Former CIA Officers Discuss the Reel vs. Real of Espionage with Cast, Creator of The Americans

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From tradecraft secrets to wig changes, the Reel vs. Real event at UCLA’s Burkle Center in 2018 cracked open the CIA vault of personal stories with the help of two former legendary CIA officers and the cast and creator of the award winning FX television series, The Americans.

Former CIA officer and creator of The Americans, Joe Weisberg, moderated a lively, humorous, and sometimes deeply emotional panel discussion between two retired Agency officers — former operations officer Marti Peterson and former chief of CIA’s Counterintelligence Center Mark Kelton — and three of the stars of The Americans: Keri Russell (who plays Elizabeth Jennings), Matthew Rhys (Philip Jennings), and Costa Ronin (Oleg Burov).

Marti and Mark, who both spent a significant portion of their careers overseas, spoke of the importance of tradecraft when conducting operations and the ways the show gets it right and wrong. They also explored the emotional toll the job can take on an officer and his or her family, which is at the heart of The Americans.

One of the key plot lines of the show in the first few seasons was how the Jennings had to keep their own children in the dark about their real professions as spies, and the fallout when their oldest daughter became suspicious and finally confronted her parents.

Marti recounted the time she first told her two teenage children where she worked. They had no idea growing up that Marti was actually an operations officer with CIA. She asked her kids to meet her at a fast food restaurant near CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia, and then brought them onto the CIA Headquarters compound. Her kids were stunned. She brought them to the CIA Memorial wall, where her first husband has a star. “We held hands, and cried, but then we had lunch and I bought them both a t-shirt,” Marti recalled.

Mark said his children found out what he did while they were all living overseas. A few minutes after telling them, his youngest son forgot the three-letter acronym of the Agency his father worked: Mark and his wife decided not to remind him.

Asked how they prepared for their roles as spies on the show, the actors discussed the role of disguises. Keri said she didn’t mind all the wigs and that each one brought out a different aspect of her personality, but Matthew said he hated the wigs and how itchy they were, and his description of the difficulty of filming the counter surveillance and dead drop scenes brought laughter from the panel and audience.

Costa, who grew up in Russia, said he still had vivid memories of what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, which has helped him hone his role in The Americans. “No one can play a Russian, like a Russian,” he said. “It’s in your DNA.” He also shared what it was like to return and film in Moscow, by the Kremlin. “Breathing the air,” he said, “made it all the more real.

For both former Agency officers, the most unrealistic aspect of the show was the violence depicted. The reality of espionage is much different. Marti noted the only time she had a violent encounter was when she was arrested by the KGB in Russia. She fought off the men arresting her, putting one in the hospital. Mark commented that throughout his entire career, he never fired a weapon in the field; although he was shot at while in a war zone.

Joe, who was in a unique position as the only one who has worked both in the world of intelligence and in Hollywood, bridged the gap between reality and film throughout the event, moderating the discussion and asking thought-provoking questions. As the panel wrapped up, Joe avoided giving away any spoilers as he gave a heart-felt thank you to everyone involved. A few hours later, the show he created would air its series finale: The American’s final episode.

* The event was presented by the Central Intelligence Agency, in partnership with the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.

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