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In The Diplomat, Keri Russell Lets Loose—And Maybe Saves the World

Keri Russell was not ready for more TV. After making six highly acclaimed and intensive seasons of FX’s The Americans, in which she starred as the enigmatic Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings, she came out of the experience ready for a life of shorter-term—and perhaps less emotionally draining—work commitments. “I definitely wasn’t looking to do another series,” she says. When the script for the London-set The Diplomat by Debora Cahn came her way, Russell was also planning on moving to a new home across the country with her family. So shooting in Europe for seven months seemed completely unfeasible, even beyond the shift in focus. And yet here Russell sits, in a Zoom window right beside Cahn’s, with the first season of The Diplomat completed and set for an April 20 release on Netflix. (Watch an exclusive clip below.)

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Russell concedes. “So I was like, This is impossible—and I’m going to do it.”

Following the B movie phenomenon that is Cocaine Bear, The Diplomat continues a theme for Russell in 2023: fun. That may sound unlikely given that the drama series hails from Cahn, a veteran of high-stakes political TV like The West Wing and Homeland. Its premise sounds similarly weighty: An Afghanistan-bound diplomat (Russell) is instead named the unexpected new US ambassador to the United Kingdom, where she’s tasked with averting international crises—brewing war on one continent, boiling conflict on another—in an unfamiliar milieu. But The Diplomat is hardly stodgy. The show has as much in common with Veep as it does Homeland in its focus on the way people actually operate in spaces of such power and impact—behavior that is thoroughly, brutally human.

As Cahn describes her show’s philosophy: “The world might end on Tuesday because of a decision that they do or don’t make, but that doesn’t mean they remember the name of the person they’re talking to, and that doesn’t mean that they didn’t forget to take the tag off of their pants.” She came up with the idea for The Diplomat during her tenure as a writer-producer on Homeland. A range of experts came in to tell their stories, including ambassadors. “They’re quiet and unassuming. Like, this woman who looks like my Aunt Ruthie—she was in the middle of a crisis involving nuclear waste and a truck driving off an icy Siberian road and bombs dropping,” she says. “Nobody knows what these people do. It’s such front-lines-y kind of activity, and nobody ever knows about it.”

Enter Russell’s Kate Wyler, a brilliant crisis manager without much affection for the spotlight, as evidenced by her brusque demeanor, plain attire, and political skills behind the scenes. Russell’s performance is vivacious and dynamic—a true actorly joy flows into her character’s neuroses and frustrations, to say nothing of her faculty with wry dialogue, in a way that feels fresh. “I was like, Keri’s an incredibly gifted actress, she can play this role—but I didn’t know that she was this role,” Cahn says. “I was like, Kate is a little bit neurotic and kind of itchy, and Keri Russell is graceful and statuesque. But it turns out she’s that.”

With this being Russell’s first interview about the project, that link between performer and role effortlessly reveals itself. “Please let someone else wear the pretty dress and the makeup—it’s always more fun to be the normal person,” Russell tells me, describing what enticed her to take on The Diplomat—at which point I remind her that a key story line in the show’s pilot revolves around Kate’s new handlers trying to get her to wear, yes, a pretty dress that she does not want to wear. (“That’s true!” Russell says with a laugh.) The series’ fish-out-of-water concept finds Kate especially thrown off by the customs and manners of life inside centuries-old mansions. Russell describes filming inside them with a similar befuddlement: “It was a good time, but these fancy big houses where there’s a million people working in them and just opening doors—it makes me sweat just thinking about it,” she says. “All the people staring at you when you have to walk in!”

I couldn’t tell you whether the real-life parallels are quite as strong when it comes to the central marriage of The Diplomat, which gives the series its sharply comic edge. (Russell’s partner and coparent is actor and fellow Americans star Matthew Rhys.) But it’s damn entertaining either way. Where Kate is introverted and disciplined, her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), hogs attention by saying whatever is on his mind—oh, and he’s a diplomat too. Kate’s receiving a professional bump-up while he plays backup creates rich interpersonal tension. “He’s so fucking fun,” Russell says of Sewell’s character. Their banter reflects a cornerstone of Cahn’s vision, even as the pilot’s final twist promises it’s also undergirding one of the series’ bigger mysteries: “It’s my way in to connecting with what it means to be somebody in that kind of life,” Cahn says. “It’s much easier to connect as an audience with a circumstance—and it’s more fun, and it’s as real as can be.”

This is Cahn’s first show as creator and showrunner. She felt prepared by working with the best in the business, and yet realized quickly that running a series—especially one of this global scope, jetting from a royal palace to the Louvre (both literal sets here)—is not something you can fully prepare for. And those locations really are something. “We shot in this one place where you walk in the door and in the center of the lobby is a table that Josephine gave Napoleon as a gift, and we have 200 people walking by with large pieces of metal equipment, praying they don’t smash a light into the Napoleon table,” Cahn says.

All of this informed the direction of the show, which was “rigorously outlined” until the kismet of making television took over. Experience allowed Cahn to gauge everything from the production design to the performances—with Russell leading the way—and tinker with her narrative to enhance the biggest strengths, building what she hopes is a world that lasts for seasons to come. Russell, too, felt the project come together the deeper they got into their seven months of filming. “Whenever a show starts, I’m always like, Give it a few episodes! That’s what I felt with The Americans too—those first episodes, we were like, What is this?” she says. “Then you figure it out. So I hope people stick around for a few episodes because it gets better.”

Not exactly the words of someone who wants out of TV. When it came to shooting in Europe for close to a year, figuring out the family logistics was, for Russell, “crazy town.” Cahn recommended using a moving company; Russell told her, “I can’t do that—people touching my things!” Russell took a single week off over the entire production, during which she went to New York, moved homes, transitioned her kids out of their last week of school, celebrated one’s birthday, and then flew back. At one point, “we flew grandma in to stay for a while,” Russell adds. It was a lot, but “Matthew and I just worked it out in our weird circus life.”

Russell relays all this with the grin of an actor who’s energized, maybe reinvigorated, and certainly enjoying herself. You get that same feeling from her onscreen as a viewer watching The Diplomat. We can all be grateful, then, that she’s back in another juicy series role. “It’s a really fun world to live in,” Russell says. “I would love to do it again.”