Actor Noah Emmerich folded his lanky body into a chair at L’Ermitage Hotel and pretended to clandestinely scan the lobby. “Those guys over there could be suspicious,” he quipped, and then added, “You don’t have a poison pen, do you?”
The affable actor was joking, of course -- riffing on the counterintelligence agent he plays on FX’s acclaimed Reagan-era spy thriller “The Americans,” for which he’s become a strong contender for an Emmy Award nomination (for best supporting role in a dramatic series) when the candidates are announced on July 18.
Emmerich has already earned critical kudos for his understated yet scene-stealing turn as FBI agent Stan Beeman, who in the series’ pilot chances to move across the street from married KBG spooks posing as typical middle class Americans (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell). Unbeknownst to Beeman, they’re actually his arch nemeses.
As Stan, Emmerich exudes an avuncular charm but also a vague sense of underlying menace; we learn that the character has been severely traumatized by his previous three years of undercover work penetrating white supremacist terrorist groups, and the toll on his psyche threatens to compromise not only his marriage but also his moral compass. The details of his dangerous previous assignment are likely to be revealed when the series’ second season premieres this winter.
Emmerich spoke with several former undercover agents to understand his character’s psyche: “You discover the possibility that nothing may be as it seems,” he said of spy work. “Duplicity becomes the norm. “And living undercover can be very disorienting to your own sense of self, to your identity, and to your relationships with your family and friends. It’s a very private experience that you can’t share with anyone, because it could jeopardize his or her safety. So the biggest cost to Stan is his loneliness and his isolation.”
The actor can, in a way, relate to the fictional Stan’s Cold War paranoia; as a teenager, he co-founded a group called Future Generations that fought for nuclear disarmament. “I was really afraid,” he said of the prospect of nuclear war. “I remember going to bed at night and sometimes wondering, ‘Will I wake up? Will the world make it to the morning?’ That was a really visceral feeling that was alive in the 1980s.”
Emmerich’s own family is intimately familiar with the ravages of war. His father, Andre Emmerich, a renowned art dealer, fled Nazi Germany to Amsterdam at 7 with his parents and arrived in New York in 1940. Emmerich’s aunt was a classmate of Anne Frank’s and his grandfather was a prominent attorney who returned to Germany after World War II to advocate for reparations for Holocaust survivors.
The actor grew up immersed in the arts. His mother is a concert pianist who debuted with the New York Philharmonic when she was 16; his father’s artist clients –including David Hockney – frequented the family homes in Manhattan and on an old Quaker farm that the elder Emmerich had transformed into a vast sculpture garden.
As a boy, Noah played the trumpet, attended the Dalton School and later, while attending Yale University, aspired to become a Constitutional attorney. But while he was attending his first year of law school classes, a friend convinced him to take a small role in a college production of Cole Porter’s musical “Anything Goes.” He accepted despite his severe stage fright and an occasional propensity to stammer: “I just sort of faced the fear,” he said – but his turn in the chorus proved to be “a disaster. I had five or six lines, all of which I got wrong, for two nights in a row.”
Even so, “The experience proved so rich that it awakened some desire that I hadn’t even been in touch with,” Emmerich said. “ I didn’t want to stop [acting]. At first people thought I was joking because I had done only one play and I was pretty bad in it. Everyone thought I was sort of having a nervous breakdown.”
After taking a year abroad to see if the acting bug left his system (it didn’t), Emmerich returned to New York and immersed himself in the world of the theater, studying the Meisner technique, among other endeavors.
In 1996, he landed his first silver screen role in Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls,” opposite Natalie Portman; the following year, he played Sylvester Stallone’s deputy in James Marigold’s “Cop Land,” and in 1998 he was Jim Carrey’s duplicitous best friend in “The Truman Show.”
Over more than two decades of well-received supporting actor performances, Emmerich has also portrayed his share of police officers – not only in “Cop Land” but also as Edward Norton’s brother in Gavin O’Connor’s “Pride and Glory” (2008) as well as in films such as 2013’s “Blood Ties,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Which is part of the reason he was initially reluctant to sign on as FBI agent Beeman when “The Americans’” producers came calling a couple of years ago. “I really didn’t want to be another guy who carried and badge and a gun – I’d already done that,” said the actor, adding that he at first assumed “The Americans” was just another procedural cop drama. “The Hollywood system sometimes negates the craft of acting; people see you play a cop and they don’t think ‘What a good actor,’ they think ‘What a good cop -- let’s get him to do another one.’”
It was Emmerich’s friend, filmmaker Gavin O’Connor, who convinced him to read the pilot more carefully, and the actor came to realize that “in fact the show wasn’t really a spy game as much as a human game,” he said. “It’s about how being a spy affects the characters’ lives, how they navigate their relationships and come to a sense of self and identity.”
Emmerich has earned a Critics Choice nomination for his turn as Beeman; and these days his performance plate is full. Just a day after completing “The Americans’" first season this past year, he flew off to Santa Fe, New Mexico to shoot “Jane Got a Gun,” working again with Natalie Portman, this time playing her ex-outlaw husband. “I’m strapping on six-shooters; I’ve got a nice, great hat, I’m busting down doors – it’s the most childlike fun I’ve had as an actor in years,” he said.
And Emmerich looks forward to reprising his complex character of Stan Beeman when “The Americans” commences shooting its second season this fall. “Some people think Stan’s a villain, some think he’s a hero – it’s really a Rashomon in terms of how people perceive him,” he said.