SOMETHING’S COOKING IN RUSSELL’S KITCHEN

From: SFGate.com, 5/6/2007
by: John Clark

Keri Russell is letting herself go. She’s walking around her hotel suite barefoot in her bathrobe and picking at fruit plates and leftovers from a lunch for three. She has thin little arms and thin little legs and an enormous stomach. She looks great.

“I have pregnancy brain,” she says.

Russell is about nine months along, which is appropriate considering the fact that she plays pregnant in her new film, “Waitress,” directed by Adrienne Shelly, who, tragically, was killed in November at age 40. The resemblance ends there, however. Russell’s character, Jenna, is a waitress in a small-town diner stuck in a marriage to a needy lout (Jeremy Sisto). Her only fallbacks are her two waitress friends (played by Cheryl Hines and Shelly), the cranky diner owner (Andy Griffith) and her talent for making pies. She also begins a passionate affair with the town’s new gynecologist (Nathan Fillion), who is also married.

“I don’t think it’s that uncommon,” Russell says of Jenna’s adultery and the reasons behind it. “Although it looks horrible onscreen.”

What she really means is that Jenna’s actions — and her plight — might seem horrible on paper, but they aren’t played that way. The filmmakers don’t wring their hands over Jenna. They sympathize with her. According to producer Michael Roiff, Russell had a lot to do with putting that across.

“I think first the fact that she’s a generally flawless individual helped,” he says, laughing at how over-the-top that sounds. Then he goes on in the same vein: “She’s exceptionally beautiful. She’s so nice and welcoming and down to earth. This was someone who could play the role and not be just a sad sack, which I think was the danger, that it goes into that cheesy realm of self-indulgent whining. She has that natural radiance that immediately pulls you out of there. She just had a spark.”

Russell says that Shelly originally developed the role for herself but then decided not to take it on — though Roiff disputes this. What no one disputes is that Shelly, who had a hand in every aspect of the film, right down to the look of the pies and the waitresses’ uniforms, was especially focused on Russell’s performance, as if she were channeling herself — including dealing with a bad relationship.

“Definitely not with her husband, because her husband is the greatest guy in the world,” Russell says of Shelly’s husband, Andy Ostroy. “But, in her past, she had some experience with some complicated people like that. Not necessarily the violence, but the possessiveness. That’s why I think it plays so real.”

All of this autobiography makes Shelly’s death even harder to bear. Just days before the movie was accepted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, she was found hanged in her Greenwich Village office. Police later arrested and charged a construction worker who they alleged killed her after she complained about the noise he was making in a neighboring apartment (he was also alleged to have said that he “was having a bad day”).

Russell gets a faraway look when the topic is raised.

“Weird” is what she says, but it’s clear when her eyes begin to water that the word doesn’t nearly describe what she’s feeling. “Bittersweet” is another term that’s thrown around, but that seems hardly adequate either.

As heavy as these emotions are, however, it’s clear that no one wants to see them overwhelm the film’s reception. So far that hasn’t happened. In fact, as big a deal as Shelly’s death was in New York and the independent film world, a lot of people don’t know about it.

That is all to the good for both the film and Russell, because the role represents a step forward for her. Now 31, she is best known for her four-year run as the title character on “Felicity,” a WB show about the college career of a California-to-New York transplant. Previously she appeared on a series of TV shows, including “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” with Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

All of this work eventually took a toll, and at 26, Russell was burned out. She moved to New York and took more than a year off.

“I was drowning there for a little while, so it was good to get away,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it anymore. I’m sure my business people were a little nervous. From my perspective, it was perfect, because I’d been on a television show for so long and it’s kind of good to disappear for a little bit and then come back. I didn’t want to audition. I didn’t want to do anything. I just read books and acted like a kid and hung out with my girlfriends.”

The layoff hasn’t seemed to hurt her. She landed a role as an anorexic dancer in the critically admired “The Upside of Anger,” then was cast by “Felicity” executive producer J.J. Abrams in his “Mission: Impossible III,” which she describes as “a trip.” (The “Waitress” production had to be pushed back six months while Russell took that trip.) Also in the can are a couple of dramas, “The Girl in the Park” and “August Rush,” in which she again plays pregnant.

“I’m typecast as your pregnant mother,” she says. “I don’t know what about me screams that.”

Well, if she was screaming it before, she’s bellowing it now. Russell says her pregnancy wasn’t planned (she’s married to Shane Deary, a contractor), but it wasn’t unwelcome, either. She isn’t sure how she’s going to juggle career and motherhood.

“I’m going to see how it goes,” says Russell, who acknowledges that she likes to spend time alone. “I don’t know how people do it. I think everyone kind of figures it out. Cheryl seems to have done it, and I have a few other examples of gals I like a lot who have done it well. The idea of having someone’s help, a nanny, somebody else in your space, does not sound good to me. I’m too much of a control freak.”

According to Roiff, Shelly managed to be a mom, an actress, a writer and a director. In fact, her daughter, Sophie, plays Russell’s daughter at the end of the film.