Learning and keeping secret that your parents are Russian spies would be a lot for any teenager to handle. That’s been the heavy burden for Paige Jennings on FX’s Cold War-era thriller “The Americans.”
The responsible, good-hearted Paige strikes a stark counterpoint to Elizabeth and Philip, her mom and dad, who, behind their masquerade as modern circa-1980s Americans, are Soviet-born KGB officers doing their undercover best to help bring down the U.S.
This powerful series, which airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, has no shortage of action, intrigue and wig disguises as the cloak-and-dagger couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) carry out their subterfuge right under the nose of FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who, as luck would have it, lives across the street in their Washington suburb.
But it’s Paige who has emerged as the show’s pivotal figure. Propelled by Holly Taylor’s winsome portrayal, she has blossomed as the series’ moral center. And she represents the series’ biggest question mark as “The Americans” races toward its sixth and final season next year: What path will this all-American girl choose as, more and more, she becomes implicated in her parents’ mission to make Russia great again? (This week’s episode offers a new clue.)
Now 16, Paige was first seen on the premiere of “The Americans” typing a theme for class on a topic that made her mother seethe: How the Russians cheat on arms control.
“In season one, I was just kind of sitting there,” says Taylor, a fresh-faced young woman with sparkling eyes who, at 19, scarcely looks older than the character she plays. “It was good the part wasn’t really big in the beginning. As they amped it up, that gave me the chance to learn.”
Then, two seasons ago, an increasingly suspicious Paige forced the issue.
“I’m not stupid,” she said as she confronted her parents in a memorable scene. “I know there’s something going on.”
“We serve our country,” her mother said. And that didn’t mean the USA.
At her insistence, Paige increasingly has been taken into her parents’ confidence. At the same time, she clashes with them — in particular, over her choice of boyfriends. A puppy-love romance has sparked between Paige and the anyone-but-him boy across the street: the son of FBI agent Beeman.
The relationship between Paige and Matthew Beeman (played by Danny Flaherty) is sweetly innocent thus far. But it could always go further. “Some of the things, I had a stand-in for,” Taylor volunteers, with no details.
“I have to do the kiss itself because you see my face. But anything that goes past the kiss is not me. I’m not comfortable doing that, for now, and the producers respect my boundaries.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Taylor started dance lessons when she was 3, and at age 11 began a two-year stint dancing in the kid-centric Broadway musical “Billy Elliot.”
After that, she decided to try performing for the camera.
“That seemed like a logical next step,” she says, “but I was so shy. So I took a few acting classes and began to have more fun with it. I thought, ‘I can actually do this.’ ”
After a round of auditions, she landed the part of Paige.
“I’m so proud to play her,” Taylor says. “Usually the teenage girl on a TV show just butts into everything and gets everyone annoyed. But I think Paige is complex, and her story line makes sense.”
As everybody knows, it’s the teen who typically rebels on TV. But in this case it’s Paige who tries to follow the rules while her parents, in their own highly regimented way, run wild.
This sets off highly charged moments between Taylor and her co-stars Russell and Rhys.
“After the scene where they told Paige they were spies, all three of us sat at the table and couldn’t even talk, we were just so exhausted from bringing out those emotions.
“But I never feel uncomfortable or nervous doing a really emotional scene in front of them,” she says. “When you have to break down and cry, they’re there to help you. They’re so open and generous and welcoming. I’m really lucky to have that.”
This season “The Americans” has gained an unsought burst of relevance as America suffers a relapse into Cold War-style heebie-jeebies.
Even so, Taylor’s show remains laser-focused on the long-ago ’80s. And despite her not having been born until 1997, so is she.
“All the writers are so talented, just reading the script I feel like I’m THERE,” she says. “And once I get into wardrobe and get on set, I’m in the character who lives at that time.”
“Still, as a viewer, you relate ‘The Americans’ to yourself and what you see going on around you,” she allows. “That’s what people are finding out about our show now. And that’s cool.”
10 p.m. Tuesdays
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