Former CIA operatives recounted stories of Romeo spies and Cold War politics at a panel including actors from FX’s “The Americans.”
The officers and actors compared their real-life and on-screen experiences Wednesday at an event hosted by UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations and moderated by Joe Weisberg, the showrunner and a former CIA officer. At the panel, Marti Peterson, a retired senior intelligence officer who worked in Moscow in the 1970s, and Mark Kelton, who retired as the deputy director of CIA counterintelligence, traded stories and jokes with actors Matthew Rhys, Costa Ronin and Keri Russell just hours before the series finale of “The Americans” premiered. Kelton said he hoped the audience learned about the CIA’s counterintelligence missions.
“I think the purpose of engaging Hollywood is to address some of the misconceptions that are out there about the CIA and allow the American people a look under the tent,” he said.
“The Americans” tells the story of two spies for the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency, posing as a suburban American family during the 1980s. The show revolves around the spies’ volatile marriage and their dangerous missions on behalf of the Soviet Union. Kelton said that while the couple’s covert work is accurate in many respects, the violence and sex involved in fictional operations is exaggerated.
“There’s a lot of guns on the show,” he said. “I’ve never fired a weapon. I’ve been shot at, but what you experience more is psychological strain and warfare rather than physical.”
Weisberg said he thinks some of the best story lines are derived from historical truths. One popular plotline from the first season of “The Americans” – which involved a sham marriage between Philip Jennings, portrayed by Rhys, and an unknowing FBI secretary – became a significant moment for the show. He was inspired by the KGB’s “Romeo spies” who would marry women for intelligence during the Cold War era.
The nature of real CIA missions affected not only the show’s story lines, but the performances of the actors. Rhys said he thinks the secrecy of his character’s missions challenged him as an actor since it was difficult at first to adjust from being hyperaware of the camera to working as a spy who had to act inconspicuous.
Rhys also asked Peterson about her emotions during dangerous situations, to which she replied by saying she used the adrenaline rush to her advantage. Peterson, the author of “The Widow Spy,” a book that detailed her experiences in Laos and Moscow, also talked about how the secrecy of her and her husband’s work affected her personal life.
“When I had to deal with lying about why my husband died, that was very hard because there was emotion inside me screaming, ‘I lost someone, I’m 27, he died for a purpose and a cause.’ And I couldn’t say that,” she said. “I had to become a normal person and deny that was even a part of my life.”
Peterson, who was the first female agent sent to work in the Soviet Union in Moscow, said she thinks her experiences differed in some ways from those of her male colleagues.
“I can say honestly the KGB in Moscow did not consider women to be a threat. For me as a women, it was a gift to find I was in Moscow with no surveillance,” Peterson said. “To the men in the station, they weren’t that happy about it because I took some of their work away from them.”
Kelton and Peterson later discussed Gina Haspel, the first female director of the CIA who was confirmed in May. Peterson said she thinks Haspel will be the finest director the CIA’s had in many years since Haspel came up through the ranks and is very invested in the organization.
Kelton said he thinks CIA officers are primarily motivated by patriotism and a desire to serve their country, as opposed to the thrills often seen in Hollywood portrayals. He added that since many people join very young, the CIA becomes a close family.
“When you join the CIA, you don’t say it’s a job – you say it’s a calling,” he said.