In 1990, as part of the security clearance process that would allow him to become a member of the Central Intelligence Agency, Joe Weisberg took a polygraph exam. “They asked, ‘Are you joining the CIA in order to gain expertise on espionage so that you can write about it later?’ ” he recalls. “I paused for a second, as that had never occurred to me. It really hadn’t. I wanted to be a spy, but I was a writer, so when he said that, one little part of me was like, ‘That’s not a bad idea.’ ”
Twenty years later, Weisberg, 48, is putting his four years of CIA experience to use as the creator and show runner of FX’s Cold War espionage series ‘The Americans.’ Now entering its second season, the show – which debuted to big ratings and earned critical raves and a cult following over 13 episodes – centers on a pair of Reagan-era KGB spies (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) who lead public lives as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, husband and wife travel agents in the northern Virginia suburbs, while secretly snagging classified documents, seducing potential sources, and even spilling blood in the name of Mother Russia. Having posed for 17 years as a married couple, they struggle with conflicting feelings toward each other and their increasingly dangerous work, all while packing lunches for their two American-born kids, who have no idea about their parents’ illicit activities and true identities.
“The main thing that influenced the show was working with people who for many years didn’t tell their kids what they did,” Weisberg says in his office at the show’s Brooklyn production headquarters, which are cluttered with Cold War kitsch, including a life-size cardboard Ronald Reagan and posters of Lenin and first man in space Yuri Gagarin. “There’s something known in CIA circles as ‘the talk,’ where, when a kid is mature enough, the parents sit them down and tell them, ‘We’ve been lying to you all these years.’ That’s a pretty profound thing. And it’s clearly the underpinning of the show: What is it to be a family of spies?”
It was that emotional core that sold FX head John Landgraf on Weisberg’s initial pitch. “Joe brought a distinctive point of view to the spy genre,” Landgraf says. “Typically, there’s a coldness to it – James Bond is a classic narcissist. But the complex intimacy in Joe’s scripts brings a warmth and heart to the center of the show that is really unusual.”
Russell agrees: “I really believe that it’s not a spy show,” she says. “It’s a complicated relationship show that’s kind of a metaphor for marriage, about trust and how much you give of yourself and how much you compromise.”
Weisberg has been as hands-on as possible with the cast, schooling them on the spy mind-set (“We did an afternoon of countersurveillance with him on the streets of Brooklyn,” says Rhys, “trying to look as if we weren’t being followed”), techniques for covertly passing items from person to person (called “dead drops” and “brush passes”), and the importance of disguise, which he describes as “shockingly effective.” But many elements of espionage tradecraft remain classified. As a condition of Weisberg’s “secrecy agreement” with the CIA, he has to submit every ‘Americans’ script to the agency’s Publications Review Board for approval. “Anything about cover is extraordinarily sensitive,” he says. “I’ve learned what kind of things bother them, so it’s a very smooth process now. I find them completely easy to work with.”
Weisberg, now married with a seven-year-old daughter, was single and in his early twenties when he decided to join the agency – a choice that surprised his liberal family. Joe and his older brother, Jacob, a journalist and chairman of the Slate Group, which runs three politics and culture websites, grew up near Wrigley Field in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. His father, Bernard, was a prominent civil liberties attorney who helped establish criminals’ rights to counsel during interrogation, and who later became a federal magistrate. His mother, Lois, is a civic activist who served as Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs.
After studying Soviet and Russian history at Yale, Joe applied to the CIA. “I had always wanted to be a spy,” says Weisberg. “I had been reading Le Carré novels since I was a kid, and I had some idea that was what it was really like.” He recalls his family being supportive, but they weren’t without reservations. “It seemed a little bit rebellious to me,” says Jacob. “Joe wasn’t a super-rebellious kid, but there was a certain tweaking of liberal values. Joe was always very skeptical of people who were conformist in their thinking, and he made a point of being contrarian. I’m pretty sure he voted for Reagan the first time he could vote.”
Weisberg spent four years as a trainee, completing a rigorous program that ranged from paramilitary drills (“You run around and throw grenades and ride in helicopters – some people call it Outward Bound with guns”) to working actual cases. He was about to go on his first assignment overseas as a case officer when his father got sick. He took a leave of absence to care for him in Chicago, returned briefly to D.C., then left the agency for good after his father passed away, in 1994. “He wrote and said, ‘I’m coming home, I’m not a spy, I’m a writer,’ ” says his mother, Lois. “I think I’d go along with that. Of all the things he did, I think he wanted to be a writer more than anything.”
“Having seen how they did what they do,” Weisberg says of the CIA, “I lost a belief in it and no longer wanted to do that job.” For many years, Weisberg never told anyone besides his family about where he had worked. But eventually, he began debriefing his friends, which he likens to coming out. “It was kind of a really weird and painful process, because it involved telling people that I was very close to that I had been lying to them for years,” says Weisberg. “It still feels a little bit painful to think about.”
Weisberg’s 2007 novel, ‘An Ordinary Spy,’ was praised in the ‘New York Times’ as “surely the best portrait of the working CIA we have had in many years.” He was teaching special needs teens at a Queens high school and pursuing a teaching degree at Bank Street College when the film rights to ‘An Ordinary Spy’ were optioned; while no movie was made, an agent at Creative Artists Agency called him to suggest a move into writing for TV. In 2010, following the well-publicized arrests of 10 Russian sleeper agents who’d been living in the U.S. for years, DreamWorks Television approached him about developing a series. “What interested me was the idea of these incredibly deep cover spies working behind the lines in an enemy country,” says Weisberg, as well as doing “a show where the enemy were the heroes. I thought that concept contained so much richness and potential.”
Adding to the suspense, this season it’s not only the FBI that’s hot on the Jennings’ trail; the couple’s teenage daughter, Paige, begins to have her own suspicions about her parents. “At some point, we’ve all probably thought our families were weird,” says Weisberg. “But while she wouldn’t in a billion years think, ‘My parents are KGB spies,’ there’s something bubbling up in her conscious mind that she’s going to follow a little bit. So we’re going to focus more on the family – how the parents and the kids deal with each other and struggle together.”
The irony of shining a light on his formerly top-secret past is not lost on Weisberg. “As a kid, I felt inward and hidden,” he says. “I think that’s why I ended up at the CIA. I found a place where those attributes became real benefits – the capacity to keep things to yourself, have a great deal of self-control. That’s what the CIA is: playing things so close to the vest that you’re not playing them at all, which this show reflects. Only I had to break out of that mold to put it all on TV for everybody to see.”