Keri Russell on Playing a Workaholic in a Complicated Marriage (Again) for Political Thriller The Diplomat

She also welcomes your The Americans comparisons. Russell, her costars, and creator Debora Cahn talk about the new Netflix series.

by | April 20, 2023 | Comments

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What happens when The West Wing collides with The Americans? A smart, sexy political thriller starring Keri Russell.

Russell’s Kate Wyler is a by-the-books, jaw-clenching politico who just wants to save the world (or at least America) in Netflix’s The Diplomat. There’s one big problem: her husband.

Rufus Sewell’s much more charismatic and press-loving Washington insider Hal Wyler is on the outs with his career. So he negotiates a deal for his wife to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, a high-profile position that might lead to something bigger for Kate — even if she doesn’t want it.

The Diplomat. (L to R) Keri Russell as Kate Wyler, Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler in episode 101 of The Diplomat. Cr. Alex Bailey/Netflix © 2023

(Photo by Alex Bailey/Netflix)

It’s a significant character trait that Kate, who is more comfortable working behind the scenes, doesn’t immediately pack up and go home once she figures out the game her husband is playing.

“If you are a part of the State Department, you are there to serve,” Russell said. “They’re a parallel component to the military. No matter who is president, you are there to serve them and their politics. Like a soldier, she’s asked by the President of the United States [who essentially said] ‘I know you were gonna go do this really important thing. But I’m telling you, you’re gonna go do this now.'”

So now she’s stuck in a foreign country with a job she doesn’t like and married to a man she cannot trust.

“There’s a complicated dance with the marriage too,” Russell continued. “Hal, who she does trust and respect, tells her, ‘You can do this; go do this. This is what you should be doing.’ And it’s a step up. She’s been in the background. And, I think, maybe some little part of her is thinking, Yeah. I’ll try being the No. 1 for a second. And it doesn’t go so great.”

Keri Russell in The Diplomat s1 key art

(Photo by Netflix)

This can be seen as the natural continuum to Russell’s Emmy-nominated work on The Americans, FX’s Cold War–era espionage drama where she also played a workaholic in a complicated marriage who has a strong dedication to her country. The Diplomat even deals with the United States’ relationship with Russia and there’s a joke about hiding a body in a suitcase.

Russell, who since The Americans ended in 2018 has also appeared in films like the dark comedy Cocaine Bear, the horror thriller Antlers and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, said, “To me, these are the best-written shows. It just so happens that they both concern the political worlds and a complicated relationship within them.”

The Diplomat. Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in episode 103 of The Diplomat. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

(Photo by Netflix)

There are also parallels in The Diplomat creator Debora Cahn’s work. An alum of shows like NBC’s The West Wing, Showtime’s Homeland, and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, she understands how to humanize a story of a woman in power.

Kate isn’t well poised and curses plenty. She’s also a bit of klutz, falling down stairs and tripping over phone cords. In the first episode, she resents having to pose for a magazine profile in a designer gown when there’s an international crisis brewing.

“I think there’s the same kind of appetite for that with men in power. But with women, there’s just a little bit more of an elaborate production that goes into it,” Cahn said. “There’s a little bit more that’s expected in terms of how much you’re doing and changing and presenting, and a little bit more of an expectation that you should be all things at all time: You should be powerful and intelligent and charming and gorgeous and in control and yet delightfully vulnerable.”

The Diplomat. David Gyasi as Austin Dennison in episode 104 of The Diplomat. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

(Photo by Netflix)

So it could be surprising when Kate finds an ally in David Gyasi’s Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison, a poised politician who is always well dressed and uses his proper British accent to speak with directive and purpose.

“I was quite interested in Austin Dennison being a person of color in the role that he was in and the party that he was in,” Gyasi said. He added that the character is “aware of this life of privilege and establishment and how some of the decisions that are made here, effect that world” even if he didn’t come from it.

Race is not a major story point in The Diplomat, but it is implied. Gyasi mentioned that the first time audiences see Dennison is in a scene that was filmed at the UK’s Foreign Office. He’s standing near an actual mural on display there that depicts Africa as a naked boy carrying fruit on his head.

“People that are in these positions are walking past that every day,” he said. “Imagine you are walking past that going, ‘Guys, we need to take this down.’ Then you become a troublemaker.”

The Diplomat. (L to R) Keri Russell as Kate Wyler, Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler in episode 104 of The Diplomat. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

(Photo by Netflix)

But Cahn also has the background to tell stories that are both politically charged and maybe also a little sudsy.

“I’m really interested in people who fall in love doing what they do and share a passion for their work. And that turns into a passion for each other; that turns into something romantic and delicious,” Cahn said. “But a relationship over time gets a little bit more complicated when you end up sometimes collaborating with the person that you love and sometimes competing with them.”

She’s seen this happen in Hollywood. But she also said, in doing research for this project, she interviewed someone who basically said, “‘The bilateral this and the multilateral that and the financial implications and the military implications. And, also, everybody’s sleeping with each other.'”

The Diplomat. (L to R) Ali Ahn as Eidra Park, Ato Essandoh as Stuart Heyford in episode 107 of The Diplomat. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

(Photo by Netflix)

In contrast to Kate and Hal are two other characters just starting their relationship journey: Ato Essandoh’s Stuart Heyford, Kate’s deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, and Ali Ahn’s CIA bureau chief Eidra Graham.

“You’re always navigating what’s more important: the career or the personal,” Ahn said. “Both of these characters have never put a relationship ahead of their careers. So to finally be in something where you think you might have met an equal is unchartered territory for both of them.”

Essandoh continues this thought by more-or-less summing up the thesis of the show.

“It’s quite similar to the diplomatic relationships between countries,” he said. “How this country gets along with that country is dependent on do they like each other? Do they have the same goals? Do they have the same concept of living? Can they live together? Can they be married? Can they not? And they just be friends? Can it be just friends with benefits. That’s what we’re doing except it’s on a global scale.”

83% The Diplomat: Season 1 (2023) premieres April 20 on Netflix.

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