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'The Americans' Spy Disguises Earn High Marks From This Former CIA Officer


“The Americans” ends Wednesday. The FX show centers on husband and wife Russian spy team Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

The couple poses as Americans living in a D.C. suburb with their children running a travel agency, while murderously carrying out espionage in Cold War Washington. The show was created by former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, after several Russian spies were discovered living in America.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Jonna Mendez, former “master of disguise” for the CIA, who recently wrote that the show actually gets a lot right about spies donning different looks.

Interview Highlights

On the disguises worn by Philip Jennings in “The Americans”

“In terms of disguise, I was kind of impressed with what they were able to do with him. He wore his disguises really well. They were very believable, I thought, on him. Just changing the hairstyle and never mind that mustache — the mustaches are always hard — but he would put on a skullcap and a pair of glasses and have a fake ponytail out the back. He changed though more than his facial oval — his demeanor changed.”

On why male CIA operatives were more reluctant to wear disguises

“Well, men don’t want to wear the disguises. That’s the rub. Men think you should be able to just kind of muscle your way through situations, and you shouldn’t have to hide behind a wig. That point of view changed over the years as the targets that CIA was looking at, they also changed. We went from embassy cocktail parties to working with terrorists, working against drugs. The people we were working against were much, much more physically threatening. Some of our officers discovered that a good disguise can be like a suit of armor.”

On the idea of spies having a notional cover

“Well, notional cover is some throwaway kind of cover that you might be talking to someone on an airplane, and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re out of Washington. Where do you work?’ You say, ‘I work for the government.’ Very light cover. Official cover is when you have documentation. Maybe a phone number that backs it up.”

On what types of spies have non-official cover

“Non-official cover is an officer who is completely detached from the U.S. government presence wherever they are because they are part of a private business. They are part of a private enterprise.

“There’s some things that [non-official cover] cannot be. The cover cannot be the media. Other categories can’t use the priesthood for cover, Peace Corps. People in those professions are vulnerable to being accused of working for the CIA. None of our people will ever use those categories.”

On the types of disguises CIA agents wear

“Well, you might take a person who has a kind of military appearance. Think of the look of a U.S. Marine — that high-and-tight buzz cut. They’re all kind of overmuscled, ramrod straight. So some of the things you’d want to do is change his posture. You’d want to get his shoulders to come down and get him to a more relaxed and normal posture, and you can do that with shoulder braces. You put them on backwards. Instead of pulling you up straight, they kind of tug you down. Make him more messy, make him more casual, make him … just demilitarize him.”

On the most interesting disguise she ever wore

“It would probably be a disguise I wore to the White House to meet the president. This was the first President Bush. He had been the director of CIA, and we had issued him a disguise while he was working at CIA. And so when we came up with this kind of new category of disguise, our senior people thought the president might enjoy seeing it.

“It was a full face mask with hair that completely changed the way I looked, and I wore it into the White House. I wore it into the Oval Office, and I briefed the president for a few minutes, and then took it off.”

On how she and her husband, Tony, who was also a CIA agent, covered their identities

“If you got in a situation where you kind of had to respond, if it was notional cover, light cover, I would always say, ‘Who are you, and where do you work?’ Because if I’m going to say I’m a heart surgeon, I don’t want him to be, you know, an intern at GW Hospital saying, ‘Oh, what floor are you working on?’ Now if you have real cover, it’s OK. You hand them the card because you know if they make the phone call, there’s somebody answering, and they will take messages for you. And you know, you’re out of the office, they call you back. My husband, there was a movie made about him, the movie was ‘Argo,’ and a whole big part of that movie was about the cover — cover for rescuing a group of people out of Tehran. And it was just elaborately put together. No matter how they checked on that cover, it was going to hold up. It was a life or death situation.”

On how she and her husband lied to each other, family and friends about their jobs

“Well you know, my husband and I, we never really had to lie to each other, but there were many, many things that we couldn’t tell each other. You kept it within the guardrails that had been set up for that case. In terms of lying, it was friends and family.

“My best friend for many, many years didn’t know where I worked. She was my best friend. We talked endlessly on the phone just like you would with your best friend. And I always had to live this lie. She found out about 20 years into our friendship, and she couldn’t believe, you know, that I worked for the CIA all that time and didn’t tell her. In a way it cost me that friendship. All of our neighbors where we lived for all of those years, nobody knew where we worked. When Tony’s involvement with CIA was revealed, they were almost angry.”

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Keri Russell, right, and Matthew Rhys attend the premiere of FX Networks' "The Americans" final season at Alice Tully Hall on Friday, March 16, 2018, in New York. (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Keri Russell, right, and Matthew Rhys attend the premiere of FX Networks' "The Americans" final season at Alice Tully Hall on Friday, March 16, 2018, in New York. (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)