This story about Keri Russell and “The Diplomat” was first published in the drama edition of TheWrap awards magazine.
It’s a little surprising to learn that Deborah Cahn didn’t write the lead role of her new Netflix show “The Diplomat” US Ambassador to the UK Kate Wyler for Keri Russell. The role calls for someone serious but chaotic, beautiful but uninterested in her beauty, intelligent but touchy about her and, of course, entangled in a love-hate marriage with her husband Hal, played by the lovable rogue Rufus. Sewell.
Who else would you love but the woman we know as the charming lead on “Felicity” turned steel spy on “The Americans,” Keri Russell? You know, the adorable person you definitely don’t mess with?
But it turns out that Russell, 47, was not available at all. “I wasn’t looking for a TV show,” Russell said via Zoom from London, wearing cool big glasses and voluminous curly hair that we never see on the show. Turns out, Russell wasn’t thinking about his next role. “We have children of 15, 11 and 6 years old. Life is very busy.” (“Us” is Matthew Rhys, his former co-star on “The Americans” and his life partner.)
“Matthew was out finishing ‘Perry Mason,’” he explained. “I had a rare and unique experience on ‘The Americans.’ It’s not like I’m looking forward to doing something that isn’t so great.”
But then showrunner Cahn sent him the script for “The Diplomat,” and Russell couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s about a career diplomat who would rather be in a war zone like Afghanistan helping marginalized women, but instead ends up on posh London assignment, embroiled in geopolitical intrigue and also slated for a Vogue photo shoot. Politics is complex, the dialogue fast, the constant swearing. Russell agreed with all of that.
“I was like, ‘Shit, this is really good,’” he said. “I read the first episode; it’s so specific and fun. Tonally I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out.” But it really works. The show manages to be a fun relationship comedy and also a fast-paced diplomatic thriller. In addition to Russell and Sewell, the show is packed with excellent supporting performances, notably from David Gyasi as the British Foreign Secretary and Austin Dennison and Ato Essandoh as Head of Mission Stuart Heyford.
As Kate, Russell dresses very casually, his brown hair stringy and tousled (at one point, an attendant brings him a hairbrush quietly please), his pantsuits uniformly nondescript, his face seemingly bare of makeup. All of the obvious sex appeal gets buried, except when Kate needs sex, and then she climbs on top of her husband Hal (Sewell), who she also gets into fistfights with (more on that later).
It’s a fiercely feminine perspective, not for nothing, and Cahn found the fearless actress diving deep, fast. Cahn herself is a veteran of political drama writing “West Wing” and “Homeland,” both shows with plenty of strong female characters, and she’s also a working mom. “Keri isn’t afraid of being a woman who is constantly falling apart, so she’s created a character that people really relate to,” Cahn said. “She’s so alive in every moment and she’s so upbeat, so willing to get in the ground with the character. Literally and figuratively.”
Well, yes, about that. Kate and Hal’s backstory is that he was the star diplomat for most of their marriage and is still a big cheese. She is now stepping into the spotlight, a role in which she is extremely uncomfortable. Beyond that, the couple’s relationship has been strained beyond breaking point, and Kate really wants a divorce. But due to circumstances to be mentioned later, political appearances make a divorce difficult, if not impossible.
During a high-pressure day involving the photo shoot, Hal’s relentless interference in foreign affairs, and lots of witnesses, Kate basically jumps on Hal to pummel him with her fists, the two of them rolling through the bushes in a crazy full-body move. . she fights Kate yelling, “You’re killing me!” her as she swings a tree branch in her direction. “We had stuntmen, but we tried,” Russell said. “He was so good, just holding me like a big brother. We were covered in dirt. My skirt was up to my waist.” She paused. “It was a total pleasure.”
A big part of the joy of the show is that crackling energy between Russell and Sewell, who he said came on instantly. None of the actors sought to work on the chemistry that was there. “My ease with Keri and Keri’s ease with me is more about being able to just not care, ignore each other,” Sewell said. “You’re not trying to help. She is fine. And she feels the same way about me. we have that. Don’t worry about that. Just keep going.”
“It’s erotic for them in a way,” he added. “You know, not just be funny with each other, but also be sharp and not take too much delight in being clever in a joke.”
Russell has been in the public eye for most of his life and in entertainment since he was a teenager. Born in Orange County in the Fountain Valley to a father who was a Nissan auto executive and a homemaker, she studied dance and then, at age 15, won a spot on “The Mickey Mouse Club,” appearing on the Disney Channel for four years.
She landed a few bit roles in movies, but then landed the career-defining lead role in 1998’s “Felicity” on the WB channel. In a series created by then-baby talents (now industry powerhouses) JJ Abrams and Matt Reeves, she played a charmingly relatable young woman who discovers her life, her loves, and her worth at a college town. from New York. The show ran for four seasons and became a cultural touchstone.
After “Felicity,” Russell was officially adorable. He has acted in plays, had television roles in “Scrubs” and starred in the critically praised independent film “Waitress.” She landed a lead role in “Extraordinary Measures,” playing a mother trying to create a stable home for her sick children while she searches for a cure for her illness. But it wasn’t until 2013 that she broke into a different category of actress, this time serious, as Elizabeth Jennings, a Russian KGB spy who lived as an American during the Cold War of the 1980s. Her voice seemed to drop. an eighth. In “The Americans,” Russell found another role of a lifetime for her and a slew of Emmy nominations, but she also met Rhys, who played her character’s husband and fellow spy. The show ran for six seasons.
Fast forward to post-pandemic London, with children and a life partner engrossed in their own TV series. Russell calls herself a “fair time” actress, who isn’t desperate for work. But that changed when she appeared in “The Diplomat.” After reading the script, Russell made a call: she changed her schedule, brought a couple of grandmothers to help with the kids, and made it work.
“It was the first thing I wanted to do in a million years,” he said. And it was a chance to play a woman she recognized. Kate, Russell said, is “smart, tough, direct and bold. She is bossy. She is fun to play. And full of all these other contradictions.”
The writing of the character defined Kate very clearly. Still, Russell made some deliberate decisions. Russell’s Kate eats like a man, tearing food with her hands, dunking the bread on her plate in a very unladylike way. In one scene, she and Hal walk into the embassy kitchen and come out with a huge rind of cheese, with Kate scooping out a piece.
Kate also walks like a man, padding heavily, arms on her hips. There is no trace of Russell’s ballerina childhood in Kate. “She’s a boy’s girl,” Russell agrees. “She’s been around. She’s been in tough circles.”
And he wanted Kate to dress in clothes that weren’t trendy, overdone or “too girly,” Russell said. On the other hand, when Kate wants to dress to kill, as she does herself in the Season 1 finale, in a skintight, floor-length red dress that shows a lot of skin, she knows how to do it.
I asked Russell if he feels related to Kate Wyler. The actress did not hesitate. “I sure do share some qualities with her,” he said. “Reading it as the awkward minutiae of a person in a very powerful position, doing it clumsily, her way. That was the interesting thing about it. These are important high-risk rooms. But people still have shitty days, do embarrassing things, or get embarrassed. Or they just had a fight with their partner.”
The first season of “The Diplomat” ended on a cliffhanger that basically demands you come back for more. And lately, before jumping into a second season, Russell has run into a lot of government officials and diplomats, people who avidly watch the show and want to meet her. On this particular day, she had been visiting the real-life US Ambassador to the UK, Jane Hartley, at her real-life home in Regents Park.
Does she think government jerks in real life talk trash and swear like sailors like they do on the show? If she does.
“I’m sure Obama walked out of the rooms and said, ‘That guy is a jerk,’” she said.
I can’t wait for season 2.