Keri Russell (interview)

From: Interview Magazine, June, 2007
by: J.J. Abrams

Yes, she was a mouseketeer. Yes, she was idolized by millions of teens. But when the grind of living up to expectations had Keri Russell heading for Burnoutsville, she went searching for something off the menu–and what she’s serving up now is surprise after surprise. Here, the actress opens up to J.J. Abrams about her new marriage, her new life, and her eye-opening new film, Waitress, a talked-about movie with a tragic real-life back story.

Keri Russell in Interview Magazine June, 2007
Keri Russell in Interview Magazine June, 2007
As the star of the hit television series Felicity, Keri Russell became the poster girl for post-adolescent confusion as she negotiated the trials and tribulations of college life in the pre- 9/11 world. But when the show ended in 2002, Russell, who began performing as a teen, arrived at a crossroads of her own: Having spent the better part of her young adulthood working on sets and sound stages, she was itching to explore the world beyond acting. She moved to New York from her native California, took a year off, and even contemplated leaving show business altogether.

But that’s the thing about second acts: You never see them coming—and now, with her starring role in the new film Waitress, the 31-year-old Russell is about to embark on one of her own. In the movie, a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Russell plays a pregnant waitress in a small Southern town who is desperately trying to scrounge up the money and the courage to leave her abusive husband—and her dead-end life—behind. Her only relief seems to come from her relationships with her equally world-weary work- mates, a budding affair with her new gynecologist, and a talent for inventing exotic pies that she believes could be her ticket out.

But while it’s always unfortunate when real life threatens to overwhelm a movie, in the case of Waitress, such intrusions are tragically unavoidable. While completing work on the film last November, the movie’s writer-director, Adrienne Shelly, was killed during a confrontation with a construction worker in the Manhattan apartment that she used as an office.

Shelly’s death was front-page news in New York City, where she had worked as an actress for nearly two decades. Just over 5 feet tall, Shelly never loomed largest on screen, but she always packed a big punch. Her work as director on Waitress is similarly underdog-driven: witty, wacky, biting, and breathlessly funny but with plenty of heart and soul. Ultimately, though, Waitress is a movie about new beginnings—and the film marks one for Russell as well. Producer, writer, and director J.J. Abrams, who cast Russell in Felicity nearly a decade ago, recently caught up with the actress as she and her new husband, building contractor Shane Deary, prepared for the arrival of their first child.

J.J. ABRAMS: So, how are you?
KERI RUSSELL: I’m feeling good. We were out of town and just got back to New York City at 4 A.M., so right now I’m doing laundry. Shane went out to get light bulbs. We’re being very domestic here—laundry and light bulbs.

JJA: All right, then. We’ll make this short and sweet—like you. [Russell laughs] Let’s start by talking about when I first met you. We were casting Felicity, and we kept seeing all of these different actresses coming in to audition. Then you walked in, and I knew immediately that you were wrong for the part.
KR: Thanks for the vote of confidence.

JJA: I’m not kidding. Felicity was supposed to be this wallflowery girl with no friends. And then you walked in, and you’re beautiful, and you’ve got the hair and everything, and I was like, “Yeah, as if that’s going to be the girl who doesn’t have any friends.” [Russell laughs] But the thing that got us was that you were just instantly so funny.
KR: Well, the part was so funny.

JJA: Oh, It was masterfully written. [Russell laughs] But here’s the question: Aside from the fact that you’re partially Jewish, to what do you attribute your sense of humor?
KR: Felicity was just a really funny part. Did no one else think it was funny? I thought it was hilarious. [Abrams laughs] But in terms of me as a person, I don’t know. No one is super-funny in my family. I guess my mom can be kind of wacky. I don’t think she tries to be funny, but she is.

JJA: Just a reminder: We’re being recorded. Whatever you say will come back to haunt you. [Russell laughs] So you’re on this show Felicity, and then that comes to an end. What happened after?
KR: When Felicity was over, I moved to New York and just kind of acted like a kid for a year. I read books. I went out dancing. I got drunk. I walked home in the snow.

JJA: And that was all in one night?
KR: Every night. For a solid year. [both laugh] But I think having that experience really helped me. I think what happened for me with Felicity—I was younger, and when you’re on a series there is no real break; you’re doing it all the time—is that I just sort of felt like everything about my life was work. Having time off just gave me perspective. I also think that now, because I’m a few years older, I just don’t care as much about everything. When you’re younger you want everyone to think you’re so cool. That just doesn’t matter to me as much anymore. I have this whole other life outside of work.

JJA: I wanted to ask you about The Mickey Mouse Club.
KR: I actually just saw Ryan Gosling, who was on The [All New] Mickey Mouse Club with me, at one of those pre-Oscar parties. It was so much fun. Donald Faison [Russell’s co-star on Felicity] was there too, and he was like, “Ooh, MMC’s in the house!” You wouldn’t know because you didn’t watch The Mickey Mouse Club, though.

JJA: How do you know I didn’t watch it? You don’t know that.
KR: You’re slightly too old to have watched it.

JJA: Okay. I am. Whatever.
KR: Sorry! Well, at the end of each episode, The Mickey Mouse Club had this song from the ’50s: “Now it’s time to say goodbye …” But we did the cool ’90s version with a rap at the end. Literally, we’d be singing, “Now it’s time to say goodbye/ To all our company” [makes beat-box noises] “M-1-C/See you real soon!/K-E-Y/Why? Because we like you!/M-0-U-S-E.” [Abrams laughs] That is how it went. We had to do hip-hop moves and dance with the kids in the audience. So at this party, Donald started singing The Mickey Mouse Club rap. I was like, “How do you know that rap?” He said he was like 18 or 19 when he was watching the show—or at least old enough that < it would not have been cool for him to have been watching the show.

JJA: That’s how good you are, Keri. You made The Mickey Mouse Club rap compelling.
KR: Well, you know. I know. [laughs]

JJA: So after Felicity you took a year off. Did you always know that you were going to continue acting afterward, or was it a thing where you didn’t know if you were definitely going to go back to it?
KR: I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was looking into colleges. I thought I might go back to school. I thought, I’ll see if I can get into Sarah Lawrence. I think I even called you at one point. I’m interested in a lot of different things. I think there were a lot of things I could have done. But I didn’t know that I wanted to work again until the right job came up.

JJA: Okay. So now you’re in this movie Waitress.
KR: It’s really crazy and zany and sad.

JJA: You play a woman who is pregnant— and you were pregnant while you were making the film.
KR: I was.

JJA: And your character in the movie is married, but not happily. So it sounds like you’re playing someone who is quite different from you in some ways. With Felicity I always felt like I wrote something and then found someone who was eerily in sync with the part. With Waitress, did you have to do a lot of work to figure out who your character was in relation to who you are?
KR: I did. I think to take on any job, you have to go, “Oh, I get some part of this.” The main thing with Waitress is that I loved how sad it was. There was something in the movie that was really heartbreaking. Also, I had spent some time in the South years ago, working on something else and living in this tiny little town where there were a lot of women like my character in the movie. There’s a line in Waitress that I love. My character is having an affair with her gynecologist, and he’s asking her why she hasn’t left her bad husband. She says to him, “Well, have you ever been poor?” And he says, “Well, yeah. I was broke a few times.” And she’s like, “No, no, no. Broke is different from poor. Broke is when you can’t pay your college dues or whatever. Poor is about having no options.” I really liked that. I loved how the women in Waitress worked in this diner and how that was their life. Even though they had relationships with men, their relationships with one another were their real love affairs. That’s what got them through the day. I also loved how funny it was. Even though my character doesn’t get to laugh at all the jokes, it completely cracked me up.

JJA: So you wore the straight-man coat?
KR: Yeah. And I’m constantly talking about how much I don’t want the baby and how the baby is annoying me. And I keep getting more and more pregnant, wearing this little diner outfit. It’s hilarious. Some of it is pretty broad. But then there are other moments that are completely real and tender and sweet.

JJA: And now you’re going to be a mom.
KR: I am.

JJA: I almost can’t believe it. What are you looking forward to most about it?
KR: I’ve always known that I wanted to have kids, so it’s not a hard idea for me. If anything, I’m surprised I even waited this long. I’d love to have more than one. But what I’m most excited about is just the idea of starting life.

JJA: Is there anything else you’re doing in anticipation of becoming parents?
KR: Well, we just went to Bora Bora. We took this amazing trip together just because we said, “Let’s go do this before—” not “our life is over,” but, you know. So we’ve been trying to do all these last-minute trips. And we’ve been reading. Not much else. It’s been a really easy, natural process.

JJA: It’s such a crazy miracle, the whole thing. It always freaks me out when people start decorating and things. It’s not like the baby is going to be born and say, “I prefer a more beige look to my room.” [Russell laughs] So what’s going to happen one day when your kid comes home and says, “Mom, I want to be an actor”?
KR: Oh, Jesus.

JJA: You’d be cool with it?
KR: Not if they were a kid.

JJA: So if they came to you and said, “We’re casting The Mickey Mouse Club 2019 …”
KR: No way. Look, I think I turned out okay. But, honestly, I think I’m the rare exception.

JJA: But Keri, you didn’t turn out okay. You’re fucked up. [both laugh] KR: Really, I just think that acting is a hard business. But that being said, the people who are great in this business are some of my favorite people in the world. They’re interesting. They’re emotional. They’re very smart. I’ve met some great ones. But there’s so much that comes with this business. Money and fame attracts so many different types of characters.

JJA: What if your kid came to you and Shane, then, and said, “I want to be a building contractor or a carpenter,” like what Shane does?
KR: I would love it. I think that job is hot.

JJA: You want a sexy kid.
KR: [in a deep voice] I want a sexy kid. That’s all I’m worried about, [Abrams laughs] But, really, I just think it’s something real. It’s about building something tangible.

JJA: Okay, shifting to a different topic. That CoverGirl ad with the karate chops—how did you not laugh while you were doing that?
KR: I was laughing the whole time.

JJA: But in a good way.
KR: In a great way.

JJA: Not in a losing-your-contract way.
KR: No. I was very excited to be a CoverGirl.

JJA: So why do you use so much CoverGirl makeup?
KR: I just can’t stop!

JJA: [laughs] I see that you’ve also done another movie, August Rush, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.
KR: He’s really good in the movie. He’s way better than I am in it.

JJA: That’s what he said.
KR: [laughs] I’m sure. He plays this cool Irish rocker. He gets to sing. The movie is these little vignettes that all come together. But his story really comes through.

JJA: What about this other film The Girl In the Park—could you do more movies?
KR: [laughs] I have a small part in that one- it’s mostly Sigourney Weaver and Kate Bosworth. It was written by David Auburn, who wrote the play Proof. It’s a really dark story set in New York: A woman goes to a park with her 3-year-old daughter. She’s distracted for a second, and when she looks up, her daughter is gone. It ruins her life and her marriage, and she gets separated from her family. Then, years later, she meets a troubled drifter girl who she thinks is her daughter. Funnily enough, Alessandro Nivola plays a carpenter, and I play his pregnant wife.

JJA: That’s bizarre. So I guess the next thing you’re going to do is have the baby.
KR: Can’t get out of it now.

JJA: Years from now, when this kid is looking back over all of its mother’s crazy adventures on some weird handheld media device that has every piece of information on it, and this interview comes up, what would you want to say to your child?
KR: Gosh. I have no idea. It’s so mind-boggling to think you’re going to shape someone’s life. Shit. I guess I would just want them to enjoy themselves in life and be happy—
JJA: On The Mickey Mouse Club.


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