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All Hail Matthew Rhys, Sad King of Male Vulnerability

The actor has taken on multiple journalism-related roles lately—including a reporter opposite Tom Hanks’s Fred Rogers in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’—but what really ties his recent performances together is his ability to portray weakness

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If you have an intense adoration for Matthew Rhys, it’s probably because you watched The Americans. The FX series was famously loved by many TV critics and very few others, which lent Americans fandom a strange air of exclusivity. I will never understand why The Americans didn’t catch on with more people, even before the tale of Russian spies infiltrating and undermining American interests became, uh, strangely prescient.

But maybe interest in the series wasn’t sustained because The Americans didn’t shy away from the fact that its spycraft was deeply miserable, brutal, uncompromising, and sometimes quite dull. (James Bond has undoubtedly done some awful shit in his decades-spanning franchise, but he also spends about 25 percent of his screen time sipping fancy martinis and hooking up with attractive women.) Rhys’s Philip Jennings was no James Bond: He slept with people only in the interest of gathering valuable intel for Mother Russia, clearly developed some love for America while spending so much time living in the States, and carried the soul-crushing burden of the reprehensible work on his incredibly sad face. Rhys gave an amazing—and ultimately Emmy-winning—performance as one of Peak TV’s formative Sad Bois. Philip Jennings was Kendall Roy for the Cold War era.

But as Kendall filled the Philip Jennings–shaped hole in my TV-viewing heart, Rhys was tasked with having to follow up a career-defining role. As Mad Men and Friday Night Lights alums can attest, that’s not always easy. Granted, Rhys could’ve simply eased into becoming a full-time Wife Guy to his Americans costar Keri Russell, with whom he has been in a relationship since shortly after they started working together on the show. I am deeply cynical when it comes to celebrity couples, but there’s something genuinely endearing about the two of them. (Russell once called Rhys the “Dad MacGyver Boy Scout of fathers.”) Rhys and Russell are the only good contemporary Hollywood couple besides Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.

Anyway, instead of moving into a life of throwaway roles and dadhood, Rhys has bizarrely pivoted to the antithesis of spycraft and an essential pillar of our democracy: journalism.

With the exception of playing a colonial hunter in Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, three of Rhys’s past four film roles have been journalism-related. He played the real-life whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—responsible for releasing the Pentagon Papers to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other publications—in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. This felt like a natural extension of Rhys’s work in The Americans because the Post role mainly involved stealthily stealing top-secret documents. (It probably helped some that Rhys filmed The Post before the final season of the show.) Now he’s got two journalism projects coming out in November, The Report and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In The Report, Rhys has a small supporting role as a New York Times reporter, with whom Adam Driver’s United States Senate investigator Daniel Jones discusses the CIA’s use of torture post-9/11. (Eat your heart out, John Krasinski.)

It’s in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, however, that Rhys gets his biggest post-Americans platform yet. While the film is being promoted like it’s a Mr. Rogers biopic—helping matters is the pitch-perfect casting of America’s most wholesome actor, Tom Hanks—it’s more like a feature-length, adult-oriented episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood focusing on Lloyd Vogel, a fictional Esquire investigative journalist assigned to write a puff piece on the popular children’s TV personality. Thus, Rhys’s character gets the spotlight, with Hanks’s Mr. Rogers politely interceding in the man’s personal life. (Vogel is loosely based on Tom Junod, who turned a similar assignment into an Esquire cover story in 1998 and said the experience changed his life.)

But the actor hasn’t changed his on-screen brand from Sad Spy to Guy Who Brings New Yorker Tote Bag to Farmer’s Market as much as he’s become what Rhys himself has coined the “all-feeling male.” There are some interesting through lines between Philip Jennings and Lloyd Vogel—mainly that they’re both profoundly miserable even if they don’t want to admit it. In the film, Vogel has never fully recovered from a traumatic childhood, the result of his mother dying from cancer and his father sleeping around. A new father himself, Vogel has some creeping anxiety that he’ll fail in his own duties as a parent—something Mr. Rogers attempts to assuage by preaching love and forgiveness. This all coincides with Vogel’s approach to profiling Mr. Rogers, which is rooted in cautious skepticism; that this saintly figure couldn’t be nearly as saintly as he seems.

Vogel is a tricky role, and one that requires Rhys to deliver a performance where the character’s steely, cynical resolve slowly gives way to earnest vulnerability. That’s easier said than done—Mr. Rogers was an important part of my childhood, but most adults would probably have a hard time opening up to a guy who’d prefer to interrogate your repressed emotions via hand puppets. But it’s also the kind of work that Rhys masterfully honed over six seasons of The Americans, itself featuring an even slower burn of a similar identity crisis. Instead of getting free, life-affirming therapy from Mr. Rogers while writing a profile, Philip went to EST.

Hanks is already receiving some much-deserved Oscars hype for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with the biggest question being whether he’ll be submitted for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor. But it’s the pathos of Rhys’s nuanced performance and the character’s response to Mr. Rogers’s unwavering empathy that gives A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood its emotional center, and the main reason you should be bringing a box of tissues to the theater. (Much like last year’s excellent Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) If you missed out on The Americans, well, shame on you, but Rhys offers the same isolated-until-he-implodes thrills in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for some very different subject matter—and a very different kind of character occupation.

One might say Matthew Rhys and journalism are having a moment. But while three journalism-related roles in his past four movies is a funny thing for Rhys to have on his résumé, I’m more willing to accept it as a happy coincidence than the beginnings of a trend where Rhys is frequently typecast as a reporter. If Rhys is typecast by Hollywood, it shouldn’t be by a profession, but by the amount of sadness that must be imbued into said role. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reaffirms Matthew Rhys’s status as pop culture’s king of male vulnerability—and as he gets to work on a new Perry Mason miniseries for HBO, long may he reign.