On a recent Thursday afternoon, the actress Keri Russell paused in a corner of Brooklyn Bridge Park to admire a starling.
It was technically spring, though the weather had other ideas, and Russell, in subdued plumage, braved the wind in chunky boots and a black puffer jacket. Her hair was tousled. Liner ringed each eye, possibly a souvenir from the previous night’s too many margaritas with friends. She didn’t look much like a woman who devoted years of her life to undermining the American democratic project. Or like a woman now charged with safeguarding it.
But Russell has been both of those women (and a lot of other women besides). At this point in her career, she is probably best known for her six seasons on the FX drama “The Americans” as Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet sleeper agent with an ambitious collection of ruses and wigs who earned Russell three Emmy nominations. Now Russell has taken on an opposing role: In the “The Diplomat,” a Netflix series debuting on Thursday, she stars as Kate Wyler, a savvy U.S. civil servant tasked with upholding America’s reputation abroad.
A veteran ambassador, Kate is about to take a post in Kabul when an international incident shunts her and her husband, Hal (Rufus Sewell), to London. An English manor house is not a war zone, but Kate behaves otherwise. Armored in punishing heels and sleek sheath dresses, she treats even polite conversation as battlefield maneuvers. But in a departure from “The Americans,” Kate’s work is almost entirely aboveboard. She wears no wigs.
Golden Globe winner Keri Russell talks about her new Netflix series “The Diplomat” which takes viewers into the high-stakes world of international diplomacy. Russell also discusses “Cocaine Bear,” her daughter’s reaction to “Felicity” and reveals her favorite of the many disguises Matthew Rhys wore in “The Americans.”
This year marks the tenth anniversary of The Americans premiering, so the Paley Center did a panel discussion for the show.
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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!”
Netflix has set a spring premiere date for The Diplomat, a political thriller drama series starring Keri Russell. The eight-episode, one-hour series will launch April 20 on the streamer.
Created by Debora Cahn (Homeland, The West Wing), The Diplomat is a high-stakes, contemporary political drama about the transcendence and torture of long-term relationships between countries and people. It centers on Kate Wyler (Russell), the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. She was supposed to go to Afghanistan. She’s great in a crisis zone. In a historic home … less so. War is brewing on one continent and boiling over on another. Kate will have to defuse international crises, forge strategic alliances in London and adjust to her new place in the spotlight — all while trying to survive her marriage to fellow career diplomat and political star Hal Wyler (Rufus Sewell).
David Gyasi, Ali Ahn, Rory Kinnear and Ato Essandoh also star.
Cahn serves as executive producer and showrunner under her overall deal with Netflix. Russell also will executive produce the series alongside Cahn and Janice Williams (Pieces of Her, The Magicians). Simon Cellan Jones directs and executive produces the first two episodes, and Debora Cahn and Janice Williams also serves as EPs. The series films in the UK and Paris.
Cocaine Bear, inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine, and the black bear that ate it, is a wild dark comedy that finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest, where a 500- pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood.
Ahead of the film charging into cinemas from February 23rd, Universal Pictures invited Peter Gray to speak with one of the film’s ensemble cast members, Keri Russell, to discuss the “big swing” of joining such a project, how being a mother has affected her film choices, and the darkness of a pandemic informed her to say yes.
Hey, how are you doing?
I’m very well, it’s lovely to talk to the babysitter from Honey, I Blew Up the Kid!