Entertainment Weekly interview December, 1998

From: Entertainment Weekly 12/11/98
by: Dan Snierson

“OOOOOOOOOOH, FORTUNE COOKIES!” EXCLAIMS KERI Russell, pushing aside her plate of chicken satay as a waiter slides the final course in front of her. “This is the best part!” • Pausing momentarily during an interview at a low-key Santa Monica Thai restaurant, the 22-year-old star of The WB’s Felicity grabs her prize and cracks it open with eager-beaver eyes: THE STRENGTHS IN YOUR CHARACTER WILL BRING YOU SERENITY. • As Russell slowly recites these words, one of her character’s Dear-Sally- let’s-microanalyze-every-little-thing-to-death gazes crosses her porcelain face. But just before the scene turns too Lifetime-y, she slaps the scrap of paper on the table and busts out laughing: “Oh, God, I hope so! Soooon!! Puh-leeze bring it soon!!!” • And how.

ew_01To those familiar with her TV incarnation—a virtuous college freshman eternally tortured by one false move after another—peace of mind would be some kind of wonderful. The same goes for Russell herself. The chaos kicked off last spring, when TV critics (including EW’s) and ad execs anointed the Fountain of Curly Blond Hair as this fall’s Shiniest New Star, then labeled Felicity the most promising thing to hit the tube since color. Bootlegged copies of the pilot snaked their way through Hollywood. Rival networks publicly flogged themselves for not having the drama. Hell, the show might as well have been called Publicity.

Then came show time—and so did the answer to the fall’s most burning question: Would Felicity live up to its billing? (Envelope, please.) Yes! And no.

Three months into the season, the series averages 5.5 million weekly viewers and ranks a modest number 99, just behind its time-slot lead-in, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more than a stone’s throw from Dawson’s Creek (averaging 6.3 mil- lion folks per week). So no, it’s not the breakout smash predicted. But here’s the yes part: Felicity is a hit with a very powerful demographic. Among all primetime broadcast network series, it boasts the highest concentration of 18- to 34- year-olds in upscale households (people making $75,000 or more). A narrow niche for sure, but one that has khaki- clad Gap execs swinging from the chandeliers. “If you’re one of the advertisers who want to target young affluent women,” says David Marans, senior partner at ad agency J. Walter Thompson, “this is your baby. It’s a marketer’s dream.”

“Keri has been a great poster child for us,” says WB programming president Garth Ancier, who is equally jazzed about his net’s 19 percent growth in the l8-to-49-year-old demographic (making it the only broadcast net to see gains in that demo this season, thanks to its scalding-hot roster of teen shows, including Felicity’s frosh mate Charmed). “We hoped Felicity would be one of our first adventures in branching out to [young adults], and it’s been doing just that.”

For those not yet enrolled at the University of New York, here’s a quick orientation: Ultra-idealistic Felicity (Russell) follows aloof crush object Ben (Scott Speedman) cross-country to college and gets entangled in love triangle with dorky-cute dorm counselor Noel (Scott Foley) while juggling friendships with artsy Julie (Amy Jo Johnson) and anal Elena (Tangi Miller). Sample plots include—hold on to your laptops— cheating on term papers and date rape.

Hardly fresh territory in the teen universe, yet somehow this stylized college drama—teeming with self-conscious angst, moody slow-mo direction, and fuzzy-hearted emoting—has permeated the Zeitgeist: The show has already been parodied on SNL and MAD TV. And on the Internet, it generates more message postings and websites than any other new series. (For an electronic nod to the underground 90210 I Hate Brenda newsletter, check out the Contemptuous Sardonic Felicity Watchers Society.)

Russell doesn’t need any cyberproof to recognize her show is touching a nerve, for better or worse: “When I talk to my friends, they either so don’t like my character and list all these reasons—or if they love the character, they say, ‘You know that one scene where you do that one thing where you look up?’ And I’m like, I can’t believe you pay that much attention to the show, you sickos!'”

ON A FRENETIC NOVEMBER NIGHT ON the L.A. set of Felicity, the cast is dividing its time between episode 11 and MTV’s Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who is taping a piece for House of Style. With cameras rolling in “Ben’s loft,” Romijn grills Russell about cable-knit sweaters. Which is funny, since the actress— whose own wardrobe of plaid shirts, worn jeans, and Birkenstocks makes her character’s low-key threads look glam—is not exactly a fashion maven. A self-described “dork” and “freak,” she’s a contradictory combination of Noxzema perfection and Budweiser chumminess. “She’s humble to the point that you think it’s an act, but it’s not,” testifies Foley. “She received a framed cover of a magazine she was on, and she didn’t know what to do with it. She didn’t want to put it on her wall, and she didn’t want to send it to her mom for her wall. So she asked the makeup people if they wanted it.” He shrugs his shoulders: “She’s very unaffected by all of this.”

Well, most of it anyway. Russell— who goes big screen next year with the romantic comedy tentatively titled Mad About Mambo—is perplexed by the commotion accompanying the It Girl label. “Everyone wants to know, ‘How do you feel about all the hype?’ The truth is… I don’t know. But Regis and Kathie Lee don’t seem to like that answer. They want something bigger.”

The Colorado-raised actress, whose former gigs include The All New Mickey Mouse Club and Aaron Spelling’s cheesy Malibu Shores, is far more comfortable with Felicity fans. “The teenage girls that come to me are smart and cool—exactly the kind of girls I want to be watching,” beams Russell, who lives in L.A. with musician beau Tony Lucca. “And they don’t go [affects high-pitched squeal], ‘Omigod! Keri!! Omigod!!!’ They’re more like, ‘Hey, are you on Felicity? I really like that show.'”

Not that Russell is grabbing all the attention. In fact, the really critical debate raging on this show is not whether Felicity is fulfilling its promise. Rather, it’s the prickly passionate battle erupting between fans of Ben (the brooder) and Noel (the overearnest nurturer). Could this be Dylan versus Brandon all over again? (One fan website fastidiously tracks the ever-changing public sentiment: At press time, Noel led Ben 79 percent to 21 percent.) “People really think I’m an a – – hole,” marvels Speedman. “I went to this party and people were a little drunk and they were coming up to me, ‘What do you think about your character?’ and I’m like, ‘He’s a good guy,’ and they’re like, ‘Nah, he’s a d —.'” Foley, meanwhile, lays out his case quite convincingly: “Speaking as Noel, it’s time to see Felicity and Noel together. And speaking as Scott Foley. . .it’s definitely time to see Felicity and Noel together.”

Well, Scott Foley, here’s some good news: In future episodes, Felicity and Noel advance their intra-dorm desire, while Ben and Julie deepen their friendship. And here’s an even juicier morsel, confided by series cocreator J.J. Abrams: “Felicity.. .[uneasy pause] will have sex before the end of this year.”

Oh, dear. Does that also mean Nervous Breakdown No. 435 for our young heroine? If one criticism has dogged this otherwise snappily written show, it’s this: Lighten up—it’s college, for chrissakes! Fortunately, that’s a concern WB prez Ancier shared. “What J.J. and Matt [Reeves, a cocreator] have learned over the early episodes is that while college can be frightening, it can also be a happy experience,” he says. “The time has come for Felicity to enjoy herself.” Reeves promises at least a few more yuks, including a farcical finals episode. The initial shows “were full of low points; it was traumatic for Felicity to break away from home,” he says. “Now you’re go ing to see more highs mixed in.”

But will that translate into higher ratings? Those pesky questions linger. “Matt and I felt from the beginning this was a show that needed to find a core audience and then spread to other people,” says Abrams. “We’re thrilled to be doing as well as we’re doing despite the hype, which turned off a lot of people and raised expectations to an unrealistic level. This is a TV show. It’s not going to change your life.”

Not your life, perhaps.

“The other day,” offers Russell sheepishly, “I was at a restaurant, and there was a long line, and they offered to seat me early. It was kind of awkward. I was like, ‘No, no, no…you don’t need to do that. It’s okay.'” She pauses, then smiles. “You better believe I’m going back!” So much for serenity.