With its faux-marble floors and pink pleather booths, the Wayne Hills Diner in suburban New Jersey is not the kind of place you’d expect to find a TV actress. But on a recent chilly morning, Holly Taylor, the rising star of FX’s The Americans, could be spotted here flipping through an enormous menu.
She’s been coming to this diner since she was a kid. During her high school years, her boyfriend courted her here because he knew she liked the chicken fingers. They’re still dating, and she still lives in town with her parents.
Wearing a vintage trench coat (a gift from the wardrobe department) and a fuzzy preppy sweater, Taylor, 20, ordered silver dollar pancakes and a fruit cup. Put a Bible in her hand and Phil Collins on the jukebox, and she could easily be mistaken for her TV alter ego, Paige Jennings.
Surveying the room, she admitted that playing Paige had made her more aware of people following her or watching her.
“Which gets confusing,” she said, “because I don’t know if they’re just being weird, or if they like the show.
” Taylor has certainly become a person of interest. Over five seasons, her character has matured from the supporting role of the daughter of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, the spies played by the stars (and real-life couple) Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, into a major, and surprisingly polarising, figure. Now, in the show’s final season, she’s poised to carry on the family tradition as a next-generation KGB operative.
In typical Cold War fashion, Taylor is coy about the details. But this much we know: season six picks up in 1987. Paige, now a college student, is being groomed by her militant mother in the ways of Soviet spyhood, shadowing her on missions, training in the martial arts techniques of Krav Maga and learning how to cook Russian stew.
“Paige is exposed to some of the things that her mom does that she wasn’t aware of before,” Taylor said. “She starts to realise that maybe it’s not all what she thought it was.
” This foretells an epic Jennings clash, as Paige has always been “a sort of nexus for the moral issues her family faced,” Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, showrunners of The Americans, wrote in a joint email. “The further she was drawn into her parents’ world, the more she provoked this great battle between Philip and Elizabeth over the state of her soul.” Paige wants to do the right thing, even if that means betraying the trust of her parents.
Some of her moves have landed her in hot water, both on- and off-screen. Her decision, at the end of season three, to out her parents’ livelihood to her pastor was met with seething outrage by the show’s fans. Nasty tweets surfaced, calling for her to suffer the same fate as an unfortunate character who was murdered, then grotesquely broken up to fit into a suitcase. “I’ve had someone literally point to my face and scream that they hate me, randomly in the street, without even introducing themselves,” Taylor said.
I’ve asked repeatedly if there’s going to be a spin-off, if there’s going to be a movie after, and they’re like, ‘Nope, nope, nope,’ and they constantly shoot me down.”
- HOLLY TAYLOR | Actress
“I was like, ‘Nice to meet you, too?’” The reaction was hurtful and also surprising: American citizens were mad at her for exposing Russian spies? But she credits the show’s writers for “switching people’s perspective completely.” Gone is the 1980s perception of “Russia as the bad guy,” she said. “You see why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how they are humans.
” While Taylor was born a decade after the era chronicled in The Americans, she’s developed an appreciation for life before the iPhone. “When they’re doing all this spy stuff, Elizabeth can’t just text Phil and be like, ‘The bad guy’s coming around the corner, take cover,’” she said.
Like Paige, Taylor is close to her parents, Mark and Margaret Taylor. Originally from Britain, they were living in Nova Scotia when she was born and then moved to Wayne, New Jersey, when she was 3. (She has one brother, who’s older.) There, they enrolled her in a dance class, and she took to it immediately.
“My dream was to be on Broadway,” Taylor said. “My parents didn’t even know what Broadway was.”
They found out. When Taylor was 11, she landed a part as a ballet student in the original Broadway production of Billy Elliot. Her parents kept her in school, and her mother commuted with her to Manhattan six days a week.
“They definitely thought school was more important, but at the same time, they didn’t want to ruin the opportunity for me,” Taylor said. “If my grades were to ever start slacking, it would’ve been like, ‘You’re out.’
” A few years later, Taylor was cast on The Americans, this time commuting to Brooklyn, where the show is filmed.
“She just seemed like a real kid, with a natural ability to convey these complex emotions,” the showrunners wrote in their email. She largely continued to live as a “real kid,” even as she starred on a critically acclaimed cable drama. Her parents maintained lofty academic expectations, and she met them. (“I was 4.0 GPA, in every single honour society and in student council,” she said.)
Her friends thought it was “cool” that she was on TV, but because it was a grown-up show, they didn’t watch and often forgot that their friend was sort of famous. “There’s been times when I’m out with them, and someone will recognise me, and they’re like, ‘Why is this lady talking to her?’” Taylor said. Her first seasons of playing Paige on the show were mostly unremarkable, but everything changed when she found out the family secret. After reading the script, Taylor said: “I knew they couldn’t just let that die. We had to see what happens. How she’s going to react? Is she going to tell people? Is she going to support them?”
Few answers were available, she added, because the producers are “very tight-lipped.”
“They don’t tell you anything,” she added.
The truth is that nobody anticipated how pivotal a role she would eventually play. Paige’s storyline has become “just as central to the show as any of the marital or political drama,” Fields and Weisberg said. “In many ways, it was Holly’s performance that allowed us to dig so deep there.” One plot twist that Taylor didn’t anticipate — or enjoy — was her puppy-love romance with Matthew Beeman (Daniel Flaherty). “I hated it so much,” she said.
“Could you imagine going to work to make out with this person while 60 men, who’ve known you since you were little, stand around to watch you do it 15 times in a row at least?” She watched the episode at home with her family and boyfriend, a pillow over her head.
Expect less kissing and more punching this season, as Paige steps into her new role as defender of the motherland in the culminating stretch of both the Soviet Union and The Americans. But with interest in Russian spycraft higher than at any time since the Cold War, could a spin-off series, starring Paige in a pre-Putin era, be a possibility?
Taylor said nyet: “I’ve asked repeatedly if there’s going to be a spin-off, if there’s going to be a movie after, and they’re like, ‘Nope, nope, nope,’ and they constantly shoot me down. So I think it’s confirmed now.”
In the meantime, she continues to commute from her parents’ home in Wayne to Union, New Jersey, where she’s studying advertising at Kean University. She’s also been auditioning for new TV shows, but hopes that they don’t take her too far from home.
“I like where I’m from, and I like the suburbs,” she said. “New Jersey gets so much hate” because of shows like Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, she noted, “but it really has everything.
” Including the world’s best chicken fingers.
Don’t miss it
Season six of The Americans is now streaming on osnplay.osn.com.