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Keri Russell on The Diplomat: “I have to really like something to pursue it”

Five years after The Americans ended, Keri Russell is finally back on TV with a worthy leading role in Netflix’s politically charged The Diplomat. The actor has always been a tour de force, from her heartrending turn in the 2007 film Waitress to escaping a coked-up creature in 2023’s big screen hit Cocaine Bear. But it’s on TV where Russell has really made her mark, starting with a breakout performance on the young adult drama of the ’90s, Felicity, (who can forget “The Felicity haircut?”), where she earned acclaim for essaying a character who learns to rise above society’s expectations.

Since then it’s become Russell’s forte to play a woman who delights in breaking norms. At first glance, for instance, The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings is a ruthless Russian spy. But Russell shepherds her into an all-timer by bringing gravitas and surprising warmth to the role. Now, Russell takes those skills to The Diplomat. Created by Debora Cahn, a producer and writer for The West Wing and Homeland, the series follows Russell’s Kate Wyler, a motivated U.S. ambassador who is unexpectedly stationed in London after an apparent terrorist attack. She’s tasked with curbing the potential for war between several countries while also navigating a complex marriage with her ego-driven political husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell).

The A.V. Club spoke to Russell about why she waited for a show like The Diplomat, being drawn to complex fictional relationships, and potentially working again with her real-life partner, Matthew Rhys.

The A.V. Club: Once The Americans ended, was it a conscious decision to wait a few years before taking on your next leading TV role? Or was it partly about waiting for the right script to come along?

Keri Russell: I think that’s just the way I work. I like long breaks. I have to really like something to pursue it. I’m a nervous person, so to get out there and do this stuff it takes a lot. I like a lot of input before I output, whether it’s moments when I’m home with the kids, reading books, buying groceries, riding my bikes, or having actual life experiences, so when I do something later, I hopefully do it well. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be as interested in it. I need breaks. It’s also the material. I wasn’t necessarily shopping to do a series, but I hadn’t read anything that I wanted to do as much until The Diplomat.

AVC: That’s a perfect segue to my next question about what stood out to you in The Diplomat as an actor and what you wanted to do at this stage.

KR: What stood out to me immediately was Debora’s writing. She has such a specific taste. She’s incredibly smart and acerbic, and her writing has this snappy, zany humor. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the fun of it, and I was looking for that. Yes, there’s a lot of physical stuff, and that crazy relationship between Kate and Hal, the competitiveness and insanity of it all. But it’s amidst this austere world of political intrigue. So yeah, I couldn’t put down the fun of it.

AVC: Kate is a fish out of water in London who has to prove herself all over again despite being skilled at her job. You toe the line between being confident and being on edge. Is that an emotion or experience you’ve had in real life?

KR: Absolutely. Playing someone like Kate is not such a stretch for me. Getting to be nervous and uncomfortable all the time? I said, “Great, I know how to do that for sure.” That nervousness of Kate is much closer to who I am as a person than the panther-like stealth quality of Elizabeth Jennings.

AVC: Another striking fact about Kate is she’s authentic about her fashion choices, like the black suits and messy hair. Those discussions come up often in season one. It brings a humanizing aspect to someone who holds an important job. Was that something you and Debora worked on?

KR: That was definitely Debora, and it was in the writing when I signed on. It was the thrill of introducing the world to this specific type of politics. Fashion is not exactly at the top of everyone’s list, but especially for a woman, there are two types of politics. [There are] the front-facing people who have to work on hair and makeup. And there are people behind the scenes, and Kate is one of them, but she’s married to a political star. He’s shiny and funny and easy with people. As good as Kate is at her job, that is not her forte. The dressing comes with that. She likes things very controlled and doesn’t think about clothes. They’re not essential or helping save people. Whereas Hal, when he gets to see the big house they’re going to live in now, he goes, “Oh, that’s amazing.” Kate’s reaction is more, “This is ridiculous. Why are we here, and why are butlers serving us?” It’s all part of her charm.

AVC: This is the highest praise, of course, but you have a resting “I don’t give a fuck” face…

KR: [Laughs and applauds] Well, thank you very much. That’s really very funny.

AVC: It’s true. You are usually able to emote extensively with your facial expressions, in The Americans and now with The Diplomat because Kate is often processing and reacting to tons of information. Is that a choice you make as an actor?

KR: That’s really an interesting observation. So with The Diplomat, I haven’t seen the entire season yet. I usually don’t watch myself. I watched till episode three. But what’s complicated about this show and its writing is, it’s dense. There’s so much political jargon, so I had to find what the scene is really about [while walking and talking]. It’s what I enjoyed most while watching the show too. It’s about finding [in my expressions] what the scene or dialogue really is about. Like in episode three, Kate and Hal are spinning with back-and-forth rapid fire and jargon, but what they’re really saying with their eyes is, “You drive me crazy. This is what I’m saying. Listen to me.” For me, it was about realizing the other political stuff has to happen, but I guess I still have to tell this person how I feel in every possible moment that I can.

AVC: Yeah, complicated husbands in a politically intense TV show have become a recurring theme. What’s appealing to you about these tumultuous on-screen relationships as a performer?

KR: It’s the nature of these relationships. They’re hard and complicated, and the minutia and nuances of any relationship are a part of real life, too. That’s where the gold is. Kate and Hal are fun because there’s constant electricity. They’re passionate, whether they’re hating or helping each other out. They’re real partners, even if they’re not the best-matched emotional partners, in my opinion. The idea is they met in this Middle Eastern high-stakes situation where everything moves quickly and you get intimate fast. They like each other’s minds; that’s the real attraction. Whether or not it works day in and day out is a different story. As much as Hal drives Kate crazy, she still thinks he’s brilliant at what he does when it matters.

AVC: We have to talk about a couple of your notable characters. It’s been 10 years since The Americans premiered and 25 since Felicity. Did you anticipate then that Elizabeth and Felicity were the roles that would follow you around for the rest of your life? How does that feel now?

KR: Oh my word. Wow. You never have any idea what will work. It’s complete luck. It can be the best writing, the most amazing director and cast, but it doesn’t matter. It is luck that some things stick, and some don’t. Felicity was such a sweet little something of a show. We had J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves. They were all so young; they were 30, and I was probably 20 or 21 when we made it. It was good writing.

For me, this type of TV we’re loving right now, these shorter episodes that are high level, it’s all about the writing if you think about it. A strong point-of-view in the writing attracts me, and that worked for Felicity, which was sentimental but funny at times. And then The Americans was all down to the writers. It was pitch-perfect. They knew how to end it in season one and were masterminds taking it from there. The Diplomat also has this quality that I need in any TV show I do. I need it to be muscular and smart. This is so snappy on top of it; it’s the icing on the cake.

AVC: You and Matthew did Extrapolations and Cocaine Bear together this year, but you didn’t share any screen space. What will it take to bring you’ll together after The Americans? Would you want to do something?

KR: Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s so good, right? He’s so fun to work with. I would love to. If The Diplomat gets a second season, maybe we can lure him our way. In fact, when we were filming last summer, I asked him, “Don’t you want Debora to write something for you? What would you do?” Matthew likes tough guys because I think, you know, he’s an actor and wears makeup for a living, so when I said, “What do you want to play?” He said some kind of army or military soldier. So you never know.