Reel vs. Real: Espionage on “The Americans” and real-life CIA operations

Reel vs. Real: Espionage on “The Americans” and real-life CIA operations
Joe Weisberg (left) moderates discussion on spycraft with Keri Russell, Martha Peterson, Matthew Rhys, Mark Kelton and Costa Ronin. (Photo: Todd Cheney/UCLA.)

The cast of FX's “The Americans” joined former CIA officers to reveal how sex, blackmail and violence are more characteristic of television than genuine intelligence operations at a recent Burkle Center for International Relations event.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, June 1, 2018 — The thought of Russia posing a serious threat to the United States’ democratic institutions seemed more like a novel throwback to 1980s Cold War culture than prescient social commentary when “The Americans” premiered on the FX network in 2013. Five years and 57 award nominations later, series creator Joe Weisberg's depiction of two KGB officers posing as a married American couple in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. is increasingly relevant as news cycles are dominated by investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

On May 30 — the night of the series finale — stars of “The Americans” television show Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Costa Ronin joined former CIA officers Mark Kelton and Martha Peterson for a panel event moderated by Weisberg, who worked for the CIA early in his career. The talk was cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Enhanced use of disguises

Nearly every episode of the series requires the Jennings — the protagonists of the television series — to don new wigs, glasses, makeup and wardrobes in order to assume different identities, whether as librarians, flight attendants or unassuming suburbanites. The show’s notable and often campy use of wigs in particular has drawn much attention from audiences and critics alike.

“I love [the wigs]! It’s so much easier to become a different person when you look so wildly different,” said Russell. While the wigs certainly help the actors inhabit their characters, they also bear the distinct mark of a Hollywood production.

“They wear the best-looking disguises I think I've ever seen,” said Peterson, a former senior intelligence officer who conducted operations in Moscow from 1975 to 1977.


Keri Russell and Martha Peterson compared their experiences as spies on- and off-screen. (
Photo: Todd Cheney/UCLA.)

“[The wigs] were always very well put on, too well put on,” added Kelton, who worked all over the world and eventually served as chief of the CIA's Counterintelligence Center. “When you're actually working as an officer, you put disguises on by yourself most of the time and you're always worried about your mustache peeling off,” he noted.

Kelton and Peterson’s ability to disguise themselves is an example of tradecraft, or the techniques and technologies utilized in modern espionage. “Tradecraft is the means by which we actually conduct our operations and our activity in the intelligence world,” said Kelton, explaining that new CIA officers are taught the nuances of tradecraft through a training process which is extremely lengthy and difficult by design.

"We try to prepare people for the most stressful environments imaginable and give them tools they need,” Kelton explained. “You have to be able to resort immediately to instinctual knowledge in order to conduct yourself properly under that level of stress,” he said.

Tradecraft and dramatic license

Rhys and Russell’s characters underwent highly stressful situations on a weekly basis. Often, they resorted to sexuality and violence as a means of manipulating and blackmailing assets (individuals from organizations or countries that are subjects of espionage who provide information to the CIA) with valuable information. Peterson and Kelton were quick to point out that although this makes for thrilling television, sex and coercion are not as effective of tools in the field as they are on film.

“Blackmailing people is generally not a good way to build a good relationship with someone,” said Kelton. “If you want someone to do something very dangerous for you… and you're compelling them to do it, that's not sustainable,” he explained.

The standard motives for spying are money, ideology, coercion and ego (known by the acronmyn MICE), remarked Peterson. She said she found that ego, or more specifically, attention, was the most important motivator for assets with whom she had worked. “Attention is often a clear motivator [for assets],” she said. “And you appeal to [their] desire to be the best.”

Matthew Rhys, Mark Kelton and Costa Ronin at the Reel vs. Real event. (Photo: Todd Cheney/UCLA.)

Family life and personal identity

“The Americans” was not all action scenes and sexual manipulation, but also shed light on the family dynamics of spies.

“The people in the CIA are people just like you all,” said Kelton. “I think the show depicted a lot of the familial strains quite well,” he added, noting that he often had to keep information about his career from his spouse and children, much like the Jennings are forced to lie about their identities and occupations to their family on “The Americans.”

“I think that [children] know everything,” said Russell, reflecting on scenes she’d filmed where her character, Elizabeth, grapples with keeping her identity secret from her daughter. “I think they’re listening so much more than we think and they’re perceiving everything,” she said.

"When I told my kids I was CIA… my daughter said: 'What’s [CIA]?’ And then my son said: ‘Mom's a spy!’" Peterson said, recounting the time she met her children at a Roy Rogers restaurant in McLean, Virginia and revealed to them that she was a CIA officer.

"I took them to the Memorial Wall [at CIA headquarters]… and realized the emotion I had and who I was, which I had never even thought about — it was the most remarkable moment,” she concluded. “It couldn't have been scripted.

The actors were curious to ask questions of the former spies on how they got used to lying, even to the people closest to them.

“With spying, where every single day for days on end you have to pretend you're somebody else... how do you remember who you are, and who you were before you worked [for the CIA]?" asked Ronan, who admitted he’d found himself telling little white lies and feeling confused about his identity after portraying a member of the KGB.

"I always pictured it as right-brain, left-brain," answered Peterson. "People ask why I didn't just blurt out secrets... you just don't. When you leave [your job], you close the safe at work, you lock it away and you go back to who really are," she said.

“I never had any trouble with lying,” Kelton added. “You enter the organization and join a secret world... where lying for a higher cause is expected and acceptable — it's not suitable for everybody. When you join the CIA, we don't say it's a job. It's a calling," he concluded.