For Noah Emmerich, era’s tension in ‘The Americans’ hits home

Noah Emmerich has earned critical kudos for his portrayal of Stan Beeman, a troubled FBI counterintelligence agent who remains unaware that his archenemies — married KGB spooks posing as typical Americans — live just across the street from his suburban Washington, D.C., home in season two of FX’s lauded Cold War drama, “The Americans.”

It’s a series in which it’s hard to know whom to root for: The married KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who, while murderous, are also sympathetic as they grapple with their complex marriage and the safety of their children. And Stan, the patriot, can be ominous and lacking a moral compass as he stalks Soviet spies and conducts an adulterous affair.

In this new season, Emmerich’s character continues his downward spiral into loneliness and isolation, fueled in large part by what we have learned was his previous, three-year undercover assignment penetrating white supremacist groups in the American heartland. The traumatic experience has burned into his psyche, leaving him with the sense that deceit is the norm in personal and professional relationships. 

“There’s a lot of tension built into that question of what Stan did when he was undercover all those years,” Emmerich said recently in a phone conversation from his Brooklyn home. “We have the sense that he’s somewhat post-traumatic, that it was a very intense experience and that that residual impact is still resonant in Stan. He has been deeply impacted by that experience, and has a vision of a darker world inside of American culture.” 

This season, Stan finds a kind of solace in the arms of a KGB mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru), who, unbeknownst to him, is playing him as a triple agent. 

“In this universe of multiple worlds and multiple truths, it’s unclear whether he’s really in love with Nina or whether he’s just trying to use her,” Emmerich said. “There is so much that Stan has to keep hidden from his own wife. But he does feel a simpatico connection with Nina, in that they both understand the deception that is always present.”

Among Stan’s cloak-and-dagger missions this season is the attempt to help rescue a Jewish former refusenik scientist that KBG officials want to forcibly repatriate back to the U.S.S.R. In one scene, Philip and Elizabeth aspire to kidnap the scientist outside a gritty safe house.  Mossad agents will also come into play as the season progresses.

The anti-Semitism of the former Soviet Union figures prominently in these episodes: In one sequence, the former refusenik tells a synagogue congregation that Jews are deemed “non-persons” in the U.S.S.R., and Phillip and his bosses sneer the word “Jew” in derogatory tones.

“It was disturbing to read those lines,” said Emmerich, who grew up in a Jewish household in Manhattan. “But I was glad that it is part of the fabric of our show, because it does reflect the truth.”

As a boy, Emmerich said, he first learned about the plight of Soviet Jewry when his older brother interned with an organization involved in helping refuseniks immigrate to Israel and the United States. “That was when I encountered the fact that the Soviet Union was not a good place to be Jewish,” he said.

Emmerich added that he “loves” the story line revolving around the Mossad agents, “which comes from my adolescent infatuation with the sense of these incredibly well-trained, super-proficient Israeli counterparts to our CIA.”

His admiration for the Mossad was fueled, in part, by his own family’s experiences during World War II: His father, Andre Emmerich, a renowned art dealer, fled Nazi-occupied Frankfurt for Amsterdam at age 7 with his parents and later escaped to New York. Emmerich’s grandfather was an esteemed attorney who fought for reparations for Holocaust survivors after the war.

While Emmerich’s father rarely spoke of his experiences, young Noah intuited “the sense that the unthinkable can, in fact, happen.” This sense that “the planet could likely go insane,” he said, may well have led to his own deep paranoia during the Cold War, when, as a teenager, he co-founded a group, Future Generations, dedicated to nuclear disarmament.

Last summer at the  L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, Emmerich described his visceral childhood feelings about the possibility of nuclear war. “I was really afraid,” said the actor, who has channeled those anxieties into his portrayal of Stan. “I remember going to bed at night and wondering, ‘Will I wake up?  Will the world make it to the morning?’ ”

At L’Ermitage, the tall, lanky Emmerich was as affable and easygoing as his character is brooding, even riffing on Stan’s paranoia by pretending to covertly scan the lobby and quipping, “Those guys over there look suspicious.”

The actor grew up around his father’s artist clients, including David Hockney, attended the Dalton School and then Yale University, where he aspired to become a constitutional attorney before the acting bug bit him while he was performing in a college production of the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes.”

By 1996, he had landed his first movie gig, in Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls,” and went on to play Jim Carrey’s traitorous best friend in “The Truman Show” and Sylvester Stallone’s deputy in James Marigold’s “Cop Land,” as well as a variety of other police roles.

He was hesitant to take on yet another cop character when the producers of “The Americans” approached him several years ago, but he changed his mind when he came to realize that the show focused on the personal demons of its protagonists as much as on espionage.

To prepare for the role, he spoke with undercover agents and learned about 1980s-era spycraft from the series’ creator, Joe Weisberg, an ex-CIA agent who schooled the cast in surveillance, Morse code and dead drops (hiding money or instructions for another spy).

For Emmerich, the recently renewed Cold War over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine (as well as allegations of anti-Semitism in the region) has brought back memories of his fears from younger days: “The escalation of events could indeed happen, and it does underline the fragility of world peace,” he said.  “But what’s interesting about the show, for me, is that it makes us look at the world without a myopic, us-versus-them point of view. It encourages us to look behind the political agenda and see each of us as fully human, as opposed to American and Russian or good and evil.”

Episodes four and five of “The Americans” feature the refusenik plot.  Episode four will premiere at 10 p.m. on March 19; episode five will premiere on March 26, 10 p.m.; and episode four will repeat in an encore presentation March 26 at midnight on FX.

“The Americans” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.