Q&A: Alison Wright Of The Americans On Martha's Pivotal Episode

The English actress talks to MTV News about playing the show's most heartbreaking character

[Note: This interview contains details from Wednesday night's episode of The Americans.]

The Americans said farewell -- though it’s not clear for how long -- to one of its most tragic characters last night. Alison Wright’s FBI secretary Martha Hanson began the FX drama as a joke -- a frump that KGB spy Philip (Matthew Rhys) slept with to gather intel at her office -- but soon became a fan favorite. Her secret marriage to Philip, whom she knew as the four-eyed Clark, was frequently lovely but ultimately doomed, and their union was often as compelling as the spy’s closer-to-real matrimony with fellow sleeper agent Elizabeth (Keri Russell). Philip’s feelings for his mark were tender enough that Elizabeth told him last week she’d “understand” if he absconded with Martha to Russia, where Martha's Soviet handlers were sending her to save her from the American government. She’d receive “respect and honor,” Philip promised, but Martha was sure of only one thing: She’d have to start her life over, alone again.

Droll and thoughtful, the English-born Wright talked to MTV News about how she imagines Martha in Russia, where she figures in Philip’s character development, and the secretary’s two most defining props: her revolver and her copy of the Kama Sutra.

So is Martha actually gone from the show?

Alison Wright: I can’t answer that.

Got it. Do you have an idea in your head of what you imagine Martha to be doing in Russia when she lands?

Wright: Um, assuming that she gets there. When she is leaving, she is in this really profound stage in her life where she has been forced, squashed, right against the mirror. She has to accept [the truth] about herself and about her husband. I think that when she gets there, she’ll be in recovery mode. She is going to have a lot of time to ruminate over every little thing that happened to try and explain it in her head, all of the absences when he wasn’t there, the times when he said that he didn’t want to adopt or foster a little child. Hopefully she has the resolve somehow to survive after doing that.

How do you feel about Martha getting to live, as far as we can tell right now, as opposed to Nina, who didn't?

Wright: I don’t know what’s worse, being dead or banished to Russia on your own in the ‘80s. We will see how it goes, but it’s always better to be alive than dead. On The Americans, like in life, if you are not dead, then there is still hope.

With Martha leaving like this and Clark doing all that he could to protect her, it’s nice to be a part of the story of his development. Because through her character, he is growing and changing. He got a conscience.

What do you think it is that Martha gives Clark/Philip that Elizabeth can’t give him?

Wright: Well, they are pretty much polar opposites as women. Martha is so maternal and puts everyone else’s concerns and needs before her own. Different people bring out different parts of our personality. Even though I think he’s always on the job with Martha, he is able to be a part of himself that he can’t be elsewhere. I think, judging by the life that he had, that was the first time he experienced that sort of acceptance. She just accepted him over and over again.

Do you think it was Martha or Clark who brought home that infamous copy of the Kama Sutra?

Wright: [Laughs] I never thought about that before. I suppose Martha, but it would have been great if Clark brought it home all wrapped in a bow.

As an actress, was there a part of you hoping that Martha could have used her gun?

Wright: I think everyone that was watching was just dying for her to use the gun. People talk about it all the time. I, of course, wanted to be a badass and learn how to shoot and do some falls and rolls, but that was never in the cards. Not yet!

There was a scene in last week’s episode where Elizabeth approaches Martha in the park, then punches her in the gut. Did that require any badass actor training?

Wright: Not too much, no, but Keri [Russell] does that [kind of thing] all the time. I’m sure she had enough training for the both of us.

Can you talk about your first impressions of Martha going into the show?

Wright: All I had to go on was the pilot, of course. The second audition I had, I went in with Gavin O’Connor, who directed the pilot, and Joe Weisberg, the creator. Gavin wanted to see a version where Martha was even more in love and gushing at Clark, and I can remember him laughing a lot because he was trying to explore how far they could go with it.

A little less than halfway through the season, Joe took me aside and told me what their plan was, that they were trying for [Martha and Clark/Philip] to get married. And in the real-life cases, these marriages went on for years and years -- like 10 years, and they had children and stuff.

Can you talk about the research you’ve done into the wives of serial killers that you did for the show?

Wright: I knew from the very beginning that she was going to find out at some point, so I had the advantage of having a long time to be able to explore that and try to find something that would be a substitution that could capture the horror of the deceit. You thought you were with one person this whole time, and then something incredibly huge and awful is revealed, and you can’t even believe that the person you were married to did that. People always say, the wives, they knew all along. They chose to deny it.

After playing this role and researching the wives of serial killers, do you think that there are more Marthas in the world than we pay attention to?

Wright: I do, yeah. I think people watching [the show] realize that, too.

You play a very similar character in the Confirmation movie, as Ginny Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife, who believes her husband’s insistence that Anita Hill is making everything up.

Wright: I am going to have a career of [playing] women who choose really great husbands.

Martha’s close bond with her parents is one of the few functional parent-child relationships we see on the show. Is there a backstory that you created in your mind between Martha and her parents?

Wright: Yes, lots of them, but with a character this large, you work through a lot of different ideas, and there are things you try and some you might throw away. Martha doesn’t have any protection; she is pretty much an open book. And I thought in the first season, I would like her to have some secrets. I had decided to myself that she would have had an abortion when she was younger, and that was something that she would never tell. She would be ashamed about it, and of course it wasn’t legal at the time. And that was something that wound up coming into play in Season 4. They wrote it, too.

As a viewer, is there a story line you are particularly interested in other than Martha’s?

Wright: I was very interested in Nina’s story in Episode 4 [of this season, when the unwilling spy is abruptly killed]. I wanted to see that in real time, and I really enjoyed how that played out. William [the KGB bio-warfare agent] is pretty great. Agent Gaad has a lot of really great things coming up, too.