Keri Russell: Out of control

Starring opposite Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible III’ has launched Keri Russell into cinema’s premier league. But she’s learnt to be wary of the voracious Hollywood hype machine. James Mottram meets her

By: James Mottram
The Independent May 2, 2006

It’s late morning, and Keri Russell is looking a little dazed. Along with her fellow cast members, the new star of Mission: Impossible III arrived in London from Italy at 4am last night. In reality, hopping on to the Tom Cruise express is what has left her bewildered.

The premiere in Rome, where some of the film takes place, was “out of control”, apparently. “It’s like a rock’n’roll tour,” she says, her green eyes blinking. “The nature of Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible… that’s just what this is.” Poor girl. Being a cog in the well-oiled machine that is Tom Cruise Inc can’t be easy, particularly when you know you’re going to spend most of the day fielding queries about him.

Sitting on a sofa in the Dorchester hotel, Russell immediately starts to ramble when the subject of Cruise’s erratic personality comes up. “People keep talking about him, and you’re asked so many questions about him personally,” she says. “It’s funny. You feel protective over him.” It turns out she first met Cruise at the house of Mission: Impossible III’s director, JJ Abrams (the creator of TV sensation Lost), before she knew she had been cast in the film. They – along with Abrams’ daughter – held a hula-hoop contest. “I met him in a very real sense,” she asserts, “so I guess I immediately got to see that real side. I know people have a persona and have to protect themselves with the press, but in person he’s very accessible.”

Before Mission: Impossible III – in which she plays an agent trained by Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt – Russell starred opposite two venerable Hollywood alpha males, Mel Gibson (in We Were Soldiers) and Kevin Costner (in The Upside of Anger). She’s also a Golden-Globe-winner for playing the title role in the US television show Felicity, which was created by Abrams before he went on to devise Lost. Oh, and she began her teenage years on the Disney show The All New Mickey Mouse Club opposite the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake.

All things considered, Russell is remarkably down to earth. Her boyfriend is a carpenter who lives in Martha’s Vineyard, and she only recently took on her first modelling gig, as the face of the cosmetics company CoverGirl. “I always shied away from all that stuff,” she says. “While Felicity was successful in the States, and I had opportunities to do other stuff, I didn’t want to do anything to make myself more famous. I wasn’t dealing well with the celebrity of all of that. I was 23 – just a kid – and not coming from money, it was all just too much. I just wanted to slow it down a little bit, and gain control.”

During the four series of Felicity, a drama about a college girl who follows her high-school crush to college in New York, she was working 18-hour days five days a week. “You have a month and a half off in the summer,” she says. “I don’t know how ‘hour-long’ shows like that will continue. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s just life-arresting.”

So how does she feel now, with the prospect of imminent fame courtesy of the Tom Cruise roadshow? “I think I have a little bit more control over it,” she says. “I live in New York now, which saves me. I have friends in the business but if something doesn’t go right, I think, ‘Who cares?’ I’ve found a way to balance it.”

She certainly puts in a solid performance in Mission: Impossible III, which ups the emotional ante on its predecessors, with Hunt forced to rescue Russell’s character, Lindsay, who has been captured by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ruthless villain. “She’s the catalyst to get the whole story going,” says Russell, who was personally brought on to the project by Abrams.

Taking the part meant she had to learn how to assemble a gun blindfold (her record was 13 seconds, she notes proudly) and engage in a complex stick-fight with Cruise. Did she ever hit him? “Are you kidding? I was so worried about breaking that nose!” She also found herself jumping on to the roof of a van with him from a six-storey building. “That’s part of the ‘once in a lifetime’ experience,” she enthuses. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to do this kind of movie with that kind of actor ever again.”

Raised in Colorado and Arizona – her father was a “suit” for the car-maker Nissan – Russell was obsessed by dance as a teen, and it was only by chance that she started working for Disney. Although she has no children, she says that if she had, she wouldn’t allow them to spend their tender years on stage or screen. “I think it’s definitely a slippery slope,” she admits. “While I don’t regret it, I’d never recommend it. The good thing about my experience is that I was working with other kids. And that was very rare – I was in that adult world but with other kids. It was like going to Fame high school. But I think it’s a really weird thing for kids to be a part of. Let’s face it, it’s a weird thing for adults to be a part of.”

Five years older than Spears when they appeared together on The All New Mickey Mouse Club, Russell is now entirely used to being quizzed about the singer. “I can’t say I really knew her,” she says, shrugging. “But, at 12, she had so much promise. She was a great dancer and the most productive of those kids – always placed at the front.”

It’s now Russell who is the one with the career full of promise. Having shot the lead in Adrienne Shelly’s low-budget comedy Waitress, she also wrapped August Rush just two days before her European jaunt. “A fairy-tale version of Oliver Twist”, according to Russell, it pairs her with her Mission: Impossible III co-star Jonathan Rhys Meyers as parents to a musical prodigy.

Our interview over, Russell curls up on the sofa and looks ready for a nap. She still has Amsterdam, Brussels and Stockholm to do before she can head home. “We just get to see the inside of hotel rooms,” she laments. “We wake up, get ready, go to the premiere and then don’t even watch the movie but head to the next city.” So does she see herself following Cruise’s box-office domination in the future? She shakes her head. “I just want to make a lot of money, buy a house, then quit.”