She plays the confidence-challenged Felicity on TV, but the real Russell is definitely comfortable in her own skin
From: Mademoiselle Magazine May, 1999
by: JAMIE DIAMOND
ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A NEW low-concept television show, starring an actress you never heard of on a network that was just getting it’s legs. Then that network spent close to $5 million on billboards, subway posters and bus ads. Promo spots featuring Madonna’s single “Power of Goodbye” blanketed prime time. Madison Avenue stampeded to grab advertising-and critics proclaimed the show’s mostly unknown star the Second Coming of Calista, not to mention the hottest face of 1998.
All this before Felicity even aired!
As the object of this publicity whirlwind, Keri Russell, 23, could have been blown out of the picture long before she appeared on screen. Viewers, after all, tend to assume that megahype means meager substance. But the show turned out to be well written, and Russell made the smart-but-self-doubting Felicity funny and interesting. She’s that way in person, too.
She arrives at the Mademoiselle photo shoot dressed in clunky sandals, baggy jeans and a tank T-shirt, carrying a huge, puce-green marshmallow of a bag. When the photo stylist offers her “a top with a nice V neck,” Russell jokes that she doesn’t have much to fill it. Indeed, she has the shoulders of an Olympic swimmer,the bones of a hummingbird and the lithe shape of a dancer. She’s been dancing since she was 11, and it’s still her favorite way to work out. “I know this sounds cheesy,” says Russell, “but in my house I have a room with a big mirror and when I feel yucky, I stretch naked in front of it.”
Even though Russell’s reached Celebrity Heights, she’s not totally obsessed with staying there. When asked if she’s going to shoot a slick slice-and-dice summer flick to keep her career on the boil, she says, “Oh, no, not me. If I don’t find a film I really want to make, I’ll go to Alaska, or take a Winnebago through the national parks.”
MADEMOISELLE: Felicity should know the answer to this: Why do so many of us pursue unrequited love?
KERI RUSSELL: People—not just in their teenage years—hold on to this fantasy of love when they’re not ready to have a real relationship. For example, two of my friends are in ‘N Sync, so I went to one of their concerts. Talk about unrequited love! All those hysterically screaming young girls. Society has this idea that there’s only one person in the world for you—and girls buy into that more than guys. I mean, how many guys do you know who are pining away, waiting for that one true love?
MLLE: What do guys do, if not pine?
KR: Play sports and experience winning and losing on a daily basis. Those are important things for a girl to learn. When I grew up, I played sports. I didn’t wait for a guy to call. It’s sad when girls think they don’t have anything going on except being pretty.
MLLE: Did your being pretty make it hard for people to see who you were?
KR: I sound so obnoxious even addressing that. But Felicity is the best thing that could have happened as far as that issue goes. For the first time, someone let me play a character who wasn’t described as beautiful or angelic. Now I see adjectives like ‘introspective’ or ‘quiet. ‘I love it that Felicity isn’t girly— or a tomboy, either. She’s just a great person. I think that’s what teenagers are about these days. No one is all-girl or all-boy. I drive a pickup truck.
MLLE: Other non-Felicity traits?
KR: Felicity’s still hiding in her clothes— I doubt she’s seen herself naked too much. I’m a tank-top girl, and I wear more hippie things, like long skirts with flip-flops. Love is a higher priority for me, but Felicity’s priority is figuring out what she wants to do with her career.
MLLE: How are you similar?
KR: At a party full of strangers, we’d both stand back until we were talked to.
A Felicitous Education
There’s a tapping at the window. Russell waves from outside our post-shoot meeting place, a Malibu pastry shop— she’s the kind of person who likes to make contact before we officially make contact. When answering q’s about her childhood and, later, her boyfriend, she never puts up a Do Not Disturb sign in her eyes. Either she’s remarkably open, or she’s a very talented actress.
The middle child of three, Russell was born in California and raised in Mesa, Arizona, and Denver, Colorado. The family moved often because of her father’s job at Nissan. What does he do? “I don’t really know,” says Russell. “Once I said in an interview that he was a suit for Nissan and he said that made his friends tease him. But he does wear a suit and it’s not to sell cars—he’s in management. Still, he’s got the loner mentality. He can shut off and be quiet and satisfied in his own little world.” Russell credits her artistic side to her mother. “She’s very accommodating and sensitive to people, and so am I.”
MLLE: You’ve said that Reviving Ophelia—about the psychological changes that take place from girlhood to adolescence—is one of your favorite books.
KR: Reading Ophelia changed my life. I hope,in some way, that Felicity will help young girls have a better sense of themselves so they’ll feel free to be more real.
MLLE: Describe your girlhood: What were you like at ten? At sixteen?
KR: At ten, I had permed hair and braces. I was tiny. But I was loud and obnoxious. I was always playing softball. When I was sixteen, my parents moved to Texas. So there I was again, at a new school in the middle of the year, with no friends. It was probably the only time I rebelled. I’d stay out until three in the morning with my boyfriend. My mom would be crying when I came home and I’d go, ‘Mom, whatever. We’re not even sleeping together!’
MLLE: What did moving around so much do to your take on life?
KR: If you grow up in the same social group, you have a niche. I never had that. I had to reinvent myself over and over. I can spend the whole day alone and not say anything. It’s like you’re watching a movie of your life and you don’t consider yourself really there.
How Her Career Went From Mediocre to Meteoric
While Russell may look like an overnight success, she’s been winding her way through the acting labyrinth since she was 15. That’s when a photographer spotted her at a jazz dance class in Denver. Her photos in his portfolio made their way to Disney; she appeared in Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, and was cast as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. “You get paid nothing,” Russell says of the privilege of dancing around in Mickey Mouse paraphernalia.”Well,you get more than if you worked at Starbucks.” At 17, she moved to L.A.and won parts in TV movies (The Babysitter’s Seduction; The Lottery); two short-lived series (Daddy’s Girls and Malibu Shores}; a couple of may-never-be-released films (The Curve; 8 Days a Week); and the upcoming Mad About Mambo.
When she auditioned for Felicity, the producers asked Russell and three others for a final callback. “We read, separately, and they told us we’d learn who won the part when we got home.at five o’clock,” she says. But she couldn’t make herself drive home.”I was nervous, horrified—A, because if I got the role, my life would change so drastically; B, if I didn’t get the role, I’d be so devastated. So I drove to a lookout spot and watched the sunset.Then I took myself out to dinner—I had a big steak, asparagus and a glass of wine. It was like, let’s pretend I’m on vacation from my life. Finally I went home at eight-thirty and found out.”
MLLE: Did you make an acting career happen, or did it happen to you?
KR: Acting happened to me. If I had pursued it, I think it would have been like someone going to a bar, desperately looking for love and not finding anyone. You’re going to find someone at a newsstand when you haven’t taken a shower or had your coffee and you’re cranky. That’s the way life works. I think most actors think they’ll get love by get- ting recognition through acting. But even when you win a Golden Globe [as Russell did for Felicity], no one’s saying, ‘You’re a great person. They’re saying, ‘This week we like purple and you’re purple. Next week we’ll like green.’
MLLE: You’re more convincing as Felicity than you’ve been in other roles. Is it because you’re a better actor or because it’s a better role?
KR: Both.When the show started, I was at a press conference full of a gazillion journalists, and one of the first questions asked was, ‘Keri, you’ve done a lot of—for lack of a better word—bad projects. How did you get this one?’ I laughed and said,’So, basically you’re saying. How did I go from being bad to being good?’ And everybody laughed—thank God. But they don’t offer great projects to people who are just starting out. You do what’s available to you.
MLLE: You’ve said you don’t think of yourself as an actor.
KR: Nicolas Cage is an actor. I don’t love creating down-and-out characters to see how far I can go. I don’t think I’ll play a transsexual drug addict anytime soon.
Three Men on TV, But Just One at Home
A few days later, on the Felicity set, Russell enters the library of the University of New York—actually a soundstage in Los Angeles. She’s wearing an uncharacteristic, see-through purple sweater over a camisole. Felicity, torn between the oblivious guy she loves and the sensitive guy who loves her, has done what’s required to keep viewers tuned in: She’s picked a third guy, and moved into, or rather out of, virgin territory.
In real life, Russell lives with her 23- year-old boyfriend. Tony Lucca, a gentle, low-key singer-songwriter/actor. The two met when they were youngsketeers on the Mickey Mouse Club. With his glasses,goatee and shaggy hair, Lucca could easily pass as, if not a dorm advisor, a grad student. About their relationship, Russell says:”I feel like I’m married; I don’t have to have a license. I could have kids right now and not be officially married.”
MLLE: Women your age usually don’t have solid domestic relationships.
KR: I started working when I was fifteen. Except for the one time I mentioned earlier, I had no need to rebel against people taking care of me, because I took care of me. All I wanted was to be in a stable relationship.
MLLE: After you moved to L.A.,you got severe stomachaches. Why?
KR: They thought I had ulcers, or appendicitis, or gallstones. But it was stress, unrelated to my job.Tony and I had split up temporarily and I was miserable.
MLLE: Describe the perfect ’90s guy.
KR: Someone with a sense of himself, who’s read a book. Because today, whether you’re male or female, it’s not about being the best-looking, it’s about being the most interesting.
Well,then,Keri Russell has it made— she’s both.
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