Instyle Magazine 8/99 (interview)

From: InStyle Magazine, Aug. 1999
By: Lisa Simpson

On a clear day you can see famed Half Dome in the glassy waters of Mirror Lake, a popular pine-rimmed spot on the eastern edge of Yosemite Valley. But it’s so overcast on this miserable June day that you can’t even see your own reflection. And sitting at the water’s edge, Keri Russell and her pals are so cold and tuckered out from a full day of hiking that they’re growing giddy. With a slight shiver, her boyfriend, musician Tony Lucca, cracks “I’m going to Starbucks–anybody want anything?”

instyle_0899Of course, there isn’t a name-brand latte to be found this side of Fresno, but the Felicity star’s goal is just that: to get away from it all. She had always wanted to visit Yosemite, with its glacier-carved peaks, monolithic stone walls and thundering waterfalls. So after wrapping the demanding first year of her much hyped WB series (for which she won a best actress Golden Globe), she decided to hit the road in an RV with Lucca and a few friends to explore what is arguably the most majestic valley in the world. Still, it wasn’t until she completed the six-hour trek from her home in L.A. to Yosemite’s central California portal that she began to comprehend the vastness of the 747,956-acre, 109-year-old national park–the world’s first federally preserved wilderness. “I thought Yosemite was one big rock and there would be this beautiful valley we would hike to,” she says. “I didn’t really know that it was this huge, almost violent, geological formation. It’s extreme–so hard core.”

That Russell chose to spend precious vacation time roughing it is no surprise to those that know her. Defiantly unfussy, she eschews makeup and malls in favor of hikes in Malibu and jaunts in her black pickup. And while she sometimes indulges in massages and in couture, like the beaded Armani she wore to the Golden Globes (“It was so cool, so not puffy and ruffly and fancy”), she spends most of her time in jeans, tank tops and Birkenstocks. “I have to be able to run around and be crazy,” she says. “And, please, stepping out of a pickup truck in capri pants? Not going to happen!”

Joining Russell and Lucca, both 23, on the four-day trip are old friends actor Brian Groh, 29, and NYU freshman Ilana Miller, 20, and new friend Ivan Sergei, 28, co-star of the upcoming WB series Jack and Jill. (Only Groh has been here before.) Driving into the valley at sunset, they are awed by the park’s raging splendor; thanks to spring runoff from the High Sierra, waterfalls and rivers are at full flow. But they are a bit taken aback by the weather: Though summer temperatures are normally around 80 degrees, the mercury hovers in the mid-50’s. “It’s so funny,” says Russell, bundled in a purple Patagonia fleece pullover that Lucca gave her for her birthday in March, “because we brought all these swimsuits and cute shorts.”

But the actress and her camping companions are in high spirits as they pull their 34-foot Bounder RV (sleeps six) into the Lower Pines campground. Like Felicity–a straight-arrow student who impulsively rejects a Stanford education to reinvent herself at a downtown New York university–Russell has a natural resilience. (The similarities don’t stop there, but, she says, “I’m obviously not as naive. I have a few years on her.”) Nevertheless, long TV workdays, with Russell appearing in nearly every scene, took their toll. “It’s all-consuming,” she says. “You can’t do anything else. You can’t say [to friends], ‘Let’s meet for dinner,’ because you have to sleep” Her last day of shooting in April ended at 5 a.m.; three hours later she and Lucca were Hawaii-bound for three days of rest. But, she says, “It wasn’t much of a vacation. Basically, it was recuperation.”

This trip has found her in a more playful mood: “On the ride up we took turns picking out CDs, and Ivan played one of Billy Joel’s old ones. We sang so loud, it was so much fun. We laughed our heads off.” Their good humor continues the next day, despite rainy weather–and other natural obstacles. En route to misty Vernal Fall, the group suddenly stops in their tracks. A large black bear is crossing their path 20 yards ahead. Luckily, he keeps going, most likely in search of food.

The bear sighting–“He was huge!” says Russell–isn’t enough to keep her from taking a solitary hike later in the day. “Walking is a big part of my life,” she says “I like being physical and I like being alone. I laugh sometimes when I’m walking, Oh, I’m so happy, I’m such a massive geek. Maybe I have big, huge, happy endorphins in my body.”

She credits her optimistic attitude to a supportive upbringing. Russell, a middle child, was born in Southern California and moved with her family to Arizona and Colorado when her father, who worked for Nissan Corp., was relocated. Russell says she has always been close to her parents (her mother is a homemaker) and two siblings, but what sustained her self-esteem through adolescence was her love of jazz dance and ballet. “I think it’s hugely important for a teenage girl to have something more important in her life than junior high, which is a freak show for everyone,” she says. “I learned a lot about winning and losing, that I’m not always going to be the best. I don’t think girls find that out as much as guys.”

In 1991 she snared a spot on The Mickey Mouse Club, which is where she met Lucca; they performed together on the Orlando-based show for three years. “We kissed when we were both 15,” says Russell. “But we were on and off when we were teenagers. Then once we got a little older, we started seriously dating.” In 1996 they lived together while co-starring in the short-lived series Malibu Shores. But during that time they split up–which couldn’t have been easy, since they were coupled on the show. “We didn’t talk for quite a while,” Russell says. “Then one day I came home and there was a cassette tape on my doormat. It was a message written from him with an amazingly sad song about how great I was and how bad he was. I didn’t call him–I was so not going there.”

Then about two years ago, she was having her wisdom teeth pulled and needed a friend to drive her home. Lucca, who lived near her surgeon, was not only willing to chauffeur, but also brought her soup and nursed her through the pain. A month later they started dating again, and he moved in with her soon after. “He’s amazing,” she says. “Some mornings I’ll wake up and he’ll have made tea and cut some mangoes, and he’ll say ‘I’ll drive you to work and you can eat this in the car.'”

When they’re not working–Lucca is now more focused on his “soul-folk” music than his acting, playing such clubs as L.A.’s fabled Whiskey–they forgo the Hollywood scene. “We’re real reclusive,” says Lucca. Adds Russell, “We’re big on Sunday mornings. We’ll take a walk to go get breakfast together.” And what about the silver bands on their ring fingers? “They’re an acknowledgment of each other’s presence in our lives,” Russell says. “He’s my best friend. We recognize in each other that we’re not looking for the perfect person, we’re just looking for someone who is trying as hard as we are to become a better person.” Miller, a fellow former Mouseketeer, says, “It was always Keri and Tony. They come as a package.”

The next morning the rocky peaks are brushed with snow, but the sky turns sunny and the group troops to Bridalveil Fall. As day turns to night, stars emerge, and Keri, Brian, Ilana and Ivan huddle by the campfire, where Tony plays guitar and sings James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Keri’s favorite Lyle Lovett song, “Nobody Knows Me.” He also plays a Lucca original, one of many inspired by Russell. The chorus: “You are meant for me. I can’t love nobody but you.”

By the last morning Russell seems blissful and relaxed, though even in the wilderness, Felicity-mania proves inescapable: At the campground shower, she is spotted by a gaggle of girls but remains unfazed. (“She comes to New York and takes the subways,” notes Miller.) After a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked by Lucca, Russell and her four pals head for Glacier Point, which at 7,214 feet, offers a panoramic view. Gazing out at Half Dome, Russell takes a last look over the Valley and grows wistful. “I think there’s something great about being on top of things and having a vantage point on it all,” she says. Words to remember for someone whose own ascent seems to have just begun.