When Noah Emmerich found out I was only recording audio of our interview, he joked that he would take off his clothes. I replied that I would write that he did, whether he followed through or not. There you go, Noah.
It got us off to a great start talking about “The Americans,” in which his role as neighbor and FBI agent Stan Beeman has developed its own intrigue aside from what’s right under his nose already. Emmerich has also been in many of our favorite movies, so I couldn’t help throwing in some Truman Show and Frequency questions, and his upcoming role in the troubled production of Jane Got a Gun.
CraveOnline: Stan was having a very nice relationship with an operative, Nina.
Noah Emmerich: That’s what I thought.
How has that changed Stan?
Oddly, his world has gotten darker and lighter at the same time. He’s been backed into a corner pretty deeply over the course of the first season. His home life is getting worse, his relationship with his wife, his estrangement from his son. His confusion at work is sort of compounding somewhat as he gets closer and closer to his prey. They keep slipping away.
He thinks he’s on top of things, but he just keeps missing them. But he does have this sort of flowering relationship with Nina who I think he sees as a counterpoint to himself, a reflection of himself if you would, someone who understands him in a way that his wife can’t. Partially for his wife’s own protection because of the secretive life of an undercover agent or counterintelligence agent and his trying to keep his family clean of his somewhat dirty work world.
But Nina’s someone who accidentally, I think he approached the relationship with all the best intentions as a source, but he is an isolated, lonely man. Somehow she opened up to him which I think he feels able to communicate and be seen and assuage some of that loneliness.
How do you think Stan didn’t know or expect how complicated that relationship could be?
Well, I mean, Stan is a newcomer to the intelligence gang. He was working domestically for the bureau. He was working undercover for a domestic terrorist group essentially what we would call now, a racist organization he was trying to infiltrate. But the world of spies, undercover is actually quite different from the world of spies and I think the complexity and the moving parts of the spy world took him by surprise somewhat. He landed running and he’s gotten a little bit ahead of himself, but hopefully he’s a very smart guy, not to mention extremely good looking. [Laughs] So hopefully he’ll be able to figure it out.
Is he emotionally wounded this season?
I think he’s wounded from the day we met him. I think he still hasn’t fully recovered from his three years undercover with the white supremacist group. That was a traumatic experience. He’s just sort of reentering his own skin, his own family, also having moved across the country to Washington. We find him somewhat disoriented and I think more wounded than he admits. Then of course a series of events that unfold over the course of the season only serve to wound him further. I think this season will be even more difficult. As we see, Nina is playing both sides of the fence. Stan doesn’t know that so certainly that’s going to come up somehow and I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant.
How is Stan’s relationship with Phillip this year? Are they still buddies?
Yeah, they seem to be going along okay. It’s a fine line between what we walked the first season is how suspicious Stan can be believably and not either catch them or seem ignorant. So we’re continuing that walk this season, that their friendship is ongoing.
You’ve always gotten parts in big movies, but how rich has the work on “The Americans” been?
You know, what’s amazing is just the amount of material you get to do. Over the course of a season, you’re making essentially a 13 hour film which is like making six movies at once. So everyday just being able to come in with fresh material, it’s really like going to the gym for me. A film is a little bit more precious and a little bit more tedious in terms of its execution. It’s such a longer time schedule, but in terms of the amount of acting one gets to do, television is amazing.
I’ve really enjoyed also the relationship between the writers and the actor because there can be some synchronicity there. There can be some give and take as we get to know each other and our strengths. It’s more bespoke, so to speak, than a film. Then it presents other challenges as well, mostly that you don’t know where you’re going. It’s almost improvisational to be working in the middle of it. For a film I prepare the role long before we start shooting and I know the entirety of the arc of the character. In television, every day you get news about yourself which is at first a little intimidating for me but ultimately ended up being quite fun, rewarding and challenging in a great way.
Did you have to learn that? At first did you try to approach it like a film role?
Yeah, I did. Certainly with the pilot, but I learned right off the bat because even the pilot we started shooting, in the middle of production they changed their take on my character and the backstory and some of the tonalities. So right from the get go, it was clear that it was a different process from filmmaking. It scared me at first and then once I sort of gave into it, it felt very liberating and freeing. There’s less preciousness with the choices. Everything’s not set in stone from the get go. It’s all very fluid and dynamic.
Because of the nature of genres in film, you often get cast as the wacky best friend or sometimes the bad guy. Were you itching to do something with, I hate to say more depth because we love those characters too, but more like Stan?
I think that’s one of the great draws of television is that the writing seems to be more expansive in terms of the characters. Film seems like they really focus on the protagonist and the characters that surround the protagonist aren’t always as multi-dimensional as in television where you really have these ensemble casts and it’s sort of a game of Hot Potato.
One episode you might be very light and one episode you might be very heavy, so there clearly are the main protagonists of the show but in terms of the writing, there’s no real supporting character. Every character is full and real and three dimensional and has an opportunity to be explored in a deeper way than one would have in a film where you only have the two hours. You might have a couple episodes where it’s a Stan heavy storyline and all of a sudden he’s the lead of the show, and then it comes back to Elizabeth and Phillip or it goes to Martha. It’s a great ensemble dimensionality that is for me one of the most appealing things about television, and particularly television writing.
Do you think The Truman Show came true?
I think The Truman Show predicted the future in a way. When we made that film, there was virtually no reality television. It seemed like an incredibly far-fetched Isaac Asimov concept and it turned into essentially what is on television. Just a few little teeny exaggerations.
Just without the dome.
Yeah, without the dome, but “Big Brother” and I don’t even know the number of shows there are, so many. The one thing that Andrew Niccol maybe underestimated was the desire for people to live their lives on camera because of course Truman’s dilemma was he didn’t know. Once he knew, he wanted out, he wanted his real life. Turns out, everybody wants in “The Truman Show.” No one wants out of “The Truman Show” so it’s a bizarre evolution of our culture.
One of my personal favorites was Frequency. Was that a special movie to work on?
That was really special because my brother wrote that and I wrote my role in that film with him, so that was a family endeavor. It was really quite fun. I had a lot of hand in a lot. From the beginning of that writing process I was involved, so that was quite interesting and fun.
You picked Yahoo as the big tech stock to invest in. Should you have gone with Google?
Well, Google didn’t exist really when we made that film. No one knew about Google. I actually used Google from very early on, but I’m sort of a tech geek. Yahoo was the dominant engine of the time and certainly would have been a great investment, even now. Certainly now, it’s doing well again, but if you had invested in Yahoo when we made it, if we had just taken our own advice, I wouldn’t be here today. You’d have to come to my island and interview me.
Did you do any movies between seasons of “The Americans?”
I did a couple. I did a western called Jane Got a Gun with Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor that Gavin O’Connor directed that I’m really excited about, really fun. I play Natalie Portman’s husband in a really period, classic western. And I did a film with Guillaume Canet calledBlood Ties with Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis, a great cast. That’s a ‘70s cop drama that I think’s coming out here in the spring.
Were you on Jane Got a Gun from the beginning or after Gavin took over?
No, I came in after Gavin, who directed our pilot, who I’ve worked with multiple times, this is my fifth film with him. He came in, the movie was troubled, very troubled but Gavin ended up being the director. Actually the day after I wrapped “The Americans” season one, I flew to Santa Fe for a couple of months to make that film. It was really fun.
Are you the reason Jane got a gun?
I was a member of an outlaw gang and I left the gang when I met Natalie’s character. We went off and lived our lives and the gang has since found where we are and they want revenge. So they’re coming to get me essentially, and Natalie’s character, Jane. I’m injured and she has to figure out how to defend the pending siege of our homestead.