Arts + Culture

Hours before series finale, ‘The Americans’ stars trade notes with former CIA officers

UCLA Burkle Center hosts event separating fact from fiction in the FX drama

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Flanked on each side by real-life former CIA officers, actor Matthew Rhys was understandably sheepish when he was asked to open a panel discussion by talking about the much-discussed disguises he and Keri Russell wear while playing Soviet spies on the FX drama “The Americans.”

Acknowledging the comparison between playing a spy on TV and, well, being a spy in real life, he joked: “I find it hard to kick off this panel by complaining about wearing a wig. ‘It's really hard wearing a wig. Really stressful, actually.’”

Costumes and makeup aside, the hour-long discussion in Korn Convocation Hall at UCLA was dedicated to exploring how the real lives of spies compare with the version portrayed on the award-winning show, which airs its series finale tonight on FX. 

Rhys and Russell were joined on stage by Costa Ronin, who portrays a KGB agent; the show’s creator, Joe Weisberg; and former CIA counterintelligence officers Martha Peterson and Mark Kelton. The event was presented by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Kelton observed that the sheer number of espionage operations depicted on the show — and the speed at which the spies move from one operation to the next — is a dramatic stretch; in reality, officers spend hundreds of hours planning each one. And, he added, the extent to which the lead characters use sex to get what they want from their informants is also a bit unrealistic. 

“That's very rare in my experience,” he said. “Blackmailing people generallly is not a good way to have a good personal relationship with someone.”

Peterson recounted the day she finally revealed to her teenage children that she worked for the CIA  — and not, as she had been telling them — for the State Department. She met them at a Roy Rogers restaurant in McLean, Virginia, to break the news.

“My daughter said, ‘What's that?’ and then my son said, ‘Mom’s a spy!’”

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