soaking wet clothing.

“There shouldn’t be too many comparisons with Colin Firth as he’s a different Darcy – the one I’ll be playing has now mellowed and has kids.”

While his latest projects have all been for television, he would love to work in the theatre again soon.

In fact it was while he was playing the disaffected Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger off-Broadway last year that he was cast in The Americans.

Staged for three months at the Laura Pels Theater in New York, it was his first theatre stint for six years.

Before that, he had played Romeo in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo And Juliet.

Despite already having a successful career – which also includes films like House of America, Patagonia and The Edge Of Love, in which he plays Dylan Thomas – Rhys admits that he was “terrified” of returning to the stage.

He once revealed: “On the first night of the previews I was white and shaking and there’s nothing you can do to conquer it.

“At 7.30pm you have to step out on stage and that’s it. There’s no other option.”

But his performance in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of the drama was well received by critics and it seems that he enjoyed the run after conquering the nerves.

“Ideally I’d love to go back to theatre next as I loved doing Look Back In Anger,” he now admits.

“TV and film are ultimately the director’s medium but with theatre it’s just you and the audience and you go through the whole process – from A to Z – in one night.”

Would he like to do more work in the Welsh language?

“If the scripts are right, absolutely. I know there will be some Dylan Thomas work here next year – there’s definitely something in the pipeline,” he says, referring to the celebrations to mark the Swansea writer’s centenary.

In the meantime, once he’s packed Mr Darcy’s breeches away, he will be heading to New York to film the second season of The Americans.

But before he can get distracted by any more work, he has something far more pressing to do – collecting his lunch from his favourite chippie.

The Americans is on now on ITV1

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