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Keri Russell’s new role all started — sort of — with Christmas dinner. The actress, who has been extremely selective about her jobs since wrapping the Emmy-winning The Americans in 2018, was in the midst of hosting three sets of grandparents for the holidays when word came in to take a Zoom meeting with Debora Cahn. The writer-producer on The West Wing and Homeland had a new series about a foreign service officer whose career plans are redirected when she’s sent to the London embassy, and she wanted Russell to star.
“I was like, I can’t consider doing a show, I’m cooking for 8,000 people right now,” Russell says, laughing. “We had one family in from Wales, my ex-husband’s in from Martha’s Vineyard and my parents were in from Texas. I tried to say no at first because [the show] didn’t make sense for my life at the time.”
Despite the actress’ best efforts, The Diplomat‘s script lured her in. It follows Kate Wyler as she lands in London during the aftermath of an attack on a British warship while attempting to make good on her intentions to divorce her frustrating, yet diplomatically brilliant, husband Hal (played by Rufus Sewell). The show balances the fast-paced nature of a government drama with elements of humor, and Russell simply couldn’t stop thinking about it. “It was the way she wrote Kate’s clumsiness and awkwardness in incredibly high-level, important political rooms,” she says. “I love the idea of a messy, unpolished person delivering information to the president in a rough way.”
Here, Russell talks to THR about her deliberations, building a new onscreen marriage and her real-life political experience.
What sorts of requirements did you have in your consideration to say yes, be it something about the script or the logistics of shooting?
I had massive life elements to consider [before saying yes]. We were moving houses, Matthew [Rhys] was away shooting Perry Mason. I had to figure out who’s gonna move the house if I’m not here. And does that mean people are gonna touch my things? Who is going to walk Sam home from school if I’m not here on that Wednesday, or whatever? But I just said, “I’m taking it because this fun doesn’t come my way that often.” It’s so rare that I actually want to do something, I spend most of my life going, “Oh, no, I don’t want to do that.”
Your concern over having to outsource a move reminds me of Kate’s difficulties getting used to all of the services at the ambassador’s house — staff packing for her and whatnot…
I like to be in control of my things like her. Also, like Kate, I have a uniform. The whole past season, I would wear the same cream pants and cream sweatshirt. Debora would be like, “Oh there you are again.” One of the directors ask me if I had five of that same outfit or just the one. I’m like, “this is it!” But I barely wear it, because I immediately get into wardrobe, and then I wear it when I’m having my beer and going home.
The marriage dynamic is really key to the show. Had you worked with Rufus Sewell beforehand, or were you familiar with his character in The Holiday, which comes to mind as a similarly antagonist romance?
We’d never met before. And I actually still haven’t seen The Holiday. But I know the poster. There’s total luck in this business insofar as you get on set, and sometimes, chemically, it just works. You get each other. We were just really easy, super comfortable in each other’s space. We laugh our heads off and were both really silly on set. It helps to give a whole undercurrent of electricity. We could make jokes and do stupid dances in front of each other. But I do think these two characters have a real meeting of the minds. As painful as Hal can be to Kate, as much as he drives her crazy, there is a part of him that is brilliant — and he’s affable with people in a way she isn’t. And she has an integrity that he doesn’t have. They see things in each other that the other lacks.
Putting aside everything about this onscreen relationship that is different from yours and Matthew’s, would you say you have a similar approach to what it’s like to work in the same field as your partner?
I ask Matthew for advice all the time. I really respect his opinion. It’s a tricky dance because when you’re peers, there’s an innate competition. Just last night we did this 10th anniversary event for The Americans, and they showed this clip. First of all, we were like, “My God we were so much younger-looking back then. Holy fuck, we look so old now.” But we were also reflecting on how what an amazing experience that was, to get to do a show with your partner. No one had to be watching from the sidelines wishing it was them. We got to enjoy it together. What a gift.
Let’s talk about the trajectory of the show because I just finished the first season…
Oh, you’ve seen more than me then. I’ve seen up through episode three.
The show ends on a cliffhanger, which I don’t think I was expecting because I was watching it more as a comedy of manners. What were the discussions around how much this was going to be a political thriller versus a comedic show about a political marriage?
Oh wow, I totally forgot about the end! It’s funny, the show has many aspects. I gravitate more towards the fun, sparkly element. So when Debora does throw a few wrenches into the storytelling, I think it’s good that she’s lulled you into a sense of thinking you’re just watching a relationship and people being nuts with each other. And then you’re like: boom!
Did you leave this season with new understandings around foreign affairs and how the state department works? Or are you just good at memorizing all that jargon even if you don’t know what it means?
I learned so much. I was fascinated by all the protocols around the way you have to address political leaders when you speak to them. But I will say there got to be a point about three-quarters of the way through this first season where I thought, “Please, let me get Covid so that I don’t have to do one more fast-walk-and-talk. I can’t talk about Iranian diplomacy one more day!” I don’t have the brain space for all these political leaders and acronyms. And guess what? My wish came true. I did get Covid. And I got way too sick, so that was a bad wish.
Have you ever been in a real-life situation where you had to employ the protocol around addressing political leaders?
Does President Obama count?
It sure does. I imagine you said, “Mr. President”?
I probably didn’t say anything. I probably just panicked. Matthew and I, incredibly, were invited to attend one of his last state dinners — he was a big fan of The Americans. We got to sit at his table, we sat really close to Michelle, and I think there was one person between us and the president.
Did he want to know anything about the show?
Oh, totally. He knew everything about the show, it was awesome.
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