In person, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys is charmingly evasive. Rather than offering long-winded answers to questions about himself, Rhys is just as likely to respond to a question with another question, a tendency that makes it easy to understand how he effortlessly slips into many disparate identities on the FX Cold War drama "The Americans."

Each week, Rhys plays a Soviet spy posing as a suburban American dad named Philip Jennings. In the line of duty, he assumes numerous other personas, relying on an array of wigs, facial hair and eyeglasses to maintain his cover. But though the authentic 1980s hair and makeup come in handy, it's Rhys who deserves the credit for pulling off such remarkable dramatic contortions.

"I'm always trying to find what's the truth in this moment," says Rhys, clad in a chambray shirt and cargo pants, an inconspicuously cool ensemble that would be a great disguise for any spy hiding out in Brooklyn, where he lives and where the series films. But his rolling Welsh accent, so thoroughly masked in "The Americans" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.), would be a dead giveaway.

Complex marriage

Over the course of a shape-shifting career that started in the late '90s, Rhys, 39, has starred as a gay Southern California lawyer in the prime-time network soap "Brothers & Sisters," an opium-smoking choirmaster in an adaptation of Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and poet Dylan Thomas in the pedigreed biopic "The Edge of Love."


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Now in its second season, "The Americans" puts a new spin on the antihero drama by centering on a married pair of KGB spies living in suburban Falls Church, Va., during the early days of the Reagan administration.

On the surface, Philip and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are unusually attractive but otherwise ordinary, with two kids and cover jobs running a travel agency. In truth, however, they are ruthlessly effective, cold-blooded agents, willing to lie, cheat, torture, kidnap and kill in service of the Motherland.

Their seemingly content marriage is also intensely fraught: What began years ago as a purely professional partnership arranged by their KGB handlers has evolved into a loving relationship, and their growing attachment to one another has made certain aspects of their job, like seducing sources, less palatable.

For Rhys, the Jennings' complex marriage was the main reason for doing the show. "It's the sort we've never seen before, two people who've been together for 'x' amount of years and now begin to forge a real relationship. The spy stuff was just a bonus."

'Unflappable' actor

In a refreshing gender reversal, Philip is the more sympathetic protagonist, both a warmer parent and a more conflicted spy. Though for now he remains committed to the Soviet cause, Philip evidently has been seduced by the West: In a recent episode, he even bought a Camaro on a whim, heightening the tension with his dogmatic wife.

"His thing is always family and their safety and his realization that it's not a career or a life that can be sustained," Rhys says. "His mandate is simple: He just wants to stay alive."

There was a moment in Rhys' audition that has taken on almost mythic proportions: He and Russell were acting out a scene for the pilot in which Elizabeth slaps her husband. Russell, swept away in the moment, slapped him so hard her handprint was visible on his cheek.

"He did not even flinch," the actress recalls. "His eyes looked straight back to me like, 'Yeah, what you got?' That's the point. He's unflappable."

The Cardiff-born actor studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before moving into British stage, film and television roles. A major breakthrough came when Rhys was cast opposite Kathleen Turner's Mrs. Robinson in a West End production of "The Graduate."

After moving to L.A. for "Brothers & Sisters," Rhys joined an ever-growing horde of Britons-playing-Americans on TV. He spent several years on the West Coast but is now happily settled in Brooklyn.

For his next major TV role, he'll star as Mr. Darcy in a P.D. James' murder-mystery sequel of sorts to "Pride and Prejudice," titled "Death Comes to Pemberley."

Rhys was initially wary of signing on to the three-part miniseries, because of the long shadow cast by Colin Firth and his legendary wet shirt, but eventually the Welsh actor came around. The miniseries aired on the BBC last Christmas and will play stateside on PBS' "Masterpiece" later this year,

Rhys will turn 40 later this year, a milestone that occasionally gives him second thoughts about his career choice. "I catch myself going, 'What am I doing? I'm almost 40, running around in a wig, pretending to be a spy. What am I doing for a living?' Don't get me wrong, you couldn't ask for better, but the older I get, the louder that is in my head."