Alison Wright portrays Martha Hanson in The Americans. She talks about her move from the UK to the USA, her career and her music memories.
For the first four seasons of the Emmy nominated TV series The Americans, Alison Wright has played the role of FBI secretary Martha Hanson, married to her part-time husband Clark Westerfeld (Matthew Rhys). None of us know what the future holds for Martha (apart from Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg). I recently had the delight of interviewing Alison about her role in the series, her other acting roles, and how important music is to her.
PC: Like me, you grew up in the North East of England, what was that like for you? Were you interested in acting from a very early age?
AW: My Mum started it all. She took me to tap dancing classes at 4 years old and that led to the dancing school life. Then came panto, naturally. I know you’ll know exactly what that is Paula! Had my first job around 8 I think: Mother Goose with Stanley Baxter at The Sunderland Empire.
PC: I read you went to an all-girls school. A lot of people remember a favorite teacher: was there a particular one that inspired you?
AW: You know, I wish I could give you a whole list of names, but there are only two. Mr Brown was my teacher at St Mary’s RC Junior School, He caused quite the commotion when he cast me (a 10-year-old girl) as Scrooge in the Christmas play. I was in a mixed school then, boys and girls. The boys’ mums were not happy at all, but Mr Brown insisted I was much better than any of the boys and the best choice for the part. I can only imagine the drama! I was oblivious, of course. The other teacher was Mrs Maureen Ritson at St. Anthony’s RC Girls. She was the art teacher, stunning, exotic and wildly flamboyant. Sadly she died recently. I had always hoped I could thank her someday, but I never got the chance. No Oscar acceptance speech yet, you see.
PC: You left to go to the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York in 1997. Was it a wrench to leave your friends and family or were you ready to spread your wings?
AW: It was all my doing, I was ready. I had just finished doing 2 years of Musical Theatre at Newcastle College and I was drifting into Stanislavsky and then Strasberg and it’s what I wanted to learn, ‘The Method’. When I discovered there was a school in New York, I somehow made it happen. I didn’t know a single soul here, and this was pre-internet days. A very different time. But I never thought of turning back, never.
PC: On arriving in NYC, what was your first impression?
AW: It was bloody sweltering. I arrived in August. Doesn’t get quite as hot in Sunderland n’ that. Wearing flip-flops everyday was a new phenomenon. I couldn’t afford AC for a while…
PC: Did you concentrate on mainly theatre or were you pursuing all avenues to secure work? Did you work many non-acting jobs to support yourself?
AW: I have always worked to support myself. Worked my ass off. When I first arrived I got a job answering phones at Mumbles Restaurant, on 17th and 3rd. I waited tables there and other places for years and years. At one point I was doing a play Off- Broadway with Marisa Tomei, (Wally Shawn’s Marie and Bruce) and working at a restaurant during the day. Crazy! I only quit the day job a few months before I got the pilot for The Americans. In terms of acting work, back then we only really had the Backstage newspaper to rely on. It was a lot of open calls, nothing paid any money but I have great memories: like doing a racy version of Bye Bye Birdie in a black box theater under St Marks. It was so much fun, I get a bit nervous singing, and my voice is not the best, but everyone else was Broadway quality so they more than carried me!
PC: Have you done much musical theatre?
AW: Guys & Dolls, Godspell, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease.
PC: Jumping right up to the point you auditioned for the part of Martha Hanson in The Americans, how did that go? Tell me about her character?
AW: I put myself on tape first and then I had a callback with Gavin O’Connor and Joe Weisberg. It was a fun audition, collaborative and distinctly different from the usual kind of auditions I’d been having. I remember walking out of there and thinking what a great experience it had been. The scenes we were doing were great and I really felt I had her nailed. I came in with strong ideas and we just played in the audition. I remember Gavin and Joe laughing quite a bit, which of course I loved.
PC: Having been offered the part (obviously you couldn’t have known you would still be playing the role of Martha come Season 4) is that every actor’s dream both in terms of the thrill of developing a character and the security of having a regular income? Or is it more about just doing what you love?
AW: I would say being able to develop a character and have regular income is probably the precise dream of many actors, yes. Martha was a dream job for me. I always assumed, given the circumstances of her story, that it had the potential to play out in a major way and season 3 into 4 lived up to any expectations I had.
PC: The Americans has an outstanding cast: from the young guns Keidrich Sellati and Holly Taylor and the likes of Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich to Richard Thomas and Frank Langella and, of course, Kelly AuCoin. Can you learn anything from their performance? Who do you hang out with in between scenes and off set?
AW: I absolutely learn from everyone I work with. I have taken a lot from Noah Emmerich, he likes to really talk about the scenes and motivations and thoughts and feelings. He’s also an excellent director and I truly loved the two episodes we shot together. I’m always grateful to have him direct me because he always gives me something that I hadn’t thought of. I’m working on a very micro level, but he helps me to see the macro. Between scenes I’m really mostly with Mr Rhys, who is the ultimate gentleman. He’s an extraordinary people person. If it was possible that a person could actually be perfect, it would be him. He made my job so much easier, I could not have wished for a better partner.
PC: How fantastic is it for all concerned on The Americans to have been recognized amongst so much great television? And nominated as Outstanding Drama Series for an Emmy and also for the other nominations: Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Guest Actress and Outstanding writing?
AW: I am so relieved/thankful/psyched that it has finally broken through at the Emmys. Our show deserves recognition. It’s a smart, fantastic show. It refuses to dumb anything down and I’m beyond proud to be a part of it. Getting a job is a miracle in itself sometimes, but the odds of it actually being any good are against you too. I’m part of a very strong show that according to all the critics is actually getting better every year. I’m aware that not everyone gets to experience that. Some productions can feel like a factory, a machine, with no artists in sight.
PC: Concentrating on Martha, how much input were you allowed in choosing how she dressed and how she was projected? Are there any of your mannerisms which show in Martha?
AW: I had input. What I don’t really have is vanity. I was interested in wearing the most ‘80s outfits possible. I had visions of Martha being caught at home on her days off, doing the Jane Fonda workout with a headband and leg-warmers. I wanted white leather court shoes. I wanted to look like a woman from Martin Parr’s photographs in The Last Resort. It’s possible my desired tone was slightly wrong for The Americans though. I see that now.
PC: I have read a quite a few comments where people are saying ‘poor Martha’. Do you think Martha was wearing blinkers a lot of the time, with regards to her role in gathering information about the FBI’s dealings and being married to Clark?
AW: Denial is a very real, documented, proven thing. Denial is the avoidance of dealing with pain. Some people need to live in a world denying any painful realities. Anything that doesn’t fit what the plan should be is reframed, looked at from another angle so it can be seen as a positive, good thing. Eating a burger and choosing not to think about the weight you will gain. Seeing a married man and choosing not to think about what you are doing to your fellow woman. Wives unable to face the reality that their husband is raping his own daughters at night. Detail and avoidance happens constantly, in the most extreme circumstances.
PC: Martha and Elizabeth are two very different people, does Clark have a soft spot for Martha, or is it just work to him? In a different time and a different place do you think they could love each other equally?
AW: In our research we came across case studies, when the men, the ‘Romeo spies’ spoke of a blurring of lines. In the relationships that lasted a long time, feelings often became more complex. A hybrid of getting the job done and a genuine affection for the woman you had married. If people get along and click, even in a fake circumstance, the relationship between them is still real. It has to feel very real or it won’t work well enough to fool the mark.
PC: There are a lot of sexy times between Martha and Clark. Do you feel awkward doing love scenes or do you just draw on your acting skills? What sort of feedback have you had from Joe Public regarding these scenes?
AW: I always find it odd that people focus on sex scenes. We all have sex over and over throughout our lives. We all do it. At least we all should be doing it. I find it weirdly puritanical to even focus on it.
PC: What path would you like Martha’s life to take now, in light of all that’s happened in the final episodes of season four?
AW: I would like for her to be happy. To thrive. To love again. I would like for her not to hate herself: to be gentle and forgive herself. Beyond that, it’s Moscow in the 1980’s . I don’t know how much more we could hope for.
PC: In between scenes do you and Matthew Rhys revert to your native accents? I have a mental image of you and him having banter and others not having a clue what you two are talking about…
AW: We do! We had a lot more sex scenes earlier on and I remember a crew member saying it was like being on a British porn set with us two. Matthew does a pretty good Geordie accent. He’s 99% got it which is a massive achievement. Geordie is, apparently, the most difficult English accent to master. So we would only talk in Geordie like.
PC: I have just watched the trailer for new movie The Accountant due for release later in the year, it looks exciting. You play Justine, tell me about the auditions and casting.
AW: My old pal Gavin O’Connor directed it. I jumped in and replaced somebody very last minute. It’s an unusual character, I made him a tape and somehow I got the role.
PC: I know many actors are in awe of some of their co-stars, you have worked with a lot of very good people, is there anyone you have been particularly star struck with?
AW: I died and went to heaven when I learned Margot Martingale was going to be in The Americans. I’m a big fan of her work, her sensibility, everything I’ve ever seen her do. And when I met her and got to know her she does not disappoint. She’s my kinda broad. Jefferson Mays was a big one for me too! I had just seen Gentleman’s Guide, so I was very excited to work with him. He’s also one of the most stylish gentlemen going.
PC: You probably can’t narrow it down to one, but which of today’s actors and directors would you love to work with?
AW: Easy: Daniel Day Lewis, Mike Leigh.
PC: Any future projects you can talk about at this stage?
AW: I’m shooting Sneaky Pete for Amazon, (with Margot Martindale) out early 2017. I’m in the beginning stages of work for an Off-Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
PC: What does music mean to you? Is it a means of escape or something else? What type of music do you immerse yourself in?
AW: Music is tremendously important to me, in life and in work. I can’t read and listen to music, because the music takes me over. I like to give my whole self to it. I absolutely have to if it’s my jam. I like ‘60s ‘70s soul, funk and disco. I also love musicals.
PC: How important are lyrics in a song to you?
AW: Extremely. I need them. I mean if it’s Hans Zimmer, sure, instrumental is good. But for me the vocalist is everything.
PC: Can you remember the first record you bought?
AW: I believe it was “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”.
PC: Do you play an instrument? If not, would you like to?
AW: I wish I did. I wish I could play piano so I could accompany myself. I’d sing a lot more if I had the piano to hide behind.
PC: Is there a certain decade that sticks out for you as being great for music?
AW: ‘70s. There’s an emotional attachment of course: it’s the spillover of what I heard as a child.
PC: I have been swapping playlists with a lovely American guy, photographer, Sebastian Spader, I recently interviewed him and we have stayed in touch. He has introduced me to some wonderful music that had previously passed me by and now I find my tastes have changed considerably as a result of our exchanges. When you moved to the USA did you find yourself exploring different types of music?
AW: Different types of everything. Of course the charts, popular music, TV, style and fashion are all very different in the States to the UK. There is not so much crossover, even in pop culture. I feel like a foreigner in both places.
PC: Are you more likely to listen to American or British music or do you enjoy both equally?
AW: American now. I’m out of touch with British music: I’m just not really exposed to it.
PC: Is there a particular film soundtrack you adore?
AW: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Jesus Christ Superstar.
PC: Do you get to many live performances? What has been one of the best concerts you have been to? And what was the last?
AW: I go to the theater a lot. I just watched Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca this week. I was front row Michael Jackson on the Dangerous Tour. Prince was amazing, U2 at the Garden right after 9/11. Stevie Wonder, Madonna. I just saw Elton John at the BCRF Event sing 6 songs, 10 feet in front of me. And my ultimate vocalist, Amy Winehouse. I’ve been very lucky.
PC: There are certain songs that you just have to play at full volume, which song must you blast out?
AW: “Me & Mr Jones” Amy Winehouse. “Automatic” The Pointer Sisters. “I’m Still Standing” Elton John. “Tell Her About It” Billy Joel.
PC: I’m always up for dancing. Do you like to dance? Did you frequent the popular haunts of the North East dance scene, when you lived there? You know the ones I mean, like the Boat on The Tyne that was a nightclub with a rotating dance floor.
AW: God, looking back, they were so rough, those nights out. Off the top of my head, in Sunderland and Newcastle: The Blue Monkey, Bentleys, The Mayfair, Bourbon St., Marlowes, Boulevard, Idols, Yell, Q Club, Sinatra’s, The Powerhouse, Bliss, Rockshots, Heaven’s Above… Yeah I did them all. I remember that stupid fucking rotating dance floor! What a terrible idea for the North East, where the chief aim is to get really pissed really fast! What I do miss is dancing. You can’t dance in bars in New York – it’s actually against the law in a lot of them, for some crazy reason. I like that, in the North East, all the boys used to dance too. American guys don’t really move.
PC: I spoke with Kelly AuCoin (Pastor Tim ) about the amazing soundtrack that The Americans has. Do you like to listen to the songs that are used? If you were given the opportunity to place a song in an episode what would you choose?
AW: Actually I tried pretty hard in Season 1. The episode was Martha getting ready for the first time Clark comes over for dinner (it might have been after the first time they had slept together) and they wanted a disco tune to come on, so I emailed the showrunner (Joe Weisberg) directly and petitioned for “I Love To Love” by Tina Charles – I adore that song.
PC: Can you share three styles of music you are drawn to?
AW: Soul, Disco, Bossa Nova.
PC: Whose music would you describe as your guilty pleasure?
AW: I really do dig some Barry Manilow songs. I know deep in my heart that I shouldn’t like “Bermuda Triangle”, but I can’t resist it.
PC: Are you able to concentrate on other tasks, like learning a script when you are listening to music?
AW: I could only have it on super-low, so it was really just white noise. If I get into a song, I’d have to turn it up and then study time is over.
PC: Narrowing it down to the last couple of years, what would be the last song you have listened to on repeat? Is there any new music that has excited you?
AW: Lately it’s Phil Collins “Sussudio”, Sam Cooke “Twistin’”, Shoshanna Bean “Chandelier”. I live in the past, music-wise, but Leon Bridges is exciting.
Final two questions I ask everyone I interview
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
AW: A villa on the beach in the Caribbean, a fully stocked bar and excellent friends.
PC: I can’t live without…..?
AW: My doggy. My prince.
You can find Alison on Twitter
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.