From Detour Magazine November, 1998
“I was there to be the cute girl and kiss the guy. Literally, that was my job.”
Though she’s referring to a specific 1994 guest appearance on the ABC sitcom Boy Meets World, Keri Russell might be describing any number of roles she has played since moving to Los Angeles five years ago. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid just to kiss the main guy,” she says, her tone a dispassionate statement of fact, a verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.
If you’re a young, beautiful actress, and you expect to work in Hollywood, you learn quickly that you’re going to be treated like an object some (if not most) of the time, and Russell is no exception. Indeed, she experienced the objectification thing at the hands of a master: Aaron Spelling, progenitor of such nails in the coffin of enlightened feminism as Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. Russell’s season on Malibu Shores, Spelling’s short-lived attempt to transfer his 90210 formula—insipid dialogue, lots of barely clad young things, and a plum supporting role for one of his dubiously talented offspring (in this case, Tori’s brother, Randy)—to a Romeo and Juliet saga about the star-crossed romance between an affluent beach babe and a working-class Valley hunk, has to have contributed to her disenchantment with the depiction of young women in today’s media.
“I’m just discouraged with how girls are represented these days,” she says. “Not that the Spelling representation is bad, or wrong. I think that everything has its own place. I just think that nothing resembles real girls.”
A year ago, her frustration with “not just my roles, but the stories I was seeing” led Russell to consider a lackluster project set in New Orleans, simply for a change of scenery. “I thought, Oh, well, the part isn’t great, but I’ll go live there and invest in my personal life, and have a new experience.” But the pilot script for a TV series about a college student who makes a life-altering decision on a whim, changed her mind: “When I was halfway through it I called my agents and said, ‘I’m not going to take that other thing, see if you can get me in for this—beg them to let me read.’
Keri Russell became famous the way Mike Campbell, Lady Brett Ashley’s bon vivant husband in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, went bankrupt: gradually and then suddenly. Currently in the eye of one of the more impressive media storms in recent memory, she’s been the subject of no fewer than 10 magazine profiles this fall, virtually every one touting her as a fresh “new” face. “I think people really love those stories,” she says, dropping into a cheesy announcer voice: ” ‘She hasn’t done anything, and now she’s huge! People really need that. I don’t know why, but I’m realizing that it’s part of the game.” In reality, the 22-year-old Russell has been a working actress since age 15, when she was plucked from a Denver, Colo., dance studio to join the cast of the Disney Channel’s All New Mickey Mouse Club. Yet despite a resume that includes feature films, made-for-TV movies, and principal roles in two prime-time series, until recently hardly anyone knew who she was; and in true postmodern style, when she was recognized, it was usually for something that no one had even seen.
“People stop me sometimes, mostly in airports,” Russell says on a Sunday morning in mid September, spreading butter (yes, real butter) on an English muffin at a teeming Starbucks on the western stretch of Sunset Boulevard. She’s wearing a tiny gray tank top and broken-in Levi’s with hopelessly frayed cuffs that scrape the ground beneath her sandals when she walks. Her signature Botticelli curls are arranged in a half dozen tight coils, pinned into place before she left the house by her boyfriend, musician-actor Tony Lucca. Though her life is crazy these days, a blur of late-night shoots and incessant publicity obligations, she’s a soothing presence this morning, having just returned from a peaceful, much-needed getaway in Big Sur. In conversation, she’s polite, funny, intelligent, self-aware, modest to a fault, and has a charming habit of closing her eyes when she’s concentrating especially hard on what she has to say.
“People used to ask me, ‘What have you done that I might have seen?’ ” she continues. “Now I hear, ‘Oh, you’re the girl on that new show that’s not on the air yet. What’s it called?’ ”
It’s called Felicity, and as of September 29, it is on the air, courtesy of the parvenu WB network, home to such ratings success stories as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek, a pair of smart and sexy shows driven by the same young, female audience WB executives—and advertisers—are banking will embrace Felicity with equal passion.
In the series—the first television project from screenwriter J. J. Abrams (Regarding Henry) and writer-director Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer)—Russell is Felicity Porter, a hyper-fastidious high-school senior (“I’ve basically had my life planned out for me since I was a zygote”) who, per parental decree, is bound for pre-med studies at Stanford. But when a boy she has always had a secret crush on writes a flirtatious note in her yearbook, she impulsively—and profoundly uncharacteristically—nixes her plans and follows him to a college in New York City, where she discovers that independence is as daunting as it is delicious.
A big reason Russell was drawn to Felicity was the fact that the character, like Russell herself, was something of a misfit. “I so was her in high school,” she says, her eyes widening. “I moved to Colorado from Arizona when I was 13, and that’s a bad time to uproot. So I had one best girlfriend, I didn’t fit in any group, I kind of voyeuristically watched high school pass by, which is completely Felicity.”
On the show. Felicity’s awkwardness, longing to assimilate, and periodic eruptions of eccentric behavior are her most endearing traits. They’re also what prompted two different magazines to describe her as “Ally’s little sister,” a nod to Calista Flockhart’s flighty attorney Ally McBeal, on the Fox program of the same name. Though certain Felicity cast members bristle at the comparison, Russell goes with the flow: “Things like that don’t bother me. I just feel so confident that our show has something very specifically its own. The analogy I keep making is when a new musician or singer comes out, and you’ve never heard their stuff before, you always have to say, ‘It’s sort of like James Taylor, with a mixture of Sting.’ It doesn’t really sound like them, but you need a point of reference.”
Russell’s use of mellow rockers to illustrate her point is a telling reflection other musical taste (hint: think Lilith), as well as a connection to Lucca, with whom she has had an on-again-off-again relationship for several years, The two originally met as Mouseketeers, and have remained close ever since. At one point, art (if the Spelling oeuvre qualifies as such) imitated life when the scruffily handsome Lucca was cast as Zack, the Valley dude in love with Chloe, Russell’s ocean- front hottie in Malibu Shores. For now, he’s devoted to music, spending his time writing songs, performing what Russell describes as “soul-folk” sets in various L.A. clubs and providing a much-needed shoulder for Russell to lean on as she adapts to all things Felicity.
“People always ask me if I have someone in my life,” she says, “and I say, ‘I have a really amazing best friend.’ Because he is–more than anything right now, he’s my best friend. And I would love to ride this out and then hang out and have kids, or whatever, and take care of him for awhile to switch off. I am so willing to do that.”
Without question the most highly anticipated series of the new fall season, Felicity began to build momentum in the press as far back as May, and reached critical mass–pun intended–in September as its premiere drew nigh. “The attention is surreal,” says Russell. At one point during the summer, as she was about to be onstage before a group of national television critics, “I was actually short of breath,” she recalls, “because I was so nervous I was going to say the wrong thing. It was awful. They’re judging this show, that takes hundreds of people to make, off of one of my little sentences, and I could be tired, or nervous, or spaced out, or not have an answer. And that someone could get really turned on or off to the show because of something I say is really nerve-wracking.”
When the publicity first kicked in, especially with major national publications like USA Today, she says, “It made me feel kind of cheap. It was like, No one’s even seen the show—it might suck! By the first episode you might say, ‘Oh, she’s so crappy, I don’t even want to see her again!’ ” And a week later, I’ll be on the Worst Dressed List in People magazine.”
Fortunately, the show doesn’t suck, Russell is far from crappy, and you will want to see her again (her come-as-you-are wardrobe is aces, too). Though she’s notoriously dismissive of her acting ability, describing her career as something she “just fell into,” those who have worked with her beg to differ. Actor Gabriel Byrne, executive producer of Mad About Mambo, an Ireland-set comedy-romance due for release next year, says, “Keri’s modesty is admirable, but the objective reality is that she is a very talented actress and totally convincing as a young girl from Belfast. Her performance has ‘star’ written all over it.” Dan Rosen, writer-director of the black comedy The Curve, which Russell shot last year, and will be released in February, says, “The best actors, I think, are the ones who don’t know they’re actors, and also the audience doesn’t realize that they’re acting. Look at someone like Robert Duvall, who’s so naturalistic in every role. Keri is the same way.”
The Felicity contingent is no less effusive. “I’ve never seen an actor more intuitively aware of her craft,” gushes Abrams. “You think she’s this little ingenue, and then, all of a sudden, it’s. Oh my God, she’s amazing!” Says Reeves, “She can do anything. In the editing room, if a scene isn’t tracking, we can always cut to Keri. She can tell you so much with a look or a gesture.” Tony Krantz, co-chairman and CEO of Felicity producers Imagine Television, adds “I think there’s no question that Keri Russell has it all.”
Heaped with all this praise, why does Russell insist upon downplaying her talent?
“I don’t mean to sound like, ‘Oh, I’m not good at all,’ or that I’m not grateful for what I have—I don’t mean that at all,” she says. “What I mean is, I think actors want to be actors—that’s their art. And I don’t see that as my art. I think actors can enjoy anything if they’re acting, but I know that I can’t. I may not do this in five years. This may be way too much, and I may go move away and have kids. What I mean is, tomorrow, if I wasn’t acting, it’s not like my life would be over.”
Besides, she says, “I don’t know if I’m an actor so much as a storyteller. I don’t look at a script and go, ‘Look at that quirky little character.’ I like the big-picture story, and Felicity just happens to be a brilliant big-picture story.”
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