We Are All Martha: Alison Wright On How Her 'Americans' Character Became A Hit

Mar 25, 2017

If you're a fan of The Americans, you probably have strong feelings about Alison Wright's character, Martha. Poor, loving, trusting Martha had to be smuggled out of the U.S. because she married a man who was no good for her — a man who turned out to be a Russian spy.

Wright created a sensation with her performance on The Americans. She's also in FX's Feud, about the rivalry between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and she's making her Broadway debut in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, about the deindustrialization of a working-class town.

Wright notes that her recent roles have all been remarkably timely. "I've just been lucky enough to get on all these projects that are female-centric or about the working-class American people and about the Russians, too. ... Everything that I'm involved in at the moment feels extraordinarily on point.


Interview Highlights

On what drew her to Martha

I really like that she's the everyday woman. She's who we would all most likely be in this situation if we were dropped into the real life world/story of The Americans, you know. She's the human, average, everyday person that's open and trusting and loving and hasn't really been jaded and isn't cynical and, up until this point, I think hadn't really been burned in life too badly.

On how public opinion about Martha evolved over the course of the show

It's very touching that I think we've succeeded in affecting people and creating sympathy and empathy in the viewers [where] maybe in the beginning they really didn't have that much. You know, when we first started out in season one, I remember seeing or hearing comments about ... you know, the typical let's blame the woman: How could she be so stupid? How could she not realize? She didn't figure out this, this and this. You know, that's very much akin to, you know: What was she wearing? How short was her skirt? Was she really asking for it? Did she deserve it? It's a similar sort of blatant, underlying sexism that we have and a little bit of misogyny that we just have in our culture and across cultures.

So there was a little bit of that at the beginning, and it's been tremendous to see that wiped out, to see that replaced with understanding and empathy and sympathy and heartbreak, really, for this woman. So to change people's minds and to let them into a life that they maybe wouldn't have understood themselves initially is, I think, a massive achievement.

On the play Sweat

Lynn Nottage went to Reading, Pa., and conducted a lot of interviews with teachers, teenagers, parole officers, across the board. And eventually she created the play Sweat. She set it in 2000 and 2008, and really it's about deindustrialization in America and the working-class people who put decades of their lives working in these plants, these American institutions that weren't supposed to go anywhere — where their parents worked and their grandparents worked, generations of families, loyalty and dedication to companies that all of a sudden disappeared and went overseas and took the jobs elsewhere. And whole cities were decapitated, really, in a sense, because their life source was cut off. When everybody in a place works in these factories, you know, what happens when they all go? What happens to these people?

On what made her want to act

It may well be the performance of Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan in [the film] Annie. It may well all come down to that. ... She's untouchable. She's a phenomenal comedian and that performance is beyond perfect, in my opinion. And I think I wanted to be Miss Hannigan. I also wanted to be one of the orphans. I was also adopted myself, so there [were] lots of things tied in there in that story. But I definitely wanted to be Miss Hannigan in those silk drawers and drunk on gin most days long.

On being adopted, which she hasn't spoken publicly about before

There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be sitting here today had I not been adopted. I would not have the career that I have, be in this country, be sitting here at NPR. No way. So if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

You know, it all turned out to be a very positive experience for me. It did come full circle for me. I did make contact with many members of my birth family and we have a great relationship now. It was something that was always a dark cloud hanging over me my whole life and it turned out that it didn't need to be. I did come to get the closure and learn that it was indeed a miracle in my situation. So it was a very positive thing.

Producer James Delahoussaye, digital producer Nicole Cohen and editor Martha Wexler contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Spoiler alert for fans of "The Americans" - was that woman in a babushka going over dented cans in a nearly empty shelf at a Moscow food store that doesn't seem to sell much food Martha? Martha, who had to be smuggled out of America because she married a man who was no good for her - it turned out to be a Russian spy and a married one, at that - poor, loving, trusting Martha? Well, I guess we'll see. Alison Wright, who created a sensation with her portrayal of Martha in "The Americans" on Fox FX, also makes her Broadway debut this weekend in Lynn Nottage's play "Sweat." Alison Wright joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALISON WRIGHT: Good morning. Thanks for having me. What an introduction.

SIMON: I don't want to put you on the spot about Martha because there's lots that I guess can't be talked about, but, boy, I like that character. What appealed to you about her?

WRIGHT: You know, I really like that she's the everyday woman. She's who we would all most likely be in this situation if we were dropped into the real-life world - story - of "The Americans," you know? She's open and trusting and loving, and up until this point, I think hadn't really been burned in life too badly. I mean, I have a great deal of thanks for me playing Martha and ending up where I am, really, today, thanks to my manager, Laurie Smith, who pulled the audition for Martha out of the ether, but, you know, I sure am grateful that she did.

SIMON: What do you make of the way people began to latch on to her story and your portrayal?

WRIGHT: I love it. I think that means that we're doing a good job and affecting people and creating sympathy and empathy in the viewers that - maybe in the beginning, they really didn't have that much. You know, when we first started out in season one, I remember seeing, you know, the typical - let's blame the woman. How could she be so stupid? How could she not realize? She didn't figure out this, this and this? You know, that's very much akin to, you know, what was she wearing? How short was her skirt? Was she really asking for it? Did she deserve it? It's a similar sort of blatant, like, underlying sexism that we have in our culture and across cultures. So there was a little bit of that at the beginning, and it's been tremendous to see that wiped out, to see that replaced with understanding and empathy.

SIMON: Tell us about "Sweat." It's been running off-Broadway since November. I guess it debuted a couple of years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This is a play that has a lot to say for our times, doesn't it?

WRIGHT: It does. It's remarkably timely. It's - I feel very privileged at the moment in all of these projects that I'm involved in - if we're talking about "The Americans" or "Sweat" - that I'm a part of a cultural conversation at the moment. In terms of "Sweat," it's about deindustrialization in America and the working class people who put decades of their lives working in these plants, these American institutions that weren't supposed to go anywhere, where their parents worked and their grandparents worked - generations of families, loyalty and dedication to companies that all of a sudden disappeared and went overseas and took the jobs elsewhere. So it's really - I really feel like I'm really part of the cultural conversation of America at the moment, and it's a privilege.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you think made you an actor?

WRIGHT: It may well be the performance of Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan in "Annie."

SIMON: Carol Burnett in the film "Annie" - yeah.

WRIGHT: Yes, of course. You know, she's untouchable. She's a phenomenal comedienne, and that performance is beyond perfect, in my opinion. And I think I wanted to be Miss Hannigan. I also want it to be one of the orphans. I was also adopted myself, so it was - there was lots of things tied in there in that story. But I definitely wanted to be Miss Hannigan in those silk drawers and drunk on gin most days long.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Now, I must say, you know, I read some biographical information on you. And I guess I just missed the part, if it appeared, that you were adopted.

WRIGHT: You didn't miss it. I didn't talk about it yet.

SIMON: Oh. I, for whatever it means - my wife and I have adopted two children.

WRIGHT: I do know this, and I have read what you wrote about it. Yeah.

SIMON: What do we need to learn from life about the miracle and blessing of adoption?

WRIGHT: That - I suppose, you know, in a good - that's a good way to think of it - how you just described it - the miracle and blessing of it. It does not have to be doom and gloom. Sometimes it's wonderful. It's life-making. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be sitting here today had I not been adopted. I would not have the career that I have, be in this country, be sitting here at NPR. No way. So if that's not a miracle, I don't know what it is.

SIMON: Well, I'm glad.

WRIGHT: You know, I did make contact with many members of my birth family, and we have a great relationship now. It was something that was always a dark cloud hanging over me my whole life, and it turned out that it didn't need to be. I did come to get the closure and learn that it was indeed a miracle in my situation.

SIMON: Alison Wright - she's in "The Americans." She's in "Sneaky Pete." I missed one, too, right? You're in...

WRIGHT: "Feud" - yeah - "Feud."

SIMON: "Feud," of course.

WRIGHT: It's just this little, tiny thing that Ryan Murphy did, just about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. No big deal.

SIMON: Yes. Yes, of course. I know. I know.

WRIGHT: (Laughter).

SIMON: And she debuts this weekend on Broadway in "Sweat." Thanks so much for being with us.

WRIGHT: That's right. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.