Keri Russell has made a career of playing the kinds of heroines who lodge themselves in the television-viewing public’s consciousness with single-name resonance: Felicity (from, you know, Felicity), Elizabeth (from The Americans), and now Kate from The Diplomat. On this new Netflix show, which premieres on April 20, Russell plays Kate Wyler, a civil servant who has conducted her diplomatic career largely offstage while her husband, Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell), a foreign policy wonk with front-of-house energy and Lawrence of Arabia hair, occupied center stage. They are moving into a new phase of their careers and their relationship: Kate is headed to Afghanistan, or so she thinks; the couple is not so amicably headed for divorce. Both those plans are upended, however, when Kate is told she will, confoundingly, be given the plum (but too soft, for her tastes) post of London; the divorce, too, is put tentatively on hold.
The role is a rich and juicy one for Russell, whose spine of steel—the backbone of so many episodes of The Americans is deployed here with more diplomatic grace. Kate is tough but also human, adept at internalizing a complex geopolitical issue, but also personally annoyed that she has to devote her time to figuring out the right attire to wear to the negotiating table. She’s extremely competent and also subsisting mainly on yogurt that she eats standing up. The show reads something like a cross between The West Wing and Homeland (its showrunner, Debora Cahn, worked on both), with fast-paced banter laced with D.C. jargon and the looming backdrop of current events foregrounding the interpersonal struggles.
I met Russell at a Manhattan hotel the week before the show aired to discuss this new role, her life in Brooklyn with her partner, Matthew Rhys, and what she read to bone up on the life of a career diplomat.
Vogue: Why did you want to make this show?
Keri Russell: I wasn’t out hunting for another show. I had a really satisfying experience with The Americans, and I have a full life at home. I have kids still in school, and so I tend to just find reasons to not do a show. But I guess it was Debora [Cahn], who wrote the show—her specific brand of acerbic political jargon mixed in with her humor and the fun, sparkly wit that she has.
Had you been a fan of Debora’s shows in the past? I watched the show and then I said “It has elements of The West Wing and Homeland.” And then I looked at her bio, and I was like, makes sense.
It’s no accident that she’s so good and experienced. I just, I love her humor and the specificity with which she writes about the minutiae of living.
You mentioned your kids. Were they old enough to watch The Americans? Is this a show they’re going to experience in real time with you?
Right now they’re six, 11, and 15, so I don’t think they care really about me. [Laughs.] And they certainly didn’t care about The Americans. I was like, “You know, I beat some dude up last night. It was really cool. You wanna see it?”
Diplomacy is less exciting than that.
Yeah—the hierarchy of introductions, like when you’re being introduced to a president—maybe not so interesting to them.
My husband works for the government, and I was pretty impressed by the level of accurate-seeming acronyms.
So much political jargon on this show! There was one day in the middle of the summer that I was like, please, let me get COVID. I can’t talk about Iranian sanctions anymore or any of this diplomatic speak. I just need two days to lay in my bed and not say those words.
Did you have to study up on it? It is a different language.
It’s a different language, and you have to sound proficient at it while you’re also doing something physical and acting mad with somebody. It’s bonkers. A definite challenge.
Did you have a similar experience on The Americans in terms of learning Cold War history and policy?
There’s always a learning curve. But that’s the fun of getting to be an actor. You get to delve into this world that you know nothing about usually, and just visit it for a while in this incredible way where you often get to meet experts in the field or someone who’s actually done the thing that you’re acting out.
Did you have a government liaison?
Debora spends a lot of time on the phone with advisors. And she has a lot of contacts from her past experiences. We also had a group of people in London who work at the U.S. Embassy in the U.K. And then I did a lot of reading.
Was there anything you read that stood out as particularly helpful?
I really love this book called The Ambassadors by Paul Richter. You can actually listen to it on tape, too. I did both because it’s important to hear all the different countries and cities and leaders’s names pronounced. It was just good to constantly have it running in my head. I read a lot about Samantha Power, people like that who were similarly in this world.
Were there specific figures that Debora talked about channeling for this role?
I think there were a few. You know, there’s two different types of ambassadors. There’s the ones that are gifted their post by giving an amazing donation to a presidential campaign, and that’s London, Rome, Paris. But then there’s this other set that are stationed in Beirut or the Middle East or places all over the world. And those people tend to be on the ground, setting up democracies or voting rights, speaking multiple languages. There are a few women who do that kind of stuff. And they’re really interesting; they’re like the wild cowboys of their field. They all approach it in a completely different ways.
The places that you filmed are really beautiful.
Winfield House, which is where the ambassador lives, is in the center of London, which is crazy. But we actually shot at a house outside of London that is very similar. It was completely idyllic. Debora has said before that she would often be on some crazy night shoot in Morocco for Homeland or something, at like four in the morning, watching these two actors, and asking herself: Why? I wrote this. I could write this anywhere. And that’s why she’s like, We’re going to London. It’s gonna be daytime. People are gonna wear nice clothes.
And the UK also has different working hours. I think as Americans we’re used to just working really intense hours. There, I think it’s limited to a 10-hour workday, which for film is very light. We’re used to working 17-hour days, five days a week. There, they they tell you when you’re gonna be finished. It’s amazing.
Did your kids go with you when you were filming?
They came the whole summer. Matthew [Rhys] is Welsh, so we got to go spend a lot of time with his family. They went up to his uncle’s farm in Wales.
The script is so up-to-the-minute in terms of current events. There’s dialogue about Ukraine, for example, that feels as though it could have been said last week or last month.
We wrapped in October, so it was all pretty fresh. There were a few times when we filmed a scene one way, and then I remember them changing it because they were like, Oh, this isn’t going to air for a few months. But for the most part, I think Deb’s just light on her feet. She has a pretty good handle on what’s going on and maybe even was a little ahead of things sometimes.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your co-star, Rufus Sewell. You two had such good chemistry. Did you know him before?
He’s wildly talented, so game, so up for it. You know, you never know—someone can be good and it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily gonna fit. And I think we just fit.
It seems so important to the show because as much as it’s about large-scale geopolitical diplomacy it’s also about marital diplomacy.
Absolutely. The thing I’m always drawn to is the personal element, and the backdrop is just the conceit to inform the relationships. To me this is a show about a couple, and about a woman trying to move from the background to a more front-facing position. And how that shifts the dynamic in a relationship where the other person in the relationship is used to being the star.
I love the parts where he says “I’m the wife now.” It seems almost sexist, but also flipped on its head at the same time.
Totally. He’s saying it so often that he’s almost trying to make it like he’s okay with it.
Your character, when she’s offered a photo shoot with British Vogue, is very clear that she does not want to do it. Do you identify with not wanting to be in the spotlight?
I find shoots very difficult. They’re hard, you know—to be a model is a specific skill. It is incredibly hard what they do. I find it embarrassing and a completely other set of skills that I do not possess.
You were onstage in the Broadway production of Burn This a few years ago. Do you want to do more theater?
My partner Matthew is like, you know, RADA-trained, the legit real deal. I’m not so much. We knew Adam [Driver] socially, so I was like, Oh, you know what, sure, I’ll do that. But I hate being in front of people. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. It was terrifying and awful and so hard and such a learning curve. I mean, Adam was great. The other actors were amazing. But I thought the play was hard, and I think, you know, I wasn’t so great in it. And it’s okay to say that. It was a huge learning experience, and humbling—massively humbling at times. I was really glad when it was done. I mean, I grew to love everyone who was in it, but I was also like: Please let this be over. I was happy to go back and hide out in my own little house for a little bit after that.
I have read about Matthew’s boat, which I have to ask you about.
He bought this boat late at night on eBay after probably a few too many glasses of wine. It was one of four boats left in the world that are the like the Hemingway fishing boat, these old wooden boats. Every boat has a name already, and it’s really bad luck, I guess, to change the name. This boat is named Rare Bit, and there’s this food dish called Welsh rarebit, and Matthew’s like: It’s meant to be. He had someone painstakingly restore it and now he charters it with this amazing captain, Captain Kelly. He keeps it in Brooklyn at the new marina. In the winter he keeps it in New Jersey. There’s, like, a whole vibe that goes down at the docks, you know? He’s just one of the tough guys hanging out at the docks.
Okay. So Matthew obviously spent a lot of time restoring a boat. Do you have time for any particular hobbies?
I would say my time is spent with girlfriends—that would be my hobby. You know, the fun part of this job and the hard part is that you travel a lot. When I’m home, I just love to be home and be with the kids and do mundane, like, school runs and and show up for birthday parties and see my girlfriends. I have a few really old friends who I’ve known since I was 15 years old, that were on The Mickey Mouse Club with me, and mom friends that I met when the kids were all really small.
Do you have a sense of what you’re gonna work on next?
Hopefully this will get picked up for season two! But as far as that, not yet.
Anything else you want to add?
It’s a really fun time in my life. I feel like the 40s are such a nice time. I’m in my late 40s now, but you feel like everything starts working finally. And I feel like there are times, dare I say it, that I’m actually having fun.