‘The Diplomat’: Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell on Building Their Relationship Through Sweat and Panic

Some shows are action-packed. Others are laugh-a-minute. “The Diplomat” is talk, talk, talk — and then a little more chatter.

“The first reaction to reading that much dialogue and diplomatic speak was only panic,” Keri Russell said, recalling her initial impression of “The Diplomat” pilot. “How many acronyms can there possibly be in government language? […] How many times can we say the prime minister’s name wrong? […] It takes a second to memorize all the ‘fake’ names.”

“It was definitely worse for you,” Rufus Sewell said to his co-star. “You were the one who had to carry all that stuff.”

“Luckily, I have this incredible natural talent for sweating excessively,” Russell said. “So I could just sweat out the massive amount of memorization and panic I had in failing the memorization.”

“I was wondering how long until you brought that up,” Sewell said.

Free-flowing banter like this wouldn’t be out of place in “The Diplomat” itself: quick, easy, humorous, and honest. Those are the hallmarks of Kate (Russell) and Hal Wyler’s (Sewell) communication in the Netflix political drama. Sure, there’s an extra helping of intensity, too, but that comes with the job.

Released in April, the eight-episode first season follows Kate as she reluctantly accepts a new posting as the American ambassador to the United Kingdom. Her husband, Hal, has long been the star diplomat in the family, but his recent kerfuffle with a few key officials keeps him on the outside looking in — and the role reversal takes a little getting used to for both partners.

“These are smart, fast people who use humor to deal with the shit they have to go through,” Sewell said. “There was a lot of political speak, but at the same time it felt like actual people speaking. […] I did a show once where so much of the dialogue was expositional, that it literally got stuck in my throat. I had a physical reaction to it. I couldn’t get it out. But with this, everyone has a human reason to say what they’re saying, and also: They’ve got a fucking sense of humor about it.”

Heated exchanges over world affairs and even hotter discussions about their working and personal relationships have helped “The Diplomat” stand out in a crowded TV season. The freshman series was met with strong reviews, and viewership has been solid — the first season ranked No. 1 on Nielsen’s end-of-April streaming report, despite having the fewest episodes of any show in the Top 10.

Early adoption from audiences befits a show that Russell said came alive as they were making it.

“You’re trying to figure out your character and the world and everything on your feet, while you’re shooting it, which is devastating sometimes,” she said. “But the grace of it is that you get eight episodes to figure it out. […] This is a really intense, crazy, fun, disastrous relationship that’s hard to pin down.”

In addition to the meticulous scripts from creator and showrunner Debora Cahn, the actors got assists from real-life locations and one-on-one conversations with actual diplomats. Russell mentioned visiting The Winfield House, where America’s ambassador to England lives, and they both discussed charming conversations with unnamed state officials that helped them get into character.

Russell took note of the double lives each representative has to lead: their public-facing side, which must convey the message of a nation, and their private-side, which can’t help but be affected by their day job.

“You can’t tell me that someone like Obama doesn’t walk out of [a] room with his chief of staff and go, ‘That guy is a fucking dick’ — you know, in private,” she said. “[In public] he’s so graceful, he puts up with it, but then when he walks out, he [must be] like, ‘That guy can suck it.’”

After all that carefully considered political chatter at work, you just have to cut loose the second you’re behind closed doors — even when you’re the president.

Watch the full Awards Spotlight conversation between Keri Russell and Rufus Sewall in the video above.

“The Diplomat” Season 1 is available on Netflix, where it’s already been renewed for Season 2.

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