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Emmys: Why ‘The Americans’ FBI Agent Noah Emmerich Is Never Who You Think He Is

Emmerich’s ability to walk so many lines on "The Americans" make him a serious threat in this year’s Emmy race for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

A version of this story appears in theComedy/Drama issue of EmmyWrap

Noah Emmerich is intimately familiar with the Cold War paranoia that permeates FX’s "The Americans," because he spent his teenage years feeling it intensely. And it wasn’t all paranoia.

“I was quite involved in anti-nuclear organizations, trying to prevent the arms race,” the 48-year-old told TheWrap. “It seemed like a tremendous drain of resources and energy, and it was psychologically quite devastating to live in that possibility all the time.”

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Long before he left for college at Yale, the native New Yorker and his friends started a group called Future Generations that called for nuclear disarmament with pamphlets, rallies and editorials.

“I remember going to bed at night thinking that by morning there could be a new world. It could happen in a matter of minutes. For man to have that power in his grasp and to talk about using it regularly was the scariest part of the time for me.

"It seemed like a sensible thing to do,” he added, “to get involved in preventing that.”

Everything about Emmerich seems sensible, which is what makes his "Americans" FBI agent, Stan Beeman, such a worthy opponent for the sympathetic Soviet spies living on his block. He’s so sensible, in fact, that he nearly catches the pair — played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys — in the show’s very first episode.

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Improbably, those KGB plants are the heroes we root for … or are they? Maybe Stan is the hero. He’s a real American, after all, while Rhys and Russell’s characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, are just pretending to be. “I think rooting for me is OK,” said Emmerich. “One of the interesting things about the show is you can really root for everybody, and it’s conflicting and it’s complicated and it’s a little bit confusing. But it’s a good confusion.”

Emmerich’s ability to walk so many lines on "The Americans" make him a serious threat in this year’s Emmy race for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. He has to make us believe that Stan is a brilliant agent, even though his KGB adversaries live right across the street.

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He also needs to hold our sympathy as he kills a Soviet underling who clearly doesn’t deserve it and cheats on his loving wife with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Russian informant playing both sides out of self-preservation.

His look helps. Emmerich could be the ex-quarterback who invites the whole block to his barbecues. “I think the first read on me is the affable friend, neighbor, brother, husband,” he said. “I don’t know how I ended up in this space.”

But it’s a complicated space — because Emmerich tends to play characters with darker motivations than firing up the grill. Since "The Truman Show," one of his first big films, he’s found a niche playing guys who look wholesome but aren’t.

“I played his best friend in that film, and I was a great guy, and then you found out that I was in fact in on the scam,” said Emmerich. “I think that duplicity registered with the audience, and I carried it with me, unintentionally. It wasn’t so much me carrying it with me as the audience carrying it with me: ‘There’s that guy who seems like a friendly guy-but don’t trust him.'”

So Emmerich is the victim of the best type of typecasting: We expect him to play men who are unusual and complex. He owes it to a refusal to embrace caricatures, onscreen or in real life.

His "Americans" character cares about national security but isn’t wildly patriotic. If he ever discovers Philip Jennings is KGB, he may be as hurt by his friend’s betrayal as he is angry about his threat to America. Meanwhile, in a way he’s as lonely as the Soviets who serve their homeland by living among its adversaries.

“He is fully committed to his job and the task at hand, but he’s also vulnerable in the way humans are in his isolation from his family,” Emmerich said. “And he’s just moved to a new city, and a new job, and he’s coming out of this really dark backstory that we don’t know too much about yet, but it’s been alluded to: He’s spent three years undercover. He’s been a man who’s been away from himself and his life for quite a long time.”

The fog may never lift for Stan, but life did improve for the young Emmerich. The actor said he emerged from his nuclear anxiety almost as quickly as the Berlin Wall fell. And, no, he doesn’t see "The Americans" as a way of conquering his old fears. “I don’t really think there’s a connection,” he said. “I think there’s some comic irony.”

How sensible.