Keri Russell hopes music and magic combine for a holiday hit

From: The Virginian Pilot November 20, 2007
by: Mal Vincent

NEW YORK

Keri Russell comes to the waning days of 2007 with Oscar buzz for her work in “Waitress” and what may be the holiday season’s most magical of movies.

“August Rush” asks that you believe in first love, the power of music, happy endings and the goodness of humankind. The new movie star, who quickly became a TV star by way of “Felicity,” knows that it’s a lot to ask of today’s cynical audiences.

The film, opening Wednesday, begins with one night of love between a rock singer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and a classical cellist (Russell), then flashes forward 10 years with the child of that romance searching New York City to find his parents. He believes music will bring them together.

“I know there are people who are going to say, ‘This never could happen,'” Russell, 31, said as she settled in for an interview at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which is crosstown from her Greenwich Village apartment . “Well, I’ve got news for them. Things aren’t getting a lot better out there in the real world, so they might like to go to the movies and go along with us for something like this. I think it might work. We’ve all put a lot into it.”

A graduate of the “Mouseketeers School of Dramatic Art,” Russell is one of the most sensible and down-to-earth of the emerging film stars.

Think of her and adorable is the first word that comes to mind. Can’t get around it. She’s signed as a spokesmodel for CoverGirl, but she thinks of herself these days as a part-time actress who spends most of her time carrying her 4-month-old son, River, around town.

“I just became this mom, and it’s taken over. Now I look at ‘Finding Nemo,’ and I can’t wait until he understands it. It takes over.”

She beams when we mention that both she and 81-year-old Andy Griffith, a resident of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, are getting Oscar talk for “Waitress,” one of the most favorably reviewed films of the year and the highest-grossing independent movie of the season.

She plays an abused wife in a small Southern town who becomes independent by way of her pie recipes and a restaurant owned by the town’s resident old guy, played by Griffith.

“He’s a dream,” Russell said. “Just a delight. I got this telephone message from him, and he said ‘Keri, I just saw the pictuah, and I liked it.’ That’s all he needed to say. I play it over whenever I need a charge. I love the way he said ‘pictuah.’ He’s a real Southern boy. I love him, and to think I used to watch him on television back when I was a little girl in Colorado .”

Griffith, who spoke recently from Manteo just before he left to go to California to work on a new movie, returned the feeling. “It’s Keri’s movie, but she made me feel like it was my movie. I have only a few scenes, but they are long scenes, heavy on dialogue, and it’d been a while since I made a movie, so I was being careful. Very careful. This young lady made me feel very much at home.”

She’s been working since age 15, when she attended an audition in Boulder, Colo., and landed a spot as one of the new generation of Mouseketeers. “The Mickey Mouse Club” was her teendom, in the same class with Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. “They were all 12 when I was 17, so they were like little kids to me. I was the one that could drive. It interested me that the producers were all very worried about the girls growing up. They were afraid the girls might have sex, but they didn’t care about the boys. I didn’t think that was particularly fair.”

She left the show to work on a new TV series, the quickly canceled “Daddy’s Girls” (1994). Her big break came in 1998 with “Felicity.” Just a few months after it went on the air, she won a Golden Globe.

From 1998 to 2002, she played a wide-eyed college student coping with life and love in New York City. When her ringlet hair was chopped off in the show’s second season, it was a national event.

Soon after “Felicity” went off the air, she moved to New York.

“It’s a magical place, just like in the movie ‘August Rush.’ There are interesting people everywhere. You go out to the local deli, and you meet all kinds of interesting people. It isn’t that way in Los Angeles. There, you go to the pool. ”

Last Valentine’s Day, in a New York restaurant , she married contractor Shane Deary.

As her first film after “Waitress,” you’d think she has a lot riding on “August Rush,” but she’s casual about it. “It’s a hard sell. It’s a sweet film, but it has no special effects and no violence. It might catch on. Might not. It’s a gamble, but I like gambles, and the joy was making it, regardless of what happens as we send it out into the world.”

For “August Rush,” she had to learn to play the cello well enough that it seems real when her character plays Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Bach.

“I started from dead stop. At least four hours a day, fingering those babies. That sounds vulgar, doesn’t it? It was, to say the least, a challenge. I mean, I had to look, believably, as if I was playing these works in front of the real New York Philharmonic. I had to go from ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ to Bach in 12 weeks. We broke the pieces down and slowed them so I could learn the correct bowing positions and then, gradually, brought them up to speed. Thankfully, I’m not responsible for the sound. A professional cellist plays the pieces .”

On the set, she was envious of Freddie Highmore’s assignment to learn guitar. (He’s the boy, now 15, who co-starred with Johnny Depp in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). He plays her long-lost son, who becomes a guitar sensation and a musical prodigy .

Coming up, she’s starring in a psychological thriller, “The Girl in the Park,” with Sigourney Weaver and Kate Bosworth.

After a year in which she worked with both Andy Griffith and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, she’ll have a tough act to follow in 2008.