A marriage of unequal equals is at the core of Netflix’s hit series “The Diplomat,” in which whip-smart Middle East specialist Kate Wyler (Keri Russell) is thrust into a high-profile ambassadorship in the United Kingdom with her legendary diplomat husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), in tow. “What does it mean to be second on the totem pole for so long, then become number one?” says showrunner Debora Cahn of her show’s central premise. “How do your priorities change, and your image of the work?”
For Russell, coming off an all-timer of a show about marriage and work so tensely knit together (“The Americans”), the appeal was evident: When the stakes are international-incident level, messiness in humans is especially fun to play. “Kate is really harsh to people, and she’s in this complicated relationship,” she says. “It’s likable when people have flaws, and they don’t have their life figured out.”
What inspired this show, Debora? And you to get involved, Keri?
Debora Cahn: When I worked on “Homeland,” we had expert after expert come in. This woman named Beth Jones, she was an ambassador, and had been assistant secretary of State, and she looked a bit like a librarian, or more exactly, my Aunt Ruthie. Then she starts talking about what she does in a typical day, and it’s like an action movie. I got excited about her stories.
Keri Russell: Deb has said it’s her love letter to the State Department and diplomats everywhere.
Cahn: Once there was a script, the dream was Keri Russell. Like, “Who’s a pale imitation of Keri Russell?” Somebody was like, “Why don’t we call her?” And she said yes!
Russell: I loved Debora’s writing, the discomfort on top of being smart and bossy. [Kate’s] not polished. I like how unapologetically herself she is as a character. No one likes the perfect person. They’re not fun to watch.
Keri, was it fun to switch from geopolitical power talk to sparring with Rufus?
Russell: There’s a lot of foreign policy jargon that is difficult to memorize, pages of fast-flying dialogue, but the screwballness of it is the most fun. The other stuff is so solid that you’re allowed these minimal moments of wackiness. I like the weird, absurd minutiae of it all.
Cahn: There’s a slapsticky thing that is my expression of the absurdity of what I think all worlds are like. This show is sort of positioned right in the center of all that emotion, tragedy and comedy. The dream is always that you get people who can do it in the same moment, and Keri and Rufus can do that. They both have the ability to live on the head of that pin.
Russell: I’ve already had so many girlfriends of mine text me about a certain tussle in the bushes, like “I bet you did like that.”
Ah yes, the Episode 3 scene when Hal admits to some emotional underhandedness, and Kate decides to fight him, very awkwardly.
Russell: [Rufus and I] were both like, it should feel really stupid and messy, like embarrassing fighting. I just attacked him, and he was like, dealing with a 10-year-old nephew or something. And he’s a big guy. He’s so good, so smart, his mind moves a mile a minute. He’s a safe pair of hands to play with.
Cahn: The wackier it is, the more people are like, “Oh, it’s a real relationship.”
Russell: They have this real electricity and meeting of the minds that no one else has with Kate, and no one puts up with Kate like Hal does. Also, as crazy as he is all throughout the first season, I feel he’s a fierce protector of her. He would humiliate himself for her.
And Kate gets to turn around and be the adult in the room dealing with petulant world leaders, like Rory Kinnear’s British PM.
Russell: You have to be the best version of a mom, who’s able to deal with multiple tantrums at once, and no one cares about you. You’re invisible. You haven’t eaten. They still don’t care. They just want their stuff. I have a 6-year-old. I get it.
Which also allows the show to feel like a piece of door-slamming, entrance-and-exit theater.
Cahn: I love what I think of as a big house story, like all the Chekhov plays, and even “The Big Chill.” And we got some good big houses. It’s not accidental that [scenes] are in drawing rooms that have a lot of doors. I mean, it’s all stolen from French farce.
With your swearing, Keri, as this fantastic top note.
Russell: Was it at the read-through, Debora, that we were peeing together in the bathroom, and you said something like, “You say ‘f—face’ really well”?
Cahn: Yes! It’s really a delight. Each [profanity] you say is its own snowflake.
Russell: You know President Obama was walking into those rooms afterward going, “That guy’s a dick.” Because the whole thing is about your face value, what you’re presenting. It’s so high-stress and things move so quickly.
Cahn: For people who say, “Why does she curse so much, and boy, she spills a lot on her clothes,” I’m like, isn’t that normal? I’m actually worried now that my experience of the world, maybe it’s just me. And I need to clean up my language.
Russell: I love it.
Cahn: A lot of the stuff that seems the most far-fetched is 100% real. Like the guy dying in [the British foreign secretary’s] office? That happened to Susan Rice, and they had to sneak him out of the building, because he can’t have died there. And still, people from his country are convinced she poisoned him.