Q&A: The CIA Officer Behind the New Spy Drama The Americans

The Cold War is over – or is it?

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Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Joseph Weisberg wanted to be a spy ever since he read John le Carré’s spy novel The Spy Who Came in from The Cold when he was 11. He became a die-hard “cold-warrior,” taking Soviet history classes at Yale University and then went on to work for the CIA between 1990 and 1994. But he discovered that the agency trained more bureaucrats than James Bonds. “I saw that my job was going to entail recruiting people who didn’t provide much valuable intelligence, and yet they had to put their lives at great risk,” Weisberg says to TIME, “and I don’t think I felt good about pursuing that.”

So in 2010, after an FBI investigation revealed 10 Russian spies had been living undercover in suburbs nationwide for more than a decade, Weisberg leapt at the opportunity to write a TV series based on the scandal. The deep cover operation seemed closer to the spy novel escapades that inspired him to pursue espionage in the first place. Weisberg, author of two novels An Ordinary Spy (2008) and 10th Grade (2002), wrote a script for The Americans based on his conversations with former colleagues and research from Vasili Mitrokhin’s esteemed notes on the KGB’s Cold War activities. The show is about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — played by Matthew Rhys (Brothers & Sisters) and Keri Russell (Waitress and Felicity) — who are KGB spies living undercover as a married couple with two kids in suburban Washington D.C., shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected President in 1980. But their cover is put at risk when FBI agent Stan Beeman (The Truman Show‘s Noah Emmerich) moves in next door.

TIME spoke to Weisberg ahead of the drama’s Wednesday night premiere (10 p.m. on FX):

How much of The Americans is based on the Russian spy ring that the FBI busted in 2010?

That was absolutely the inspiration for the series. Those spies are called “illegals,” a type of spy that is somewhat unique to Russia’s intelligence service. They were the spies living among us. Some pulled off some real espionage of note, but more often, they would come over, open a business, and try to get a cover going. Then the business would fail, the spies would start telling some lies back home, and then they would sort of disappear. That’s who was arrested in 2010, and Philip and Elizabeth are the 1981 version of those espionage officers.

But a modern day [setting] didn’t seem like a good idea. People were both shocked and simultaneously shrugged at the [2010] scandal because it didn’t seem like we were really enemies with Russia anymore. An obvious way to remedy that for television was to stick it back in the Cold War. At first, the ’70s appealed to me just because I loved the hair and the music. But can you think of a better time than the ’80s with Ronald Reagan yelling about the evil empire?

Are we going to see invisible ink? Buried cash? Morse Code?

Yep, it’s all coming.

What’s it like to be a spy, and how does The Americans illustrate that?

I was more like a trainee spy because I left the CIA before I went on my first assignment out of the country, but I was always very interested in the families who went abroad. The parents didn’t tell their kids what they did because they’d tell all their friends and that would be the end of their career. So they’re forced to tell this huge lie to their kids. Eventually they tell them the truth, and what toll does that take on the kids, who one day find out that their family has been lying to them for so many years?

(MORE: The 8 Coolest Things About The Alleged Russian Spy Ring)

So I wanted to do a show about a husband and a wife and their children who don’t know and how it affects the kids. We always conceived of The Americans as a show about a marriage, more than espionage, that shows how, even under the craziest circumstances, the marriage still looks and feels like any other marriage. I think Matthew Rhys is this incredible embodiment of a suburban dad and a tough KGB officer at the same time. Keri Russell can be such a loving mom who can turn, on a dime, into this killer. Noah Emmerich, [who plays Stan Beeman] the FBI agent next door, is just as smart and charming as Philip, but he had this crazy undercover life of his own not long ago, so he’s like them in many ways, and you can see the threat he’s posing to them just by looking at their faces. One thing that’s interesting about espionage is that everyone does, on some level, know everything. You can lie, but people in the world tend to know if something’s wrong or something’s going on.

How much do spies use their sexuality to seduce targets?

A lot. We use that a fair amount in our show. In the world of espionage, there is not a lot of sabotage and killing, but there is a lot of running agents. A spy goes abroad, recruits a foreigner in that country who has access to classified information and that person becomes your agent. You can develop a very close relationship with that person and manipulate that person in all sorts of ways to get what you need from them. The KGB did that by offering people money, blackmailing them and sexually entrapping people as part of “honey trap” operations — in which officers would convince a man or woman that they were in love with them to get what they wanted from them.

One year, the KGB had so much luck recruiting secretaries of important foreign government officials that they declared an entire Secretaries Defensive. And some of the operations went so far that the officers married the targets — real weddings, not fake weddings! Even years later, after some of these agents were caught, the people they married were so in love that they never believed it and stayed true to them.

(MORE: Le Carréd Away)

What if the spy’s family starts to like the way the enemy lives?

For a KGB spy, that’s a very big deal. Elizabeth’s dream is that her kids would be patriotic Soviets, but that’s not really possible because they’re being raised as Americans, and that’s very painful for her psychologically. And her husband, who started out as a KGB officer, is going soft on America. He likes the mall.

Who can spies talk to about their past lives?

They really can’t talk to anyone. At end of the pilot, Elizabeth is going to breach this rule and open up about her past life, and it’s going to be the first time in 15 years that [she and Philip] have talked about the people they grew up as. Imagine you haven’t talked to anyone about the first 22 years of your life. If you’re married, and you don’t talk to your husband about it, that’s pretty tough.

Are viewers supposed to sympathize with the Soviet KGB?

I think about this a lot. One paradigm I have is that the audience sympathizes with Philip and Elizabeth, follows them along as they are on some dangerous and scary mission and wants them to succeed. And then the audience suddenly gasps, “Oh my God, I was just rooting for them while they were carrying out this terrible thing that was devastating the U.S. government!” There’s this moment of shock because they’ve been rooting against our own interest. Then before you know it, Philip and Elizabeth are back at home with their nice kids, and the audience is on their side again. Through that experience, there’s a break down of the barriers between us and them. Finding yourself rooting for the enemy is a fundamental part of the experience. What is the enemy? What does it even mean to be the enemy?

Does the show answer those questions?

Maybe, the enemy is as human as you are.

MORE: Fast Facts About The Russian Spy Ring