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

In "The Diplomat," Keri Russell stars as Kate Wyler, a career foreign service officer with an excellent reputation for handling international crises, often behind the scenes.


Other segments from the episode on April 17, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 17, 2023: Interview with Keri Russell; Review of There Will Be Fire



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On Thursday, Netflix will begin streaming a new political drama called "The Diplomat," starring Keri Russell and Rufus Sewell. The show's creator was a writer on "Homeland" and "The West Wing." Our producer Sam Briger spoke to Keri Russell about "The Diplomat" and her career. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: In "The Diplomat," Keri Russell stars as Kate Wyler, a career foreign service officer with an excellent reputation for handling international crises, often behind the scenes. Her husband Hal, played by Rufus Sewell, is also a diplomat and former ambassador whose heroic and sometimes rash behavior has been praised in certain halls of Washington and cursed in others. Kate is preparing to go to Afghanistan when an attack on a British aircraft off the coast of Iran derails those plans. The White House calls her into the Oval Office. Here's Russell as Kate Wyler speaking to the president, played by Michael McKean, and his chief of staff Billie, played by Nana Mensah.


NANA MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) We don't have anyone in London right now.

MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) A bad time not to have anyone in London.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) Right.

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) Twenty-five of their sailors get killed because Iran wants to send me a message.

KERI RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) We don't know it was Iran.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) Whoever it was, we need someone substantial to be the ambassador in London.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) He'll be great. He's a great choice.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) I'm sorry.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) Hal. And you didn't have to ask me. We've worked in different countries before.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) We're not talking about Hal. You're experienced. You'd signal we're taking this extremely seriously. You'd be at every funeral, every memorial.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) Sorry. I'm going to Kabul.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) We'll take care of that.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) They'll love Hal in London. He's good at all that.

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) It's not going to be Hal.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) Why not?

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) Because he called the secretary of state a war criminal. I promised I wouldn't send him anywhere ever again.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) I realize London has a ceremonial component to it, and you were ready to do more substantive work in Kabul.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) I'm hoping to save a shred of what we spent 2,400 American lives building. It feels substantive.

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) Billie.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) I'm just saying it's hard to imagine.

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) She can't imagine it.

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) The president is asking you to serve as ambassador to the United Kingdom. We have a plane waiting. We'd like you to get on it.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) It is an honor and a privilege.

MCKEAN: (As William Rayburn) That's more like it.

BRIGER: Keri Russell has played two iconic roles in television - as the lead on the show "Felicity" as a young college woman in New York, and Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet spy in the '80s living undercover in the United States in the critically acclaimed show "The Americans." She received three Emmy nominations for that role. She got her start on television as a teenager on "The All New Mickey Mouse Club" with a cast that also included Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Russell also starred in the 2007 movie "Waitress," has appeared in "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," "Mission: Impossible III" and "Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker." Her most recent movie is the comedy-horror film "Cocaine Bear." Keri Russell, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RUSSELL: Thank you so much. It's an honor to be here.

BRIGER: Well, it's great to have you here. I just wanted to ask you first how you were pitched the show "The Diplomat" and the character Kate Wyler.

RUSSELL: Debora Cahn, who wrote it, sent me the script. It came through the normal channels. It was actually - it was the holidays. It was Christmastime. And it just so happened that I had three sets of grandparents downstairs in my house...


RUSSELL: ...And I was cooking for them all. It was chaotic and fun and amazing. And, you know, I was clearly not shopping around for a new television show to join.

BRIGER: Right.

RUSSELL: I read this and I just - it has this combination of - or Debora's writing does, I suppose - of this political, fun intrigue and almost in the world of kind of war journalism and those kind of stories that interest me and this world of civil servants and the State Department and the people who do those jobs that, you know, we just don't know that much about. And Debora, she writes about the minutiae of life, you know? So it's someone going to meet the president, but then realizing there's yogurt on my pants. And you're like, I got to get this - like, how am I going to get this off, you know? And it's just great writing, and I couldn't say no.

BRIGER: So the show's creators called your character itchy. What does that mean to you?

RUSSELL: (Laughter) That's very funny. 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, it's going to show her sweat and she's itchy, and she doesn't like when people look at her. So that's really fun.

BRIGER: Yeah, she's much more comfortable behind the scenes, right?

RUSSELL: 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, which London would be for an ambassador.

BRIGER: So as you said earlier, the job of the American ambassador to the U.K. has a lot of ceremonial aspects to it. And, you know, you said that the job is often a reward to, like, a big political donor or bundler. And, like, Kate's supposed to attend all these parties and teas. She's supposed to wear dresses and do photoshoots. And she really bristles against that. Like, she just wants to do the diplomacy. And I was just wondering if that's something that you relate to as an actor. Like, do you enjoy movie openings and galas or would you just prefer to do the work?

RUSSELL: Going to an awards show is such a fun idea. Going is zero fun. 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, it - 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. Oh, they're going to see my sweat. Can they see through this dress? Can they see my nipples? Like, what - you know, it's all - that is never fun.

Like, all you want to do is do, like, five minutes of one of those things and then go, leave and get a burger and have a beer. But that's not what you get to do. It's, like, an eight-hour ordeal. So, yes, I fully - when I read that, I was like, oh, yeah, I know what that is. I mean, just - you're just in a tailspin of uncomfort (ph).

BRIGER: Right. Well, let's just take a short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Keri Russell. She's best known for the lead roles on the TV shows "The Americans" and "Felicity." Her new show, "The Diplomat," begins streaming Thursday on Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with the actor Keri Russell. She's starring in the new Netflix show "The Diplomat" as Kate Wyler, a career Foreign Service officer thrust into the role of the American ambassador to the U.K. The series begins Thursday.

Let's talk about your last TV show, "The Americans." The show ran for six seasons on FX. It ended in 2018. It was critically acclaimed. The show won two Peabodys. And you were highly praised for your performance. And you were nominated for three Emmys. So for people who don't know the show - I guess there are some people out there - the show takes place in the '80s during the Reagan administration. And you play Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet spy posing as an American. You're in a KGB-arranged marriage to another spy played by Matthew Rhys. And when the show starts, you've been living in the United States for 15 years. You have two American-born kids, which was initially just, like, part of your disguise. And you've thought of your relationship to your husband as more of a work relationship rather than a romantic one. Although, at this point, you're starting to have real feelings for him. So could you just tell us how this role came to you?

RUSSELL: You know, it's funny. John Landgraf, who runs FX, really advocated for me to do this part. And I kept - I read it. And I was like, why in the world would they want me to play this cold, calculating spy, Russian spy? Because literally, when I was reading it, I was thinking of, like - you know in "Rocky," like, when he has to fight the Russian fighter, and he has that amazing Russian wife. I think it's Brigitte Nielsen or something, right?

BRIGER: Yeah, it is.

RUSSELL: Am I making that up?

BRIGER: No, that's right.

RUSSELL: That's who I was picturing.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.

RUSSELL: I am frazzled and nervous and, like, girl-next-door. I was like, what? Why does he want me? But that was sort of the genius of him, is realizing that you need somebody who does look sort of ordinary and that people have this sort of whatever feeling for, so that I could be this crazy killer (laughter) and, you know, sneaky spy.

BRIGER: Well, I'd like to play a scene from the show. This is from Season 3. So your daughter, Paige, is a teenager at this point. And, well, I guess she was a teenager all along, but she's getting a little older. And your handlers, the KGB, want to recruit her for the cause. And Philip is strongly against this. Like, he wants Paige to have a normal American life. Your character, Elizabeth, is more resigned to the idea. And this is a real rift in the marriage at this point. But Paige has been suspicious of your behavior for a while. And in this scene, she confronts you both. And you decide to tell her the truth. And Paige here is played by Holly Taylor.


RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) Paige, your father and I - we...

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) We were born in a different country.

HOLLY TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) What? Where?

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) The Soviet Union.

RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) We came here before you were born.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) I don't understand.

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) We're here to help our people. Most of what you hear about the Soviet Union isn't true. Everything that we've told you about being activists, about wanting to make the world a better place...

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) So you're...

RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) We work for our country, getting information, information that they couldn't get in other ways.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) You're spies.

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) We serve our country. But we also serve the cause of peace around the world. We fight for people who can't fight for themselves.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) Stop.

RUSSELL: (As Elizabeth Jennings) Paige, we wanted to tell you this for such a long time.

TAYLOR: (As Paige Jennings) But you didn't.

RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) No. No, you're right. We didn't.

BRIGER: So that's a scene from "The Americans." Like, that's a real turning point in the show. And it's ironic, you know? You finally telling your daughter the truth about their lives, like, just lays bare all the dishonesty that they've been living with and, like, that they're...


BRIGER: The family is, like, based on a foundation of lies.

RUSSELL: It's - you know, Joe and Joel, the writers of the show, they at one point had spoken to, like, a psychologist about children and how this might affect them. And one of the things I thought was so interesting was they were saying, one of the things that traumatizes a child more than anything is a huge lie because you - they can't even trust their own memories, because they go back and they're like, but none of that was real because you weren't doing that. So I have all these memories that you were working at a travel agency or whatever we were doing and, you know, that's not even real anymore - and how damaging that is.

BRIGER: Well, it's interesting because, like, parents, like, whether they're Soviet spies or not, like...

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: They conceal things from your kids...

RUSSELL: Of course.

BRIGER: ...Like, all the time, like, for all sorts of reasons, like to maintain their innocence, like, to simplify things and just to keep the parents' lives private. And, you know, that even continues as the kids age. One of the things I found really fascinating with your relationship with Paige is that, like, even when Elizabeth reveals that she's a spy, like, she still can't tell Paige about all the stuff she does, like all the honey traps and the murders.

RUSSELL: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

BRIGER: Like, because she doesn't want Paige to think she's a monster.

RUSSELL: No. I know. It's so - it's such a great idea for a show because you have these people, these children, looking up to you. And they're judging you. And it's such an interesting - it's not just, you know, one spy telling the story in a movie. You're living with them. And you're living with their choices and feeling all these other little satellite parts of their lives. And that's what's so fun about this era of TV that - who knows? - maybe we're moving out of now.

BRIGER: Yeah. As you said, she's not a sympathetic character. She's, like, a cold-hearted killer. She's not a terribly warm mother. She's, like, literally an enemy of the country. And, you know, like, Matthew Rhys' character, Philip, is sort of easier to like. Like, he's thinking of defecting to the U.S. He's a little more of a conventional parent to the kids. But, you know, watching the show, like, the audience is definitely rooting for Elizabeth. Like, can you talk about how you humanized the role?

RUSSELL: The main thing is that Elizabeth was doing what she was supposed to do, and she wanted to do it well. Like, that is what she believed in. And from her perspective, you know, she's the better soldier.

BRIGER: Right.

RUSSELL: It was, in a way, Philip...

BRIGER: He's the slacker (laughter).

RUSSELL: That character - he was - yeah, he was the one putting them in danger with his side, you know, dalliances and kind of overemotion, you know, about everything that you - one could argue was putting the children in danger because they could have been caught. But how did I humanize her? I just believed what she believed, you know? And to do - she was doing what she was supposed to do, and she was doing it well.

BRIGER: Watching the show last week, I was just thinking about how much fun it must have been for an actor because there's so much acting in it. Like, first, you're acting as a Russian spy who's pretending to be an all-American mom. And then you have all these side missions where you're disguised as other characters. You're seducing people. You're killing people. Like, it just must have been really fun to go in and have all this stuff to work with.

RUSSELL: It was so fun. I mean, it's an actor's dream. First of all, there's this incredible cheat of - and I feel like since "The Americans," now there's a lot of things I feel like these days where people get all wigged up and do things. But...

BRIGER: Yeah. Yeah, you wear a lot of wigs. You probably wear, like, a hundred wigs during this - the show.

RUSSELL: (Laughter) So many wigs - and stupid mustaches and things. But, you know, it's this incredible shorthand cheat to feeling like someone else, getting to wear that wig or crazy makeup. You know, I did this job with Gary Oldman, and Gary said, you know, I've been watching it, and I call David Bowie, and we FaceTime afterwards, and we talk about the show. I was like, oh, my gosh. It's so crazy.


BRIGER: That'd be a good podcast.

RUSSELL: It's so cool. Totally. So anyway, he said, you know, that one episode where you're wearing this one wig - I think it was this - it was early on. I'm wearing some super-short, crazy wig, and they kind of gave me weird skin. And he said, you know, people don't understand that when you do that, it helps you so much. Like, you look like a completely different person. I said, I know. It's true. And it was really - it's such a fun cheat to seeing yourself as this other person.

BRIGER: I just was reminded of - did you ever see that Bugs Bunny cartoon where it's - I think it's Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.


BRIGER: And this wig van has a crash, and all the wigs float in the air, and then the wigs keep landing on their heads, and they change characters.

RUSSELL: (Laughter) No. But that's like exactly our show.

BRIGER: That's kind of like "The Americans," yeah.

RUSSELL: It was so stupid and so fun. You know, we'd be like midnight, and Matthew would come in to the trailer (laughter) with some crazy mustache, and we would just laugh our heads off. It was so fun.

BRIGER: So, you know, putting all the spy stuff aside, like, the show's really about, like, a marriage and a family and, like, about the trust between partners, like, how people change during a marriage and how that - like, either the relationship adapts or that it breaks apart.

RUSSELL: Absolutely. I mean, that to me was the show. I mean, yes, I know the political intrigue of it all and the historic aspect of it, but to me, it was just this impossible, painful marriage and trying to stick it out or not. And that's every marriage or any relationship, long-term relationship. It's - they're so hard. I mean, there might be a couple people who it's easy and great. But it's hard. And I thought that is - was truly what the show was so great at. You know, the conceit that we were working and living in this spy world allowed the story to - literally, for the job, he had to sleep with someone else or multiple people.

BRIGER: Right.

RUSSELL: You know what I mean?


RUSSELL: So you got to play out those real fears and feelings of long-term relationships in that way. And it was just - it was such a smart idea to explore and unravel a relationship.

GROSS: That's Keri Russell speaking with FRESH AIR's Sam Briger. Her new Netflix series "The Diplomat" starts streaming Thursday. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with actor Keri Russell. She stars in the new political drama "The Diplomat," which begins streaming this Thursday on Netflix. Russell plays Kate Wyler, a career diplomat tapped by the White House to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. The show's creator, Debora Cahn, was a writer on "Homeland" and "The West Wing." Keri Russell got her start on TV as a teen on "The All New Mickey Mouse Club." She became famous as the lead on the TV show "Felicity." She received three Emmy nominations for her role in the series "The Americans" as the Soviet spy in the '80s living in the U.S., pretending to be an American.

BRIGER: During the filming of "The Americans," you became, like, a real-life romantic partner with Matthew Rhys. And you have a child together. And I'm sure there's a lot of advantages of acting opposite someone who you're in a relationship with. Like, you probably have a lot of trust for each other. But, like, are there any disadvantages?

RUSSELL: A thousand.



RUSSELL: (Laughter) Let me put it this way. It's either amazingly helpful, or it's incredibly, impossibly unhelpful. You know, like anyone, there are certain days when something bad has happened, or you haven't been able to finish a fight where, you know, someone has really done something not cool. And you have to get it out, and then you have to go shoot this scene where you are just like, grr (ph), you know? Or, you know, we all have these different personas we have at work for whatever reason - for protection, for ease, for whatever. And your partner is watching you walk through every moment of your day. And it is - it's interesting. You know, luckily, we, for the most part, get along. And, you know, we got to fall in love on this show, like, doing these ridiculous spy things. And it was sexy and fun.

And - 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 don't even know what it was. But I had a huge monologue. I think I was just - poor Holly Taylor, just yelling at Holly Taylor, our sweet little teenager, just this massive monologue of vitriol towards her. And he came up to give me something, some note. And I was just like, stop. Stop. No, I'm doing what I can do. Just back away. And he's like, got it, got it - backing away.


BRIGER: There's a scene I want to ask you about. And I play it for people to listen to, but there's no dialogue in it. So this is in Season 3. And earlier in the season, you had a run in with the FBI in the street, and you beat them up and got away.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: But you sustain, like, a bad jaw injury. And you can't get treatment because the feds have put out like an APB on a woman matching your description. Like, if anyone looks like you, goes to a dentist or hospital, like, let them know. So at this point in the season, like, your tooth is - one of your teeth has become, like, really infected, and it's causing you a lot of pain. So in the scene, as I said, which is, like, mostly silent...


BRIGER: ...You get your husband, Philip, to pull the tooth out with a pair of pliers. You take a shot of whiskey, and then you lean back into your chair.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: And he just sticks the pliers into your mouth and starts pulling.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: Like, it's super-intense. It's super-gripping. The acting's terrific. So can you tell us about filming that scene?

RUSSELL: Totally. That scene - there's an incredible director, one of my most favorite, Thomas Schlamme - we call him Tommy Schlamme - of "West Wing" fame. And he's just such a master at story. And he kind of came in, and what he said to us was, this is - you know, this is a sex scene. This is, like, a love sex scene. And I'm going to play it super-tight on your faces. And it's all about trust and knowing every little wince or inch or movement and how much someone can take and how much they can't and, like, the push, pull of all of that. And that's why that scene is great - because of Tommy.

BRIGER: Well, and you guys (laughter) - I mean, let's give you credit. Like...

RUSSELL: (Laughter). But, you know, to get to have the open expanse and time to just play that silent like that for that long was such a gift.

BRIGER: So just technically, like, first of all, did you take a shot of whiskey, an actual shot of whiskey, before that scene or in that scene?

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: Like, were those were those real pliers he was sticking in your mouth?

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: And, like, what was he - was he grabbing on to something? Like...

RUSSELL: I didn't take a shot of whiskey, although I will be honest - there were quite a few random Tuesday mornings, like, 7 a.m. at some, you know, like, crazy Staten Island hotel room where you're like, hi; nice to meet you. Take off all your clothes. Do a sex scene.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.

RUSSELL: I definitely said to our sweet, little PA, I need a beer in my hand in, like, 30 seconds, or this is not going to happen.

BRIGER: Yes, I'm sure. Yeah.

RUSSELL: (Laughter) So I was like, nice to meet you. Oh, great. Great. So I'm just going to climb on top. Yeah, it's okay to put your hands there. I do remember the pliers. I remember them saying, we want them to look, like, not overly clean. Like, we want - that they did clean them. You know what I mean?


RUSSELL: But they got some kind of rough-and-tumble-looking ones. And then he must have been grabbing on to something in my mouth. I'm trying to remember.

BRIGER: Yeah because it looks like he's straining.


BRIGER: I mean, he might be just a really great actor, but it looks like he's...

RUSSELL: He is a really great actor.

BRIGER: ...Putting muscle into that.

RUSSELL: But yeah, and he was kind of like - he had - he was, like, using my shoulder for leverage or something. I mean, it was so crazy.

BRIGER: Well, let's take another short break here for a sec. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Keri Russell. She has a new show coming out on Netflix on Thursday. It's called "The Diplomat." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.



BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with actor Keri Russell. She has a new series coming out on Netflix on Thursday. It's called "The Diplomat."

So, Keri, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your childhood and how you got your start in acting when you were cast on "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club." And this was in the early '90s. I think you were on the show for three years. Is that right?

RUSSELL: Yes, that makes sense. Yeah, I think so. It was a long time ago, but yes.

BRIGER: Starting - yeah. Yeah, started when you were, like, 15. And the show's famous as the launching pad for a lot of talented young actors and musicians, including yourself, Ryan Gosling, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. So there was a big casting call in Colorado for this. It was a - was it a new show at the time? It hadn't - or...

RUSSELL: I think - no, no, no, it had been on.

BRIGER: It had been on, OK.

RUSSELL: Because I was - yeah, it had been on for a few years. Yeah.

BRIGER: OK. And so you decide to try out. And at this point, it doesn't sound like you've done a lot of acting. Did you know what you were getting into and, like, was one of your ambitions to be on television at that point in your life?

RUSSELL: I had no idea what I was getting into. I did not grow up wanting to be an actor at all. And I did show up with hundreds of kids and all my little dance pals. And, yeah, you wait in line for - I'm not kidding - hours at some stupid Denver convention center. And, you know, you get in, finally, and he says, hey; you know, what do you have prepared? Can you read this little script about a mermaid trying to recycle or something like that?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: And sure, yeah, I'll read the words. And then do a little dance 'cause that's what I had prepared - like, one of my solos. And then he was like, OK, well, what song do you want to sing? And I was like, oh, no, I don't sing. And he said, little girl, do you see the line of kids waiting out there? Do you want to sing a song? And I said, I don't. I don't sing. And they called me back, amazingly, anyway. And they had me sing some, like, little song. I think they had me sing "Happy Birthday." They want to make sure you can carry a tune, which I could probably - barely could, I'm sure.

BRIGER: Well, if people haven't seen the show, it was a variety show. And you did some singing, you did some dancing. And then there's, like, a lot of set pieces. Like, there was a soap opera called "Emerald Cove." And then there was like...

RUSSELL: It was amazing.

BRIGER: ...There was a spoof of soap operas called "As The Mall Turns." And so I wonder if you compare your upbringing to your kids' life. And if there was a casting for another "Mickey Mouse Club," like, would you let your kids audition? Like, you had a good time, but it was certainly a unique way to be a teenager.

RUSSELL: Listen. I had the best of all worlds. Normally, when a kid is acting, there's one child surrounded by adults and not to mention the crew, which is huge. A crew to make an hour show - I mean, it's hundreds of people. So it's this kid, you know, working really long hours and needing to be professional and are surrounded by these adults. "The Mickey Mouse Club" - you know, I was one of 19 kids. The adults were invisible to me. I didn't even notice them. You know, it was just being in a small high school. I was just worried about, like, you know, who I was going to make out with, probably - you know? - who I had a crush on. So it was a sweet, kind of innocent version of acting.

That being said, I just think putting any child in a professional setting like that is really tricky. And that's why so many people don't make it and have - you know, have complicated lives after. And as much as we did have fun - and we totally did - little kids - like, you're supposed to be able to mess up. You're supposed to, like, have a sick day or three or - you know, I don't regret anything and I'm so grateful for my life. But I would never let my kids do it because kids are supposed to be kids if they can, you know? And if you want to do it, you can do it later.

BRIGER: So, Keri, after your time at the new "Mickey Mouse Club," you decided to move to Hollywood and try to make it as an actor. You were on a few shows that didn't quite succeed. Like, there was an Aaron Spelling show. You were in a Bon Jovi video.

RUSSELL: Amazing.

BRIGER: I didn't quite follow the narrative of that video, but it seems like you're pretty bad news...

RUSSELL: I don't get why (laughter).

BRIGER: ...In it. And then you tried out for the show "Felicity," which was your - you know, your really big break. And "Felicity" is about a girl who graduates from high school in California. She's planning to go to Stanford and - to pursue a medical degree. But she changes her plans because this boy, Ben Covington, who she's had a crush on but never really talked to, writes, like, a compelling note in her yearbook. And so she decides to bail on all her plans and follow him to New York. And he's going to the University of New York, which, I have to say, I always thought it was weird. Like, they can name Stanford Stanford, but it's - you can't have NYU.

RUSSELL: I know.

BRIGER: Like, that's kind of weird, but that's besides the point. Well, let's hear a scene from "Felicity." This is from the first episode, where the very earnest and honest Felicity confronts her crush, Ben Covington, played by Scott Speedman, in a college stairway and reveals to him why she's in New York.


RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) I just want to preface this by saying that I don't want you to feel weird about anything I'm about to say at all.

SCOTT SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) OK.

RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) The thing is I came to New York mostly because of you. Yeah, I had these sort of intense feelings for you back in high school and - even though I know that we never really talked before graduation except that one time when I was passing out flyers for the blood drive. Anyway, maybe the fact that we never did talk was why I had those feelings because now, of course, I realize now that it was a crazy thing to do to follow someone I don't know, 3,000 miles. And I sort of panicked about it. But I just wanted you to know that I'm past that, and I'm totally OK with it now. I mean it - you know? - because it's not really about you so much anymore. I'm here now, you know, because I'm here. So what are you thinking?

SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) I'm honestly - honestly, I'm just - I'm flattered by the whole thing. I'm flattered. I am.

RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) Good. Good. That's really a perfect answer.

SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) OK.

RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) OK. So can we just be friends?

SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) Yeah, sure.

RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) Great.

SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) Of course. Yeah.

RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) OK.

BRIGER: (Laughter) That's a really hard scene to listen to.

RUSSELL: (Laughter) Oh, my God. Oh, it's - I haven't heard that in a million years. That is hilarious. Oh, my gosh.

BRIGER: But, you know, you're really good in that, though. Like, you're taking all these awkward pauses.

RUSSELL: (Laughter).

BRIGER: And it sounds really natural. But I have to say that she finds out, I think in that episode or the next episode, that he - on his college essay, he totally made up that his older brother died and that it was his dream all along to go to this school. And I have to say, Felicity should have totally left him at that point. Like, that...

RUSSELL: Completely.

BRIGER: That's a bad sign.

RUSSELL: Bad sign. But then I remember, at the end of the pilot, they're standing on a rooftop. And they're kind of like, oh, well, you know, this was our first few months. And, you know, we're going to agree that - to put the past behind us. And she's maybe going to go back because it was crazy for her to come to New York. And he says, yeah, I just - I can't wait to see what the city looks like when it snows. And it's just like, he just - it's such, like, a romantic way of looking at the world and that time in your life when everything is new and in front of you. Oh, my God. It's so...

BRIGER: And so important, yeah.

RUSSELL: It's so sweet. It's such a sweet little something.

BRIGER: So when "Felicity" ended, you decided to take a break from acting. Can you talk about that decision?

RUSSELL: So "Felicity" was four years. And it was this big chunk of my 20s - you know, so grateful for it, saved a lot of money because, you know, we were working really long hours. On network shows, you know, you have about two months a year that you're not on that show. It takes - because you're doing about 22 to 24 episodes, and so, you know - what? - like, 16-hour days, 17- to 18-hour days sometimes. And I just felt like I had missed part of being a kid a little bit. So I took that money I had saved and I rented an apartment in New York to be close to my girlfriends, Ilana and Lindsey. And I acted like a kid.

Like, I didn't want to act. I wanted to show up to birthday parties that I wasn't able ever to because, you know, when you're shooting a show, you're working until 10:30 at night. And then you wake up at 5, and you're on set the next day. So I missed out on, like, you know, 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, you know, just wander around listening to overly emotional teenage music or, you know...



RUSSELL: ...Reading books all day. And it really - that step back is the only way I'm still in this business because I think I had to, like, know I wanted to do it again before it consumed me.

BRIGER: So I was wondering how much of that decision to take a break was in reaction to, like, just the intense identification some people had with your character, Felicity? Like, just the intensity of that, like, that must have been hard as a young woman.

RUSSELL: Yeah. You know, I'm kind of a nervous person anyway. And then the fame aspect just kind of made it worse, because going out places, if - people would always recognize you. And then you always feel more watched. And I - it just kind of made it worse. I actually - (laughter) I got so nervous, I started, like, excessively sweating under my arms. I actually went to a hypnotist to try to get, like, it to stop. And I've learned to sort of - I've made peace with it now. And I go, oh, that's part of me, you know? I get nervous, and it's OK. And even that acceptance kind of dissipates it a little bit sometimes.

BRIGER: Well, Keri Russell, it's been such a pleasure talking with you today. Thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR.

RUSSELL: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Keri Russell spoke with FRESH AIR's Sam Briger. Her new show, "The Diplomat," starts streaming Thursday on Netflix. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new nonfiction book about the IRA's attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This is FRESH AIR.


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