By Lois Elfman
One of the hottest shows on television today, The Americans, has a distinct connection to the city of Falls Church. Set in the 1980s during the Reagan era, the drama follows the lives and intrigues of KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who “the center” placed in Falls Church so they had access to Washington, D.C. and the government secrets they were tasked with discovering.
The Jennings family also includes two children, Paige and Henry, who were basically clueless about their parents’ true occupations until near the end of season three, when Paige finally learned the truth. She soon shared it with the minister from her church, Pastor Tim, seemingly placing him in danger.
It turns out the actor portraying Pastor Tim, Kelly AuCoin, is acquainted with the actual Falls Church, as he spent much of his youth living in Washington, DC, while his father served as a United States Congressman.
“I believe my high school basketball team played a game against Falls Church a couple of times and probably lost,” says AuCoin, who, in addition to portraying 1980s socially conscience Pastor Tim, also plays “Dollar” Bill Stearn on Billions.
He recalls local TV ads, a couple of which have been used on The Americans, such as Jhoon Rhee karate and Captain 20. When he first saw a scene where one of the Jennings kids was watching TV and the Jhoon Rhee “nobody bothers me” ad appeared, he immediately phoned childhood friends.
“A friend from high school and I were watching an episode together and there was a scene where Stan (the Jennings’ neighbor who is an FBI agent) and Aderholt were staking someone out in a car, and they were listening to a Maryland game,” he says. “It was really fun to hear these references and details that are so accurate on the show.”
The Americans’ interpretation of 1980s Falls Church is filmed in New York—interiors at a studio in Brooklyn and exteriors on Long Island—but AuCoin says the show nicely fakes DC and its suburbs. Immersed in the fictional world of Falls Church, it’s reasonable to ask if in retrospect AuCoin thinks any of his neighbors were actually Soviet spies.
“I’ve got a few in mind,” he said with a laugh. “My dad was in Congress during these years and he was on the Armed Services Committee, so a lot of the dread that the show depicts I definitely remember feeling.
“I was half convinced that our place was bugged because he had to have top security clearance to be on the Armed Services Committee. I was pretty sure someone was listening in on my conversations with my girlfriend at the time.”
Or maybe his former girlfriend was spying. “I hadn’t thought about that, but thinking back this makes a lot of sense and answers a lot of questions,” he jokes.
The producers of The Americans have been meticulous in the details—from hairstyles to clothes to cars to television and even how spies of that era worked. AuCoin says a former Russian operative who lived across the street from an FBI agent spoke to the cast and said even the portrayals of the personal toll paid by the Jennings family is accurate. The major difference is time frame. Missions that Elizabeth and Philip resolve in a few episodes might have actually taken months if not years to fully execute.
He was a fan of the show well before he was cast. The scoring of the show has enhanced AuCoin’s appreciation of 1980s music, and he was instantly hooked by the use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in the pilot.
Getting into the look of the era, for which AuCoin wears a big shaggy wig, is kind of uncomfortable. High waist jeans and scratchy sweaters don’t make for the same happy nostalgia as the music.
While AuCoin will not divulge any details about upcoming episodes, he will gladly entertain theories about the characters. One is that unbeknownst to Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Pastor Tim is also a KGB agent sent to assure that Paige is indoctrinated and willing to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
“It would give me more screen time and be awesome,” says AuCoin. “On social media, I try not to dispel any myths or rumors because that’s no fun for the audience, but I didn’t mind the idea that I was an operative on one side or the other.”
The TV rendition of Falls Church is part of a number of shows that film in the New York City area. In addition to The Americans and Billions, there are series such as Girls, Homeland season six, Gotham, Vinyl, The Blacklist and The Good Wife. This creates an abundance of opportunities for New York actors, who previously relied on Law and Order to subsidize theater income. Today’s trend of shorter seasons of 10 to 12 episodes generally enables actors to appear in theater during hiatus from shooting.
“There are so many actors who came to New York for theater,” says AuCoin, who appears in a theater production every year. “Maybe because I’m one of them I have an affinity for those people. Obviously, we all want to make some money, but it’s not foremost in our minds.
“There is so much more content now,” he adds. “People were smart basing it in New York because there was this relatively untapped pool of talent.”
Having been a series regular on The Americans and Billions has allowed AuCoin to see TV acting in a new way, giving him time to develop his characters over the course of a season. There are some overlaps in the filming schedules, so sometimes he has to transition from a hard core financial guy who works at a hedge fund to a 1980s minister who lives in Falls Church.
“The wig makes me Pastor Tim-like; there’s something softer about it,” he explains. “There’s something a little more granola about him. The shaved head with ‘Dollar’ Bill, I can rub my head and I feel like a blunt instrument.
“The writing is so good and so specific on both shows that there’s no crossover for me with these characters. They come from completely different places.”