An Interview with Keri Russell

From: Insider Magazine 11/12/2002
by: Debra Eckerling

In an age where most people are either jaded or have stars in their eyes, this 21-year-old actress was a breath of fresh air. Trained in a variety of dance including ballet, jazz, and street, Russell’s favorite kind is called lyrical. She says lyrical is like dancing to the types of songs Sarah McLauchlan performs. It’s just moving with the music. “It’s jazz but it’s much more expressive, creative,” she explains.

It was this love of dancing that led Russell to modeling and eventually acting. “I think I seriously started dancing when I was 13,” she says. “I had a scholarship at this studio which [meant I had] to take at least 17 classes a week. So I was there all the time.”

A New York photographer, who used the studio’s back warehouse for a shoot, discovered Russell when she was 14. She remembers him watching some dance classes in between shots and asking her mom, “Can I take pictures of your daughter?” Russell’s mother, Stephenie, said, “yes.”

“He ended up spending all this money doing the entire photo shoot free for me and sending me tons of pictures,” she recalls. “I didn’t even want to be a model.”

Russell modeled for a few months in Denver before being bit by the acting bug. “One of the first acting auditions I had was for [Disney’s Honey I Blew Up the Kid], and I happened to get it,” she remembers. “I got very lucky. It was not something premeditated at all.”

Russell’s next gig was a three-season stint on the All New Mickey Mouse Club. From there, she was cast in regular roles on television series, including Malibu Shores and Daddy’s Girls, as well as guest stints on programs such as Boy Meets World and Married . . . With Children. “I play very close to myself,” she says. “I play ordinary girls a lot.”

I wouldn’t call her ordinary, although Russell truly looks the stereotypical girl-next-door part — long curly tresses, great smile, and an inner beauty that shines with her every word.

“With TV there are so many hands in the pot so to speak,” Russell explains, recalling her experience as a regular on Malibu Shores. “It’s not just the director’s vision, it’s the producer’s and the network’s and all of their team people.” It sounds like shooting on location made it worthwhile. “We shot on the beach. It was in Malibu and Pacific Palisades,” she says. “And it was just so pretty to be shooting outside and not be stuck on some sound stage like we could have been. “I made a lot of good friends on the show that I still hang out with,” she continues.

Russell’s favorite project so far has been her guest appearance on Roar, which recently premiered on FOX. Although she’s played the lead in most of her projects that’s not the case with Roar. “The most generic way to describe [Roar] is it’s a TV version of Braveheart,” she says. “But it’s much cooler than that.” Roar, set before Braveheart (in 400 a.d. Ireland), is a study of the Celtic people. “It has all those great archetypes we love to see, like romance and courage,” she adds. In the series premier Keri played a Juliet-like Celtic princess named Claire. “My father is a very prominent kind of evil guy and I’m in love with the Romeo of the story [played by Australian actor Heath Ledger],” she explains. “We sort of sneak out every night to meet. It’s so pretty the way it is shot. I mean [they’re] just running across the field to meet.”

Spoken like a true romantic . . . “I’m such a sucker,” she admits. “Any of those lame movies: I’m there, I’m watching it. And [I] walk away [from the theater] and [I’m] like, ‘Guys don’t talk like that. And guys are never going to talk like that.’”

Russell says her latest film Eight Days A Week, by first-time director Michael Davis, shows an alternative side of romance. “It is very charming in a completely non-PG sort of way,” Keri explains. “[It’s written] from a teenage boy’s perspective of this girl he has sort of been pining over for his entire life.” Not the “girl next door” in this story, Russell’s character actually lives across the street from the protagonist. This low-budget independent won the Audience Award at Slam Dance and just received foreign distribution.

Russell was born in Fountain Valley, California, spent her early years in Mesa, Arizona, and attended high school outside of Denver, Colorado. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her cat Nala — named after Simba’s mate in The Lion King. “When I got my cat, I was living with someone and we just thought she looks like such a lion,” Russell explains.

My conversation with Keri seemed more like a gab-fest than an interview. We chatted about everything from boys to favorite movies to the charity benefit she does every year in Colorado. “I think I use it more as an excuse to go back and be in my favorite place,” she admits. “Children’s Hospital is who we’re working with for the next two years. I think next summer we’re going to do this big softball tournament and get all the sports people involved.” Joslin’s, who’s opening a new department store, is hosting this year’s event. “I have a really good friend up there who actually owns the dance studio I grew up in. She sort of puts it together,” Russell explains. “There’s going to be a fashion show and [athletes from the Rockies and the Broncos] giving autographs,”

In addition to the fundraiser, Keri goes back to Colorado “at least ten times a year.” She was even heading there the weekend after we spoke “for a dance camp in the mountains.” “It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s so hard to describe. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to Europe, I’ve been to Australia, I’ve been to Hawaii. You know, all these beautiful vacation spots. And I never feel more relaxed than I do when I m up in the mountains.”

Russell hopes to be able to move there in the next few years. “I honestly think it’s the trees and the mountains,” she continues. “You just get energy. Everyone has different things. Maybe water does it for some people. I completely feel it and I get there and I breathe easier. I love it.”

Due to her dad’s job, Keri’s family has since moved from Colorado to Texas, where her older brother Todd and younger sister Julie are in school. Russell goes to visit for holidays. “My dad works for Nissan,” she explains. “[He’s] sort of a suit. I don’t really know what he does. I just know he doesn’t sell cars. My mom—I guess you’d call her a homemaker. She’s a great mom. She’s an advice giver.” “I’ve really lived away from my family since I was 15 years old and it’s helped me so much because I appreciate them. I talk to them so much more than if I ever lived there.”

When she’s not working or visiting friends and family, Russell is apt to be curled up with a book. “I read a lot,” she says. “I kind of read three books at one time because I kind of get bored with one, so I pick up something else.” Russell is currently reading How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, an historical account of Ireland, and parts of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. “I think somewhere inside of me something’s telling me I should be in school, so I have to learn something somewhere,” she says.

Although Keri doesn’t have time now, she would eventually like to continue her education. “Right now I’ve been busy enough and lucky enough: I’ve been making money,” she says. “But I love learning. If not even to get a degree, [I’d like] just to go [back to school] and take classes in things I’m interested in.”

Russell is currently filming the independent feature Dead Man’s Curve with Matthew Lillard, from the movie, Scream. Fate may have started her career, but integrity has kept it going.

I asked if she had a career goal or industry dream. “To make lots of money so I don’t have to work,” she laughs. Then thinks for a minute. “As cheesy as it sounds, I really like to do things that are responsible, especially for young girls,” she says. “I did a project for Lifetime [When Innocence was Lost] last fall which was really cool and it was really hard. But I liked that it was being put out there.” When Innocence was Lost is the true story of Jennifer Ireland, a 16-year-old Michigan girl who had a baby, stayed in high school, and got a full scholarship to the University of Michigan. Because Jennifer put her child in day care while she went to class, the father—who originally wanted nothing to do with the baby—filed for and received sole custody. The Lifetime movie was about Jennifer’s appeal and how she won.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. “While we were shooting, [Jennifer] gave in to joint custody and had to quit school and move back to her home town,” Russell explains. “It was really discouraging because we were making this uplifting movie about this courageous girl. So, we did our movie and then at the end, we had the character who played the reporter sort of say, ‘you know, it wasn’t really a happy ending’ and described what happened. “The truth is,” Russell says, “this girl had no money . . . was driving back two hours for every court hearing . . . and probably was just worn out. [Her baby was five years old] and growing up in a courtroom.”

In this business, filled with more ups and downs than a roller coaster, Keri has simple advice for those wishing to follow her path. “Don’t get discouraged,” she says. Russell believes getting work has a lot to do with “being in the right place at the right time.” “I have so many friends living in L.A. who are trying to do it and they just get so discouraged going into auditions,” she says. “Please. I go into auditions every day and don’t get a job.”

And that’s simply what acting is to Russell: A job. “If I didn’t have [acting] I wouldn’t die,” she explains. “I think with anything in life, [it’s] important . . . not to put all your eggs in one basket. There’s so many things in life to enjoy, so just keep an open mind.” Keri stresses the importance of keeping other things going. “For me, I have dance,” she says. “I have this other outlet that I know I’m good at. I know it makes me feel good.”

Unfortunately, her passion for dance isn’t something she can support herself with professionally. “I don’t want to say [dance is] a dead art, but I don’t go pay to see dance,” she admits. “Music, everyone goes to see,” Russell continues. “I go to concerts all the time. I don’t know. Maybe [dance will] make a revival with all these shows like Bring on da’ Noise, Bring on da’ Funk and Rent On Broadway.” Curiosity got the better of me, so I had to ask: How about a career in musical theater? Do you sing, too? “I had to on [the All New Mickey Mouse Club], but not really,” she admits. “I sing great in my car, but not really in front of people.”

In five years Keri Russell hopes to be in a place in her career where she can be choosy about her projects. “I would love to be working,” she says, “although I could meet some amazing cowboy in Colorado and end up with kids in five years. Hey, it could happen. I would do it. [I’m just going to] roll with it and see what happens,”

Versatile, sweet and ambitious, Keri is open to many different paths. And seems wise beyond her years. She knows what she wants. “To be happy!” she says That’s a lot more than many people in any business from show to corporate can say. The photographer sure found something incredible in the down-to-earth quality that makes Keri Russell so special.