The saying “90 percent of directing is casting” has been attributed to everyone from John Ford to Robert Altman to Martin Scorsese, but in the case of Netflix’s much-buzzed-about romantic political drama “The Diplomat,” you might even be able to crank that number to 95, especially as casting director Julie Schubert tells it, getting your first-choice leads is the ultimate Hail Mary pass.
“Keri Russell was on the very first list,” says Schubert, who can barely contain her enthusiasm for the versatile actress. “She is truly one of the nicest human beings you will ever meet in your entire life. And one of the hardest working people you will ever meet in your entire life. She’s top to bottom: pure joy.”
As written, Ambassador Kate Wyler checks a lot of boxes for Russell’s abilities (strong-willed, a great way with amusing repartee, unforced sensuality), but for the role of Kate’s roguish, charismatic, upward climbing husband-with-benefits Hal, there’s a few directions the role could have gone, but Schubert knew, as a longtime fan, that Rufus Sewell was the one.
“Rufus was also number one on the list,” effuses Schubert, who also cast the British actor in the Netflix heist miniseries “Kaleidoscope”. ‘The thing about Rufus I think a lot of folks necessarily haven’t necessarily experienced from him is that he is funny. So smartly funny. And you saw a little bit of it when he did the guest spot on ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ [in Season 2]. He’s always kind of a bad guy, he’s brilliant at it. But there’s such a charm to him.”
“The Diplomat” has one of the most unusual tones in dramatic television (imagine if “House of Cards”—which Schubert also cast—written by a combination of Greta Gerwig and Amy Sherman-Palladino, speaking of “Maisel”), and the supporting cast was just as important, so Schubert and her partners (including Lucinda Syson and Natasha Vincent) turned to the London stage for those roles, played vividly by actors as varied as Ali Ahn, David Gyasi, Nana Mensah, Celia Imrie and Ato Essandoh (who TheWrap rightfully composed a tone poem to this season.)
“President Rayburn was the one that I think we all had a point of view of what we thought it would be,” says Schubert. “And I remember emailing everybody, saying, ‘What do you think of Michael McKean, literally the very first thing I’d ever said on email. And then conversations continued and continued. And while Rayburn is incredibly important to the story, it is a character that kind of comes in and out and then about two months later, someone said, ‘What about Michael McKean,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, genius idea, let’s do it.’”
So, what was the directive of showrunner Debora Cahn (“Homeland,” “Fosse/Verdon”) for casting? “Really f—king good actors, pardon my French,” laughs Schubert. “Everyone was really, really protective of the script and no one really read it [in the early phases]. The only time they got to read it is if they got an offer. Everyone eventually got script pages, but for instance, agents didn’t really have them in the beginning. But everyone who read said they wanted to be a part of something special.”
Schubert is thrilled to be working on Season 2, which is already underway, but pleads silence in terms of where Kate and Hal and their tireless team are headed.
“I will be murdered If I speak about anything so I’m going to politely refrain from answering,” Schubert says with a smile. But the diverse, sharp-witted group of actors adds a dash of delight to her profession, without a doubt. “When you have a creative team that has a real point of view, and people with a real knowledge of who these characters are, it makes it a lot more fun because you can really dive into the nitty gritty of what the actors are going to bring to the table.”
“The Diplomat” is now streaming on Netflix