The Diplomat is Alibi’s big new crime drama, a six-part thriller set in the British consulate in Barcelona and following the lives of the diplomats who step in to help tourists who get in trouble abroad. Serena Manteghi plays Alba Ortiz, the local appointment who works closely with Sophie Rundle’s Laura Simmons.
In the second half of a two-part interview, Manteghi joined NationalWorld’s TV critic Alex Moreland to discuss the roles that have stayed with her across her career, the sort of preparation she undertakes before each new acting job, what she’s been enjoying watching on TV recently, and – of course – whether or not we can look forward to a second series of The Diplomat.
Last time, we spoke about performances you’ve seen that have stayed with you – are there any parts you’ve played that have really stayed with you the same way? You mentioned Shakespeare there, and I know you’ve played Ophelia before – I listened to your podcast about it, I thought it was really interesting.
Yeah, I learned so much on that. Still, to this day, I would fight to the death anyone who says Ophelia’s crazy because, for me, the evidence is absolutely there in the text that she is feeling something much more nuanced. Oh, that’s so nice you listened to that! Yeah, I loved that part. A very common thing that’s said about actors [is] that we’re desperate to get the part and then your stomach sinks as soon as you’ve got it, because you’re like, "Oh, God. I’ve got to actually do this." I really felt that with Ophelia. I was like, "Oh, I don’t know what to do."
It’s very hard to pull off madness, I think, convincingly. I really struggled. The first half of it, I might as well, she’s like developing that scene. I’m like, "I don’t want to get to the end of the play because I’ve got to do that scene." But then, I am a massive nerd when it comes to parts, I do a lot of conceptual research – especially if I’m struggling with something. It’s like my way to, I don’t know, embrace my fear. Yeah, the more research I did into flower language and the way that Elizabethan communicates, but especially in the language of the court, and especially with women, [the more prepared I felt]. You weren’t allowed to challenge someone to a duel or have a fight or whatever, it was all very coded.
I think she’s, at all points, trying to communicate as much as possible, within the restrictions of her place and her sex. I would say that when people portray her – not so much by actors who play her, but often when she’s written about – it’s as this very weak [woman], like she couldn’t handle the stress of Hamlet rejecting her, so she goes mad. This was a woman who Hamlet was in love with, and Hamlet’s a genius. So, you’ve kind of got to assume – or it makes sense to me – that she’s got to be his equal, or his intellectual match, otherwise I don’t buy that he was ever in love with her. I just love defending Ophelia, really! I think it’s because I went from being like, “oh, God, I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I like her," to “oh, she’s amazing.”
What you were saying there about sort of doing lots of research, is that applicable for something like The Diplomat? Does it work that way for you?
It’s tricky for Alba. I did a bit of research into what you would handle if you were working in a consulate and stuff, what your day-to-day is, but she’s not a diplomat. Alba’s in this quite unique position: she didn’t go to the Civil Service, she didn’t go and get a fancy degree... She hasn’t taken the traditional route. She’s more a sort of hand-woman to Laura. She’s ear to the ground, street-smart, tuned in to the real life of Barcelona, hired because of her natural brightness and her wits and her smarts as it were. And obviously, her bilingual dexterity. So, in terms of “oh how would you become a consul? How do you become a diplomat?”, that wasn’t that useful for Alba.
In terms of her background and her life, a lot of things are very similar or felt very same to my own background. She says, “I’m from the dodgy end of West London”, which I also am [laughs]. The more I talked with the writers about where she might have gone to school and so on, it all was very similar to me. She’s not mixed race, in that both her parents are Spanish, but I think there’s something about belonging to two places that I really chimed with – her background [working in Spain, and growing up in Britain] really resonated for me personally, being mixed race.
Is there anything else you’re working on at the minute that you can tell us about? Another series of The Diplomat potentially?
Oh, I mean, I hope so, yeah. I’m yet to hear about if we can get to that but we had such a good time making it, and I think we’re all really proud of what it is, so I think we’re all keeping our fingers crossed for that one. That would be good. [Otherwise], there’s a lot of just waiting to see what’s next at the moment. There are a few things. If you ask me in three weeks, I might be able to tell you, but right now, it’s like a lot of waiting. I’m in my wait and see period right now. Mostly, I have been walking the dog and making a lot of plans – I’m getting married this year, so actually that’s taking up a lot of time.
Thank you! I’ll tell you though, if you ever plan to get married, it’s a lot of admin, and a lot of emailing – which is not my strong suit, as you might imagine, being an actor.
Have you been watching anything good recently? If you’ve had time, that is, between all the emails.
Oh my God. So many things, yes. This is my favourite conversation. You’re going to have to ask me to stop. Okay. The first thing I’m watching is The Last of Us. Oh my God, it’s so good. I actually didn’t play it – I’m not a gamer, even though I’m into lots of other adjacent what you might call nerdy genres and pastimes, I weirdly never played The Last of Us – but I’m so glad it’s been adapted. I just love it, it’s really good. What else? Another one – which was really missed, I think, this year by loads of people, but it’s still on BBC iPlayer – was The Newsreader. I honestly think it’s one of the best scripts with some of the best acting I’ve ever seen. It’s Anna Torv again, actually, who was also on The Last of Us. Clearly, I’m not even slightly obsessed with her.
What else? I mean, all of the obvious ones really. There’s Succession, that’s amazing. I’m trying to think... Oh, Julia as well! Have you watched Julia? Sarah Lancashire, playing Julia Child, the American TV chef – when I saw that casting, I was like, “What?”, because you just wouldn’t put those things together, but she is sublime. Oh my God, she’s just incredible, and it’s the most heartwarming, lovely, lovely programme. Loved that. Very excited about Ted Lasso, too, I’m a big Ted Lasso fan. Those are the things that I’m absolutely obsessed with at the moment. Oh, and Happy Valley obviously. Television event of the year.
Just one more question, then I’ll let you get back to your emails –
– is there anything that you hope people take from watching The Diplomat, in terms of their experience watching it?
The thing about TV, if you’re making TV, I think you feel a bit more removed from the audience – because you’re focusing on the job at hand. You’re not actually acting in front of the audience in that moment as much. But I think, the thing to take away – I guess, for me, the heart of the show – is how much the characters of the consulate invest in the people they meet each episode. They really care, and they’re changed by all the issues they have to resolve – that’s something that lends a strongly unique element to [The Diplomat]. It’s in no way formulaic. It’s like each one is really distinct and so beautifully written. Yeah, so that’s what I’d take from it.
And enjoy the sunshine! It is so lovely to watch. It is so nice to watch that at the screening, because it was freezing, wasn’t it? During that extra cold snap we had in the middle of January, I was absolutely frozen. When it’s frosty outside, to watch something absolutely full of sunshine and heat and cocktails? It’s just so comforting.
The Diplomat airs weekly on Tuesdays at 9pm on Alibi. You can read the first half of our interview with Serena Manteghi here.