Biography Magazine (interview)

From: Biography Magazine April, 2000
by: Sheryl Altman

First there were Farrah’s flowing locks. Then Jennifer Aniston inspired a cult coif following. And by the fall of 1998, Felicity star Keri Russell’s Pre-Raphaelite ringlets were all the rage. So what does “The Girl with the Curl” go and do?

bio_01“I chopped it all off,” the 24-year-old actress boasts. “Take that! Now I have peripheral vision for the first time in my life.”

Hair today, gone tomorrow—nothing about Russell is ever predictable, including her breakthrough part. “When she auditioned in 1997 for the coming- of-age drama set in an NYU-inspired college, everyone assumed she was all wrong for the role. “We were thinking wallflower,” the show’s co-creator Matt Reeves has said. “Someone very plain. And in walks Keri–she was just too beautiful.”

Even Russell doubted her ability to be dowdy: “The type of roles people want me for are stereotypical and shallow, pretty girls,” she has admitted. “I never thought they would pick me.” But she quickly convinced the production team that looks can be deceiving: “She completely took us by surprise,” Reeves explained. “She was the first person who read the part funny. She clearly understood the angst.” They cast her, and just days after the pilot was released to the press, she was being dubbed the TV season’s new “It Girl,” and the teenage answer to Ally McBeal.

The hype might have overwhelmed many a young starlet, but Russell is as laid-back as the slouchy sweaters Felicity Porter considers campus couture. “The buzz in this country is a strange and fickle force,” she told People magazine. ‘You can’t get too into it.”

“She’s very unaffected by all of this,” her co-star Scott Foley, who plays resident advisor (and love interest) Noel, has said. “She received a framed cover of a magazine she was on and didn’t know what to do with it. She’s humble to the point you think it’s an act—but it’s not. It’s just very Keri.”

Keri Lynn Russell was born March 23, 1976, in Fountain Valley, California, as the middle child of three (she has an older brother, Todd, and a younger sister, Julie). Her mother, Stephanie, was a homemaker, and her father, David, was a high-powered Nissan executive. She was named for her grandfather Kermit (although her family teasingly called her “Care Bear”) and spent most of her childhood relocating between Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California because of her father’s job. She was always a “good girl” but admits to occasional moments of mischief (she was kicked out of the Brownies “for being rambunctious”). And she was far from the most popular kid on the playground: “I had an awkward stage,” she told People. “I was chunky and I wore braces. I had mall bangs that were three tiers high when I was in sixth grade. I was a geek.”

In junior high in Mesa, Arizona, she was “a super jock” who ran track, played softball, and kicked up her heels in dance competitions. “I studied jazz, ballet, tap, a little bit of everything,” she has said, and she won several prestigious dance scholarships. She toured the country with the Mesa Stars Dance and Drill Team, practicing six to seven hours a day. “I was never one of those kids with a stage mother—’Okay, honey, you knock them out!'” she has said. “I just wanted to keep dancing.”

She made several appearances on Star Search, and at 15, was urged by a fashion photographer to go into modeling. “I tried it for a while but it just wasn’t my thing,” she insisted. “I hate makeup—I’m low maintenance.”

But the brief stint voguing for the cameras was enough to get her noticed. In 1991, a talent scout snatched her up for The All New Mickey Mouse Club, also known as MMC. (“It was cool—not the Annette and Cubby thing anymore.”) In the Walt Disney World, Orlando, studios, Russell sang and danced as a Mouseketeer for three years alongside such pop-stars-to-be as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and J.C. of ‘N Sync, and Tony Lucca, who is now Russell’s live-in love.

“We kissed when we were both 15 but were on and off when we were teenagers,” she has recalled. “Then, once we got a little older, we started seriously dating.”

Their relationship saw Russell through many turns in her career: her big-screen debut in 1992’s Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, numerous commercials (including ones for Sears, JCPenney, and Jack in the Box), a role in the 1994 Bonjovi music video “Always,” and the CBS sitcom Daddy’s Girls, with Dudley Moore. “I just fell into acting,” she has admitted modestly, “and I never left the party.”

In 1996, she and Lucca lived together in Los Angeles while co-staring in the short- lived Aaron Spelling NBC soap Malibu Shores. They split up, which wasn’t easy, since the show called for their characters to be a couple. “We didn’t talk for awhile, then one day I come home and there’s a cassette tape on my doormat,” Russell has said. On it was a love letter from Lucca and a song. Yet she refused to forgive and forget, and they went their separate ways.

After Shores was scrapped, Russell devoted herself to independent films before landing the part of a doomed Gaelic beauty in the Fox warrior-hero series Roar (the show didn’t last much longer than her character). In 1998, she and Lucca reunited: she was having her wisdom teeth pulled and needed someone to drive her home from the dental surgeon and he volunteered. A month later, they started dating again, and he moved in with her soon after. Today, they wear matching silver bands inscribed in French, “Neither you without me, nor me without you.” It’s an acknowledgment, Russell has explained, of their “important roles in each other’s lives.”

Russell also realizes the important role she plays in her series (just try to imagine Felicity without Felicity). Her character’s willful nature seems to be rubbing off on her: “I admire her naive honesty—Felicity is free to say what’s on her mind. I have a little censor in my brain that says, ‘Don’t do that. ‘But Felicity doesn’t. She does what she feels is right for her.”

Which is precisely what Russell did last year. After winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Drama Series, she reportedly asked for a sizable raise—and walked off the set when the network refused. Russell was receiving an estimated $20,000-$30,000 per episode—the same pay as her non-leading co-stars.

For now, they seem to have reached a compromise, because life at the University of New York goes on (the show’s second season, though less of a ratings champion, continues to draw millions of teenage viewers every week). There was great debate over whom Felicity would choose in her sophomore year: the puppy-dog-eyed Noel, or Ben, the former high-school crush she followed to New York in the first place. Felicity has abandoned her parents’ hopes of her studying premed at Stanford. Instead, she’s an art major with a job serving up lattes at Dean & DeLuca. Russell, who never attended college herself, says it’s not difficult to put herself in her character’s Birkenstocks. “I think and feel everything Felicity says,” she told TV Guide. “I just find her so easy to relate to—even her tendencies to overanalyze everything.”

On series breaks, Russell is trying to conquer the big screen, as well: She stars with Gabriel Byrne in the upcoming romantic comedy Mad About Mambo, in which she plays an Irish dancer who wins the heart of a soccer player (and shows off her dance moves). She is also considering a thriller for 20th Century Fox this summer, written by Felicity co-creator and executive producer JJ. Abrams.

These days, though, she’s happiest just “being a recluse” with Lucca, who is pursuing a soul-funk recording career. “The biggest misconception is that I lead a glamorous life,” she has said. “I never go out. I’m not even home most nights before 11 from work.” She eats whatever she wants (currently, she’s obsessed with Eggo waffles), belongs to a gym but never goes, and refuses to apply even a swipe of mascara to her fresh-scrubbed face. (“My beauty regimen consists of soap.”) No matter: People voted her one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” last year.

She lives for lazy Sunday mornings in bed and cruising around her Pacific Palisades neighborhood in a Nissan pickup (“What else? Daddy taught me well”), blaring Sarah McLachlan’s moody tunes on her car stereo. But don’t expect to ever hear Russell singing the blues. “I’m a really giddy person,” she has declared. “I think I have huge, happy endorphins in my body.”

And if her series—and all the attention that goes with it—ended tomorrow? “Then I’d find something new to do,” she has insisted. “Who knows? Maybe years from now I’ll be on a ranch in Colorado with 10 kids. The whole point of life is to experience a little bit of everything, and I think it’s better when there are a few surprises thrown in.”•