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Writer Debora Cahn on 'The Diplomat'


In the new Netflix series "The Diplomat," Keri Russell plays Kate Wyler, a career foreign service officer who reluctantly agrees to serve as the American ambassador to the United Kingdom after dozens of British sailors are killed in an attack on an aircraft carrier. It's a last-minute switch from the post she was already packing for and eagerly anticipating. Here she is learning of her new assignment from the president and his chief of staff.


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

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

MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As President William Rayburn) Billie.

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

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

MENSAH: (As Billie Appiah) The president is asking you to serve as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

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

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

FLORIDO: Once in London, the new ambassador has to avert an international crisis while maneuvering around her fellow diplomat husband, played by Rufus Sewell. "The Diplomat" is written and produced by Debora Cahn. She's known for her work on "The West Wing," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Homeland," and she's here now. Debora Cahn, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DEBORA CAHN: Thank you so much. It's good to be here.

FLORIDO: It's great to have you. You have worked on a lot of political dramas and shows exploring international crises. What made you say, OK, now I want to do a show about a diplomat working behind the scenes to keep Britain and the U.S. from starting a war?

CAHN: When I was working on "Homeland," we had the pleasure of having a lot of experts from different fields come in during our research phase, and one of them was an ambassador named Beth Jones, who came in - and she started talking, and two minutes into the conversation, it becomes clear that what she's done during the course of her career would not at all be out of place in an action movie. And it occurred to me that we have ambassadors in crisis zones all over the world doing things that we, for the most part, never hear about. If they're doing their job right, it never reaches our radar screen, but they are deeply involved in bringing wars to an end or stopping them before they start - high stakes, high intensity stuff that takes a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience and bravery.

FLORIDO: Part of the reason that Kate has been asked, in your show, to serve as the ambassador to the U.K. is because the president is sort of casting around for a new vice president, and this post serves as a testing ground. But Kate, who has always been a career diplomat and not a political appointee - she hates the limelight, and she makes that really clear in this scene where her aide and her husband are prepping her for a photo op.


RUFUS SEWELL: (As Hal Wyler) You need to lean into the Cinderella thing.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) I am not Cinderella. I'm here for 30 funerals. The only tea-length garment I packed is a burqa. I have a black suit and I have another black suit, and I'm not getting dressed by someone named Pippa so a women's magazine can ask who I'm wearing and what advice I have for little girls.

FLORIDO: Why did you want Kate to be someone who is not power-hungry and ego-driven, who shies away from attention?

CAHN: I've always been interested in the dynamic of who we choose as leaders, particularly national leadership, and the either crack or gulf between what we think we're looking for and what we actually want in the job. So I wanted to kind of take a closer look on what it means to try to close that gap - or do we really want to close it? Is it something that we can perhaps move on from our focus on which candidate drinks which beer in which situation and refocus ourselves on which one can really understand policy on a granular level and reduce, ultimately, a lot of complexity to a decision that has to get made in a timely fashion?

FLORIDO: A lot of the show centers on the relationship between Kate and her husband, Hal, who is also a career diplomat like her but has a very different style. He is charismatic. He likes to call the shots. He's a little bit of a glad-handler (ph). But in this new chapter for the couple in the U.K., he has got to take the back seat. I want to play a clip from the first episode, where the two are disagreeing on how Kate should handle a call with the British prime minister.


SEWELL: (As Hal Wyler) What are you going to say to him, the prime minister?

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) I am a listener on the call.

SEWELL: (As Hal Wyler) That is like the opposite of ass in the saddle, Kate.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) More than once I've told you, when you land in a new post, there is some wisdom in spending a week or a month with your mouth shut, listening.

SEWELL: (As Hal Wyler) Yeah, well, I never did it 'cause I thought it was a dumb idea. Rayburn is going to talk about NATO, but you're here to patch things up with the Brits. You've got to keep the focus tight.

RUSSELL: (As Kate Wyler) I'm not doing this the way you would.

SEWELL: (As Hal Wyler) Well, that's fine. Just don't do it wrong.

FLORIDO: I was wondering if, as you developed this relationship for the screen, if you spoke with a lot of real-life diplomatic couples who had gone through these kinds of experiences?

CAHN: I did. This was a dynamic that - it was a marital dynamic that I was interested in because I see it a lot in my own industry - people who meet on the job and fall in love sort of in the whirlwind of doing something that they love. And that kind of creates its own exponential reaction, which is extremely exciting and romantic and then creates a situation where, 10 years down the road, you're married to somebody who is sometimes your collaborator and sometimes your competitor.

FLORIDO: Well, they're dynamics that you explore so, so compellingly in your new show. Debora Cahn - she is the showrunner and creator of the new series "The Diplomat," which is streaming on Netflix now. Debora Cahn, thanks so much for joining us.

CAHN: Thank you, Adrian. It was a pleasure to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.