'The Diplomat': Keri Russell, Rufus Sewell bring 'extreme chaos' to political drama

Debora Cahn, writer/producer for The West Wing and Homeland, created her own thrilling series for Netflix

Writer and producer Debora Cahn was among the talents that brought us The West Wing and Homeland, and has now created a new smart and thrilling political drama, The Diplomat, starring Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell (now streaming on Netflix).

Russell plays Kate Wyler, a U.S. ambassador who has spent her career behind-the-scenes in war zones, until she gets a new assignment as the American ambassador to the United Kingdom, after an attack on a British warship. Kate was expecting to go to Afghanistan, continuing her career in crisis zones, so this high-profile job, based in London, is far from what she's used to.

Kate's husband Hal (Sewell) is a diplomat as well, but he's now thrust out of the spotlight, expected to really just be the face behind his wife, with her new schedule filled with ceremonies and photo opportunities.

What Kate doesn't know, initially, is that president Rayburn (Michael McKean) and his chief of staff Billie (Nana Mensah) have a more elaborate reason for her reassignment.

As more information is revealed about the explosion of the British warship, Kate, Billie, Kate's deputy chief of mission Stuart (Ato Essandoh), British foreign secretary Austin Dennison (David Gyasi), and Eidra (Ali Ahn), the chief of the CIA stationed in London, are the team really trying to facilitate the power plays, while British prime minister Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear) wants to retaliate against Iran, presumed by many to be behind the attack.

For Cahn, the idea for this series was sparked by her work on Homeland, where she met some ambassadors during the research process for that show.

"The first one who came in I just listened to her stories and I thought, this is mind blowing," Cahn told Yahoo Canada. "She seems like such a mild mannered, gentle person and yet has been in war zones with bullets flying, and trying to hold a teacup while the sky is falling, and dealing with incredibly dangerous, intense and important events."

"Nobody knows the story. I didn't. There's not a wealth of stories of ambassadors out there. I guess because when they're doing it right, it's invisible, and we're not supposed to know. So it just felt like a real opportunity."

(L to R) Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in episode 106 of The Diplomat. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)
(L to R) Rufus Sewell as Hal Wyler, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in episode 106 of The Diplomat. (Alex Bailey/Netflix)

Keri Russell, Rufus Sewell go to 'extreme chaos and lack of control'

Like any good political drama, The Diplomat is full of suspense and high-stakes thrills, but what's exceptionally compelling is the way Cahn blends this quite stuffy, painfully organized world with the chaos that is Kate's fish-out-of-water story, and the swiftly evolving relationship she has with her husband Hal.

"A lot of it is having learned about what Keri and Rufus can do and how much they can handle, and are excited about," Cahn explained. "They went for it."

"I think that extreme formality made me want the characters to go into extreme chaos and lack of control, and dirt and ugliness."

A prime example of that in the series is one moment where, when the couple are fighting, it escalates to the point where Kate hits Hal and they're physically fighting on the ground of this perfectly manicured estate lawn.

"This is truly Debora's invention, it's all there in the scripts and when I read that, I was laughing so hard," Russell said about that moment. "You never know exactly how it's going go, but we were both just so game."

"I love that it goes from the president coming, all these serious diplomatic talks and to having a full ground, like toddler fight, dress hiked up, dirt all over, it is so funny to me. I am just in this really grateful moment where it's really fun to be a part of something that's so good, and so fun to do."

"She was looking forward to it so much. Me less so, " Sewell added. "She got a flinty look in her eyes, the closer we got to it the more wild eyed she became."

For Sewell, he stressed that working on The Diplomat was really about trusting Cahn's taste and instinct as a "wonderful" showrunner.

"In the past, I've been on long-running shows where I spot what I think might be an oversight in the script, it sometimes happens if you have a lot of writers," he explained. "In this particular case, every oversight, which only happened probably once or twice, I thought I'd picked up, it was something I'd missed because I'm too dumb, rather than the other way around."

"[Debora Cahn] could pull me aside and gently explained that there was a level that I had missed, because the script, everything was there. There was not a hair out of place. There were no rewrites really necessary. You just got the thing. It was perfect, and each script was as good as, or better, than the one before, consistently. And that is a very, very pleasant position to be in."

(L to R) Nana Mensah as Billie Appiah, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler, Ali Ahn as Eidra Park in episode 103 of The Diplomat. (Netflix)
(L to R) Nana Mensah as Billie Appiah, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler, Ali Ahn as Eidra Park in episode 103 of The Diplomat. (Netflix)

'She doesn't have to prove herself to anybody'

In the writing on The Diplomat, the women in the series have a particular voice that's very smart and direct, including calling out misogynistic practices in this political landscape, while still showing each character's flaws.

"I feel like I wish I had more of Eidra in me," Ali Ahn said about her character. "As women, we're all constantly trying to prove we belong somewhere, but she's not. She doesn't have to prove herself to anybody."

"It's really cool to get to do that but also, the thing that's so great about Debora is she had these really, really smart women, but they are messy, and there are ways in which they messed up in their personal lives and in their relationships where they're not so sure-footed. I think that contrast is really great, to play women who are so ambitious and smart, and on the top of their game, but not perfect at all, and still figuring things out."

(L to R) David Gyasi as Austin Dennison, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in episode 108 of The Diplomat. (Netflix)
(L to R) David Gyasi as Austin Dennison, Keri Russell as Kate Wyler in episode 108 of The Diplomat. (Netflix)

For characters like British foreign secretary Austin Denison, played by David Gyasi, there is a complexity where he's working under a Tory government, but the party doesn't always align with the character's personal beliefs. It's satisfying and compelling to watch that internal struggle play out on screen

"One of the things Debora said to me was, actually the way it works, the Prime Minister's Office, the foreign secretary's office, and the home secretary's office are almost like on the same level," Gyasi explained. "So she was saying to me that it might be helpful for you, when you're in those scenes and in those rooms, to think, I'm the adult in this room."

"That's helpful for Denison's character, a person of colour in a room full of people that were not people of colour, on those levels and those meetings, to instil that, believe that, and own that. Then also own the fact that actually your opinion and where you come from, and the the perspective that you have is valid in this moment and in this room."

When it comes to what makes the political drama genre so appealing to people, Ato Essandoh believes that particularly at this point in time, it feels quite "topical."

"Because of what's been going on in the world, for especially the last 10 years, it's all politics all the time," Essandoh said. "It feels like we're doing something quite topical, even though it's make believe."

"I think that's one of the most compelling things and that's what keeps people watching, because you want to understand ... how these things come to pass. It's really, really difficult and intricate planning that goes into getting two guys, two warlords, to shake hands in the same room. ... Some things take decades and decades and decades of missteps and messiness to be able to come to that one moment that could change the world in a good way. I think that's what all of these people are always trying to go for, which is a great thing to aspire to as a person."