Amid the Soviet espionage on FX’s killer-good Cold War drama “The Americans” is a more quiet, less flashy heartbreaker of a performance: Noah Emmerich as FBI agent Stan Beeman, neighbor to Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s Russian spies in Reagan’s D.C. Emotionally estranged from his wife by the top-secret nature of his job, and engaged in an impossible affair with a Russian embassy employee turned spy, Stan is the dark underbelly to the American dream, one viewers simultaneously root for and against.
Now in its second season, the hit drama continues firing on all cylinders. As Emmerich himself puts it, “It’s like a pair of jeans—they fit better the second year.” Part of that better fit is that everyone involved knows what they’re doing is landing; the cast and crew were already halfway through filming the first season by the time “The Americans” premiered. “That was an interesting challenge for me, the second half [of Season 1],” Emmerich says. “I tried to avoid too much feedback because I did find it somewhat intrusive to the necessary illusion to what you’re doing on set. Coming into the second season, you do have that wind in your sails. People are enjoying the character and the stories.”
After years of incisive supporting turns in everything from “The Truman Show” and “Little Children” to “The Walking Dead,” Emmerich is finally garnering the attention he deserves as the perfect foil for the increasingly conflicted agents at the heart of “The Americans.” Stan works for the government, has a house, a wife, and a child, and yet he literally sleeps with the enemy. And though Emmerich’s degree in filmmaking from New York University—and his filmmaking efforts—have been back-burnered as his career steams ahead, he points out that it can still be an asset for an actor.
“I went there as an aspiring filmmaker in the middle of my acting career,” he says. “And clearly I haven’t pursued that as thoroughly as I might have! But it definitely did inform some of my acting; just understanding what’s happening on the set outside of the responsibilities of being an actor. It’s good to know what’s happening in all the other jobs being taken on by the people around you in a common pursuit.” But Emmerich wholeheartedly advises actors to “lead a diverse life.”
“Acting is infinite in terms of man, because you can play any character in the world,” he says, “so the more experience you have, the more you have to draw from. That’s one of the great things about acting: It’s permission to experience and explore many areas. The more you can pump up the imagination with fuel, the better.”
Emmerich is tight-lipped about the research that went into playing Stan—as befits an FBI agent—but does say, “I talked to quite a few people who were involved in the Cold War and the think tank, and one of the reasons the show is so good is it’s mostly about the human beings burdened with those roles, and their personal lives.” He also points out that the background of real history heightens the emotional turbulence of the fictional characters.
“The levels of paranoia that were going on between the two countries are hard to imagine today,” he says. “We don’t have a direct foe like we did back then. There’s not a chess match going between two countries. And there’s a great skeleton structure to draw upon. It gives it a kind of veracity and import that is real and somewhat embellished. It’s all grounded in the truth of what happened.”
And that goes for the performances, which so easily could have become stereotypes, as well.