‘The Diplomat’s Ato Essandoh on Working Alongside Keri Russell & Season 2

Apr 26, 2023

From creator Debora Cahn (Homeland, The West Wing), the Netflix original series The Diplomat follows Kate Wyler (Keri Russell), the new US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, who’d rather be diffusing an international crisis than forging long-term relationships, but bigger powers have bigger plans for her. On top of that, as if being in a job she doesn’t want and isn’t particularly suited for isn’t enough, her marriage is unraveling at a time when she needs personal and professional alliances that she can trust.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Ato Essandoh (who plays Stuart Hayford, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, or the right-hand man to Kate Wyler) talked about telling a masterful story with no false notes, the absurdity of politics, how similar his character’s duties are to that of a showrunner for a TV series, how lucky he feels to work alongside Russell, getting to explore his own romantic relationship, and his hope for another season so that he can learn what comes next.
Collider: I’m obsessed with this show, I’m obsessed with these characters, and I’m obsessed with this couple. I love every little messy thing about these people and this world. When this project came your way, what was it that reeled you in? Was it a world that you were fascinated with, or was it just the fun messiness of all these people?

ATO ESSANDOH: I hadn’t seen writing that good in a long time. It was a script that I got on my computer, and I hate reading scripts on my computer, but this was a script that I could not look away from. It was a great page-turner. And even though the concepts were very complicated, it was so compelling that I couldn’t wait to see what happened in the next episode. I hadn’t gotten the part yet. I was hoping that I would get the part, so that I could see what happened next. What’s nice about Debora Cahn’s writing, our showrunner, is that there are no false moments. There are no weak moments. There are no weak characters. There is no character that an actor wouldn’t wanna play, given the opportunity. That makes it easy to say yes. I was like, “Is Debora gonna let me do this?” And then, you show up on set and it’s just fun. Everybody in the show is so good, so masterfully cast, and so masterfully executed that, if I wasn’t in the show, it’s a show that I would watch and binge and hope for another season of because it’s brilliant.

Image via Netflix

Politics is so crazy that, the more absurd it gets, the more it tends to feel real. What was it like to figure the political side of this out and to find that tone, so that the serious stuff stays serious, but it still gives the audience an ability to laugh at all the other craziness that’s happening?

ESSANDOH: The last president gave us a lot of that comedy. Things were happening, at least in my book, that were so ridiculous that it couldn’t be real. And then, we’re seeing that spill out on television. One example, if you remember, it was the first impeachment of the former guy, where it was about the phone call he made to Volodymyr Zelenskyy and what he did with the call, trying to work the president of a foreign country to get dirt on his enemy, domestically, and he said, “I’m gonna withhold arms from you.” When you hear the phone call and how he called it a perfect call, it’s hilarious and ridiculous. We see the ramifications of that phone call because Ukraine is at war with Russia right now and they are looking for us, in the world, to give them arms and back them up. It’s also ridiculous that we’re in this situation because of the machinations of bad actors. Now that I’ve done this show, I see how the character that I play would have reacted to that phone call, if he was on the phone call. We’ve watched Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman comment about being on that call. We’ve watched how the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, reacted to that call. I can’t imagine all the people that had to be warned, and all the back channels that had to be called, and all the things that had to be rearranged, because of one 20-minute call that led to potentially World War III. And so, if you’re in a job like that, you have to have gallows humor. There has to be a moment where you just sit down and laugh at the absurdity. There’s a great scene in The Diplomat that does that, where the Kate character and the Austin Dennison character get into a situation where, when they get out of it, they have to have a drink and she starts laughing at this really macabre thing that just happened. You realize, “Oh, that’s one of the ways these people get through these things. That’s the valve that they have to release it. This is really funny, but it’s really not.”

Either you laugh or you just never stop crying.

ESSANDOH: Exactly. And laughing is more fun.

When you learned what this guy’s title was, as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London, how did you wrap your head around what that meant, what his job was, and how that would affect who he is? His job actually reminds me of what the job of a showrunner must be, where you have to know a little bit about everything, you have to anticipate everything, and you have to know how to put out every fire, and yet how do you ever prepare for all of that?

ESSANDOH: Yeah, that’s a brilliant analogy, that it’s like a showrunner, because it is. I didn’t understand what it was. I couldn’t even say it, Deputy Chief of Mission, with any confidence because it sounded ridiculous. But Debora Cahn said, in a way, he’s the real ambassador. He is the one who is running, in this case, an office of about 700 or 800 people. He’s got not only know a little bit about everything, but he’s also gotta manage all of those relationships, which is what a showrunner has to do. A showrunner has to manage relationships and they have to manage actors, and actors are absolute nightmares sometimes, and I say that being one of them. At the end of the day, she’s gotta get a show done, so you do have to have the ability to use your power in different ways. That’s something that Debora is good at, and we see that in the show. What I love about Stuart, and what I love about the diplomatic way of doing things, is what’s called soft power. The little details of human relationships are the way of making successful partnerships and making successful alliances. It’s about, what’s his favorite color? What kind of food does he like to eat? Where does she like to go for a drink? How can we maneuver and manage these relationships, to explode them out to entire nations? That’s a daunting task, when you think about it.

Image via Netflix

He also has to know how to handle this woman that he has to convince to wear clothes she doesn’t want to put on.

ESSANDOH: Who’s clearly capable, but the political side that she would need to be comfortable with, is the only thing that she seems to be missing. But she can turn it on, and when she does, you’re like, “She’s the full package.” Here may be what I call the unicorn. Here is somebody who can potentially be incredibly powerful, but not use her power for her own personal gain or her own aggrandizement, and instead for the good of the world. That’s what drives Stuart through the entire show, and hopefully another couple of seasons.

We see what it’s like for him to be the right-hand man to Kate, but what’s it like for you to be the right-hand man to Keri Russell? What was it like to figure out the dynamic between you guys, as actors?

ESSANDOH: She’s easy. I’ve done a bunch of shows in my life. I’ve been lucky to work with really great, talented people. I’ve known that when you are the marquee of the show, the show can live and die on how good of a person you are. And Keri is everything you hope she would be, and then some. She’s also really funny, down-to-earth, and goofy, so it makes it easy to come to work because you can’t wait to come to work with Keri, and everybody else in the cast. She sets the tone in a way that Debora does, as well, and that makes everything easy. Especially since this show is quite intense and dialogue-heavy, you don’t wanna be with somebody who is not supporting you, in getting through the scene, and vice versa. It’s a really giving cast and group of people, and it’s lovely to work on a show like this. I’m lucky.

Image via Netflix

This is a show that also has enough room to breathe and is able to explore what a relationship is like for your character, and how that can be when your relationship is part of the workplace environment. What was it like to find that dynamic and to see how they’re shaped by their daily surroundings?

ESSANDOH: It’s really fun. Where do you meet your potential lovers or interests? It’s usually where you are most, which for us, is at work. There’s a way to navigate that stuff. There’s all this political mishigas that comes around it, and also the cultural norms. What’s fun for any actor is having a bunch of obstacles that you have to navigate around. I’m lucky that the love interest that I get in this show is played by Ali Ahn, and we get along like gangbusters. It was an instantaneous respect and like for each other. And so, it’s fun to go back and forth with her because she’s a great dance partner. She’s fantastic. It’s nice being a fan of the people that you work for and work with, and Ali makes it quite easy because you never know what she’s gonna come up with, and then you have to deal with it, and then vice versa. It’s a real good tandem team. You want the heart of the show to be the relationships. If the relationships don’t exist, it just becomes a procedural. And you can watch a procedural while you’re washing the dishes, or whatever. But his is a show that you have to pay attention to, not only because of the high-level diplomacy that we’re talking about, but the relationships are so rich and fertile that you just wanna see these people all succeed, which is the brilliant part behind this show.

Do you see your character as a guy that has bigger ambitions?

ESSANDOH: Yeah, I do. I think that he is an idealist. I think that he’s a true believer. I think he thinks that he can find that person that can make the world a better place. Maybe there’s a little naïveté in that, but I think that’s what gets him up in the morning, every day, that he might find that person. And for Stuart, I think that might be Kate.

Image via Netflix

At the end of the season, we get a couple of big back-to-back reveals, but then we’re left with all these questions. Are you game to learn what those answers are? Are you hoping to do more?

ESSANDOH: It’s funny being an actor in the show, having filmed a season and watching the show and knowing what’s gonna happen, but I can’t wait to see what’s gonna happen. The mind of Debora Cahn is so brilliant that I can’t wait. If we get another season, I can’t wait. I’m like, “When do we shoot it? When can we do it? Please, Netflix, get on the stick. Let’s go!” I wanna see where these characters go.

Are there things with your character that you feel like you don’t know enough about yet, that you would love to dig into, in another season?

ESSANDOH: It’s almost boring because I’ve realized, in working with Debora, there is nothing that I can come up with that’s gonna be as good as what she’s gonna give me. So, instead of hoping that Stuart goes in this direction, or maybe Stuart can do this, I’m just waiting to see if we get another season, to see what she does. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, as the actor. It’s all on Deb. I just have to show up and learn the lines and say them. My job is easy.

The Diplomat is available to stream at Netflix.

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