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After 'Felicity' and a stint as a spy, Keri Russell embraces her new 'Diplomat' role

Keri Russell plays a career foreign service officer in <em>The Diplomat.</em>
Keri Russell plays a career foreign service officer in The Diplomat.

Keri Russell's Hollywood career started at 15, when, on a whim, she attended a casting call in Colorado for The All New Mickey Mouse Club. After waiting in the audition line for hours, Russell read the script that was given to her and performed a dance routine. Then the executive asked her to sing — and Russell demurred.

"He said, 'Little girl, do you see the line of kids waiting out there? Do you want to sing?' And I said, 'I don't. I don't sing,' " Russell recalls.

Nevertheless, Russell got a call back. After proving that she could indeed carry a tune, she spent the next three years on The All New Mickey Mouse Club — an experience she likens to being in a small high school.

"I was one of 19 kids. The adults were invisible to me," Russell says. "It was a sweet, kind of innocent version of acting."

That was the beginning. She went on to play the title role in the drama Felicity, which aired from 1998 until 2002. More recently, Russell starred as a Soviet spy living undercover in the U.S. in the critically acclaimed series The Americans.

In the new Netflix political drama, The Diplomat, Russell plays Kate Wyler, a career foreign service officer who specializes in behind-the-scenes crisis management, who's forced out of her comfort zone when she becomes the U.S. ambassador in London.

"That's what this show is sort of about, you know, plucking her from the background as, like, No. 2 and bringing her to the front in a very visible post," Russell says.

Russell can relate to her character's discomfort: She was a nervous person to begin with, and fame made it worse. "People would always recognize you and then you always feel more watched," she says. But Russell has made her peace with it. "I go, 'Oh, that's part of me. You know, I get nervous and it's OK.' "

Interview highlights

On deciding to take a break from acting when Felicity wrapped in 2002

We were working really long hours. On network shows, you have about two months a year that you're not on that show. You're doing about 20 to 24 episodes. And, like, 16-hour days, 17-, 18-hour days sometimes. And I just felt like I missed part of being a kid a little bit.

I missed out on stupid things — birthday parties and going out dancing and getting drunk and walking home drunk in the snow. And I got to do all of those things those few years in New York. ... And that step back is the only way I'm still in this business.

So I took that money I had saved and I rented an apartment in New York to be close to my girlfriends. ... I didn't want to act. ... When you're shooting a show, you're working 'till 10:30 at night, and then you wake up at 5:00 and you're on set the next day. So I missed out on stupid things — birthday parties and going out dancing and getting drunk and walking home drunk in the snow.

And I got to do all of those things those few years in New York. ... Just wander around listening to overly emotional teenage music or, you know, reading books all day. And that step back is the only way I'm still in this business.

On going to awards shows — it's not as much fun as it looks

It's so fun to think about wearing a fancy dress. It is so fun. Everything is so pretty. Oh my gosh. And the colors, and getting your hair and makeup done and imagining that you'll look so much better than you really do when you do school drop off.

But the truth and the reality of getting your hair and makeup done is you still look sort of weird. You're instantly starting to sweat putting on a dress, going, "Oh, this doesn't look the way I thought it would. Oh, wow." Standing in front of hundreds of photographers while they take your picture and you're like, "Oh, my God, I'm doing the wrong face. I'm not standing right. They're going to see my sweat. Can they see through this dress? Can they see my nipples?"

On the marriage of fictional Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans

To me, it was just this impossible, painful marriage and trying to stick it out or not. And that's every marriage or any long-term relationship. They're so hard. I mean, there might be a couple people who [find] it's easy and great, but it's hard. And I thought that was truly what the show was so great at. ... Literally, for the job, [Philip] had to sleep with someone else or multiple people. You know what I mean? So you got to play out those real fears and feelings of long-term relationships in that way. And it was just such a smart idea to explore and unravel a relationship.

On acting opposite her real-life romantic partner, Matthew Rhys, on The Americans

We got to fall in love on this show, like doing these ridiculous spy things. And it was sexy and fun. But yes, it can be problematic, too. I remember Matthew directed a few episodes as well. And in one episode I was really pregnant and he was trying to get me to do something. I didn't even know what it was, but I had a huge monologue. ... And he came up to give me something, some note, and I was just like, "Stop. No, I'm doing what I can do. Just back away. Got it?"

On what appealed to her when she first read the script for The Diplomat

It has this combination of ... political fun intrigue and almost ... war journalism. ... [showrunner] Debora [Cahn], she writes about the minutia of life, so it's someone going to meet the president, but then realizing there's yogurt on my pants and you're like, "How am I gonna get this off?" It's just great writing. And I couldn't say no.

On how her character in The Diplomat feels more comfortable working behind the scenes

She's a very good organizer and she's very good at getting all the facts right and getting people where they need to be behind the scenes. And then I think if you ask her to wear something other than her one black suit that she really feels good in and smart in and tough in, and you ask her to wear a dress ... she doesn't like when people look at her.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Susan Nyakundi and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger