‘The Diplomat’ Star Keri Russell On Balancing Life, Love And Politics In The State Department: “I’m Really Enjoying Myself On This One”

Keri Russell broke out in the late ’90s as a young woman finding herself in New York City in her first awarding-winning role, Felicity. In the years since, her genre-spanning career led to her turn as a KGB spy on The Americans, which earned her three consecutive Emmy nominations. She’s now following that up with another political drama, The Diplomat, in which she plays the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, a woman who is trying to set the world right while dealing with her messy marriage situation. Russell discusses the mundane realities of the State Department and finding humanity in powerful people.

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DEADLINE: What led you to follow up The Americans with this?

KERI RUSSELL: A lot of things, I guess. I mean, one, it has been enough time. There was a nice break in between. I think I just hadn’t read something quite like what Debora Cahn had created. It’s just such a messy mix of smart political jargon and then that whole world that is really interesting of the State Department and the Foreign Service, but mixed in with Debora’s really specific brand of humor involving the minutiae of everyday life. This character that she created, it’s just fun and good. It’s as simple as that. For me, signing on to TV shows, I already have three kids, so it’s like, I’m busy enough. It’s like having three more kids to sign on to a television show because it’s such an uphill climb. You have to be up for the sprint of it and know that you can take some time off after. So, you have to really love it. I just thought it was fun.

DEADLINE: She is a very specific character, and although she is in this position of power, she has no interest in being an inspiration for other women. How much of her character was written on the page versus what you brought to her?

RUSSELL: A lot of her specificity was written on the page. That first episode that I read, the discomfort and the sweating, and the social awkwardness at times, that was definitely implied, if not explicitly written. I think one of the more complicated things about this show, and I guess one could say we’re still figuring it out, is really the tone because it could go so many different ways. But to me, where the tone was, starting about episode 3, I think it is really where it lives. It’s not for everybody, but I find it very enjoyable. I like that it’s someone who can be really smart and know their sh*t and then also be a total train wreck in their own relationship, and be mean and be a baby and be wrong and all those things people are. I don’t think one disqualifies the other.

DEADLINE: It also adds a bit of humanity to these people who are in huge positions of power.

RUSSELL: Completely. I don’t want to put words in Debora’s mouth, but I have heard her say it — this was her love letter to the State Department. Yes, these are incredibly powerful people managing governments throughout the world, but you can still have a sh*tty day or you can still be asked to make this monumental decision, but you haven’t eaten for 10 hours. So you’re cranky, and someone just needs to get you a granola bar, and things will look up. These people are so busy, like they just have so many people running their lives and their schedules on a daily basis. I personally hate that. I don’t like anyone around me. I just had my kid’s seventh birthday party, and I needed to go lay down after being around that. It’s stressful for some people, especially just being in such a public-facing position, where it matters, every single thing that you do and what you wear, especially for a woman. That stuff is hard. So it’s fun to get to play with that.

DEADLINE: Your work with Rufus Sewell is so specific. It feels like a roller coaster at times. How did the two of you nail that emotional turmoil in the onscreen relationship?

RUSSELL: There’s a great line that Rufus’ character Hal has, I think it’s the first episode, where Stewart’s questioning him like, “Are you getting divorced? The ambassador tells me that you’re getting divorced.” And then his response is, “Have you ever been married?” I think that’s the point. These people are insanely connected to each other and respect each other immensely and get each other going in every way. But they want to kill each other too, because it’s a lot of energy between them. It’s not always for the best. But how do we nail it? I don’t know. It’s really in the writing.

It either works or it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s something that you can work at. From day one, we were like, ‘Oh, this will be fine.’ He’s just a total pro and he’s good, and he’s there to work. He doesn’t bring extra bullsh*t to it. He is delighted in everything that I am delighted about the scripts. So, it’s just like a grown-up, great working relationship.

DEADLINE: I have to ask about that scene where you tackle him in the gardens. I was shocked,
but I also was so satisfied.

RUSSELL: It definitely, at that point in episode 3, takes a real screwball turn. Much to my delight. It is bonkers in the best way to me. I love watching this person who is so on top of it… I feel like Kate’s entire job is to be in control and manage everyone. Get everyone into the dinner on time. Her whole job mom-ing everybody. She’s like the mom to the world. And you know what? Moms are calm until they’re not. And he broke her. And then she had to break.

DEADLINE: To be fair, I think we’ve all had moments where we wish we could tackle someone.

RUSSELL: What’s amazing is Rufus as a person, he’s a very big guy. I am not a big person. We just looked at each other and said, “Are we just gonna do this? OK, let’s just do it.” I felt like he was the big brother letting the little brother just go for it so that the little brother didn’t hurt themselves. I was just going crazy. We were laughing our heads off. They did have stunt doubles, and I’m sure they would have done it, but we just didn’t want it to look slick or rehearsed or choreographed. We wanted it to be very uncool, like slapping and ridiculous and desperate and stupid.

DEADLINE: Your characters in both The Diplomat and The Americans are a lot rougher around the edges than Felicity, which is where you started and it’s a role that so many people associate you with. Was that an intentional trajectory?

RUSSELL: I don’t think I plot it like that at all. I think it’s just whatever writing catches me. I really believe there are way better actors in the world than me. I tend to sit back and wait it out until there’s something that I really feel like I want to do, and I need to know that there’s some part of that character that I really understand and can do. I don’t go, “Oh my gosh, I’d love to be in that movie. Just give me any part.” There’s no f*cking way I’d do that. I have to really innately know something about the character or feel like I can move around in it. Otherwise, I would be bad. I’m positive. So for me, it’s the writing. I think every once in a while something just catches me and this time it was [The Diplomat].

DEADLINE: The end of Season 1 is pretty insane. How did it feel leaving the audience in that place?

RUSSELL: Crazy. I was totally surprised too. But Debora is such a veteran. She’s been doing this forever. She’s such a pro. She knows what she’s doing. I’m assuming she had that plan for a while, but I was completely surprised.

DEADLINE: Since we know that The Diplomat has been renewed, what parts of that character are you excited to explore more in Season 2?

RUSSELL: To me, I just love all the simple stuff. I really love the human behavior stuff. That’s what I find the most interesting. A show needs the bigger sweeping plot point things, but that’s not what gets me going. To me, it’s a really good dramatic fight scene with Rufus or a really funny scene. There was some scene [in Season 1] where I walked off the plane and had to take Clorox wipes to wipe down myself because I was so hungover. I like that fun, weird stuff. I don’t know. I’m just getting to this really grateful point in my life and career where I haven’t always enjoyed being in this business. I didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. I fell into it, and so I haven’t always loved it. I’m really enjoying myself on this one.

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