Post-‘Felicity,’ trying cruelty on for size

From: The New York Daily News, 12/13/2004
By: CELIA McGEE

There’s one group of people Keri Russell is praying won’t come to see her in Neil LaBute’s new play, “Fat Pig,” and it’s not those who strongly dislike his scathing work.

It’s a co-op board.

“I have an accepted offer on the most wonderful apartment,” she says, sipping a latte in a restaurant across from the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the play opens tomorrow.

“I’m worried that the board already doesn’t like me. Too young.” She’s 28. “And an actress.”

She may or may not be right that the play, in which she’s a cruel and controlling super-babe out to get her ex’s super-sized new girlfriend, will rub some the wrong way. She stars with Jeremy Piven, Andrew McCarthy and Ashlie Atkinson (as the title’s porker).

What’s definite is that her character, Jeannie, is about as far from “Felicity” as you can get. The role of the pretty, sensitive curly-maned NYU student shot the former Mousketeer to celebrity on the WB in 1998. The series ended 2½ years ago, and Russell says she has traveled a long distance since.

An identity crisis almost made her give up acting. Then, cast in several movies back to back, she spent most of last year in Calgary, Canada, first shooting a Hallmark Hall of Famer set in the ’40s, then playing an 1830s pioneer woman in Steven Spielberg’s “Into the West.”

Afterward, she rented a car and drove “all alone” through the Rockies to Vancouver. In the end she decided to live in New York, a place Felicity Porter knew well, but less familiar to this California girl.

“I needed to be where no one cares who’s doing what movie. It saved me,” she says.

“Fat Pig” has proved part of that salvation. Even more than landing in a play by one of the country’s hottest playwrights, Russell finally – finally! – got to play someone mean.

“Who knew,” she crows. “It’s been so much fun. It’s like going to therapy every night. It’s not just mean, it’s Neil LaBute mean – every word is so precise and so dynamic and so funny.”

She uses an alliterative adverb with “funny” that would never have passed Felicity’s lips.

Russell seems a little wistful she hasn’t been able to change her own “emotional, nice/weak” personality, especially because she worries that it attracts her to less than gentle, “provocative” people (read, men).

But she says she’s learned “it’s healthy to laugh at uncomfortable things,” as the audience is encouraged to do at “Fat Pig.” “We’re totally obsessed with weight in this country, yet no one can bring themselves to say the word ‘fat’ in the play except [Atkinson’s] Helen. She’s by far the heroine of the piece – the one with morals and values who tries to improve the world.”

Russell’s immediate plans are to improve the world for her Texas-based family – with its first Christmas trip to New York. “I don’t think my dad has ever been here,” she says. “He and my mom are going to stay at a bed-and-breakfast where I can wave to them from my window. My sister is sharing my bed, my brother is sleeping on the couch, and my nephew will be on the floor.” Cozy.

She really needs that new apartment.