The story of how one young actress went from the brink of switching careers to becoming the toast of Hollywood.
From: C Magazine December, 2007
by: Robert Haskell
In 2002, after putting “Felicity” to bed, Keri Russell got dangerously close to becoming a real “real” person, and we almost forgot about her. She moved to New York and read books in quiet West Village cafes; she fell in love with a carpenter; she reconnected with her closest girlfriends, not a single one of whom can be referenced on the Internet Movie Database. It was, she says, her “first retirement.”
Though she’s back with a critically acclaimed turn in last summer’s Waitress and a clutch of films due out this season, there really may be no starlet more down-to-earth than Russell. It’s not often, for example, that a screen actress gives a writer detailed subway instructions to get to her Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s the rare siren who straps her baby to her chest for an interview because she doesn’t have a sitter (let alone a nanny). If Russell, 31, seems far removed from the Hollywood mommies-who-lunch that so many of her contemporaries have become of late, it’s for good reason.
“Motherhood in Los Angeles requires a whole different psyche, and I find it harder,” she says, settling into a corner banquette in a Fort Greene coffee shop, her baby boy, River, asleep in her lap. “I saw Molly Shannon just before I had the baby-she has two kids and lives in Chelsea-and she was saying, ‘in L.A., I have to worry about how I look when I take my kid to a birthday party. Somebody’s father there is a producer who thinks I look really ugly without my make-up.’ She’s right. The person you’re having breakfast with’s sister is producing a movie you read for.. .or, ‘Oh, she wasn’t really that funny at brunch, so can she really do comedy?’ Everyone there is connected, which is great-for them. But it’s also great to just live your life.”
These words might be expected coming from the brood ing lips of, say, Tilda Swinton, but Russell is a native Califomian. She was bom in Fountain Valley and started her career as a dancer, joining Britney, Christina and Justin as a cast member of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” when she was 15. “Dance is my first love, but you can’t make a living at it,” she says. “Even the best of the best barely do. And then, at the age I am now, they’re done.”
Russell is arrestingly pretty-with giant gray-green eyes, the small, animated nose of a ’60s French film star, and an upper lip that makes a graceful bell curve over her sparkling front teeth. Unruly-haired girls across America were so disappointed when she cut off her long ringlets before the final year of “Felicity”-where, true to life, Russell played a California co-ed who finds love in New York City-that her new coiffure itself was blamed for the show’s final ratings skid. Those curls were on abundant display this fall, however, when Russell starred alongside Terrence Howard, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Robin Williams in August Rush.
Russell plays Lyia Novacek, a sheltered cello prodigy whose orphaned son-the cast-off fruit of a passionate night with a young rocker (Rhys Meyers)-inherits his mother’s musical genius. The better part of the film focuses on Lyia and her son’s search to reclaim one another.
If there’s a theme common to Russell’s recent roles, it’s the belly: She’s played pregnant in three consecutive films, starting with Waitress and culminating in David Auburn’s The Girl in the Park, also out this past fall. This marks the second time when, for Russell, life has imitated art. “Pure coincidence,” she says. “I find I’m drawn to songs or books or movies that share a theme: They’re about being lost, about belonging. I just love those stories. In August Rush, I loved the idea of this little boy saying, I know that they want me-that they’re out there somewhere.'”
Russell also loves a challenge. In The Upside of Anger, she put her toe shoes back on for the first time in 15 years. (“There was a lot of blood,” she says.) For the TV mini-se- ries “Into the West,” she became a skilled horsewoman. And for August Rush, she conquered the cello. “What’s started to be really fun for me about this business is the learning,” she says. “Getting to sit and leam to play cello for all those hours every week was a privilege-but it was hard, For one scene I had to play-and I mean really play-with the New York Philharmonic. How awful is that?”
The director of August Rush, Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim Sheridan, renowned Irish director of My Left Foot), admits to having had her doubts about Russell at the outset. “I don’t watch TV, and I’m in Ireland, so when Keri was first mentioned to me, I didn’t know what to think,” she explains. “Lyia starts out very young and naive. Years later, when she leams her child is alive, she becomes kind of fierce and determined. It’s a huge arc for anyone. When Keri arrived, she just blew me away: She was able to play every facet.”
To anyone who has spent a couple of relaxed hours with Russell over coffee, it comes as no surprise to hear what a pleasure she is on set. “She’s an incredibly collaborative actor,” Sheridan says. “She questions you a lot and really gets you thinking, and she’s so intelligent. What’s more, she just doesn’t have a star’s ego. I think she’s grounded and happy, and that gives her work as an actress a very strong foundation.”
Russell and her husband, Shane Deary, were married on Valentine’s Day with a trip to city hall and dinner with a few friends. Deary hails from Martha’s Vineyard-“the real, year-round Vineyard,” Russell says, “not the fancy summer one.” He’s currently building their new family a brownstone in Brooklyn, where Russell says she finally feels at home. “Brooklyn is an oasis. The thing about Manhattan is photographers lie in wait on certain blocks. You do not walk down West Fourth [Street] unless you want your picture taken. I’ve been out of the city for a while, and I’ll forget; then I’ll see them and say, ‘Whoops!’ and walk the other way.”
If her star continues to rise, Russell may find herself welcoming lensmen to the outer boroughs. But it may be a paced ascent: She moves skittishly about the business of filmmaking, taking her time to read scripts, saying no more often than yes, and, indeed, not hiring a babysitter.
Russell is still pained to talk about the murder last November of Adrienne Shelly, her director and co-star in Waitress, only days before the film was accepted at Sun- dance. But it’s clear her thoughts hang on Sophie, Shelly’s four-year-old daughter. “Now that I have a baby, this tragedy makes me feel how precious that relationship is,” Russell explains. “I had to fly to Toronto for work this summer, just for the day, and it was the first time I’d been away from the baby. Shane and I both admitted afterward that we couldn’t stop thinking about Adrienne and Sophie.”
After spending most of her adult life traveling, Russell is content with domesticity-though she concedes she hasn’t yet learned how to bake the delectable pies Jenna, her character in Waitress, serves up throughout the film. Russell’s social life sdll revolves around her unmarried girlfriends. “I love hearing ridiculous dating stories over muldple glasses of wine,” she says, “about who’s good in bed and who’s not, and who didn’t pick up the bill at the end of the date.” Back at home, though, she slips into the maternal vortex. “It’s the most chemically, emotionally extreme thing I’ve ever experienced. All these images of a soft, gentle mother-I don’t know whose experience that is. You become a little crazy. You wake up and you’re asking yourself whether you’ve brushed your teeth all week.
“But I know this is a really good time to be ambitious-to leap on something,” she continues. “And I’m sure it’s probably frustrating to my agents that they’ll give me a script, and I’ll be at page 10 a week later. This business is so fickle; there’s a time when you’re wanted, and next year you may not be. When lots of people are sending things my way, it’s not always good to take the first thing that comes. That may not be the most ambitious approach, but I feel comfortable with the way things have gone so far.”
Meanwhile, her skin as taut and rosy as ever, Russell has landed a plum modeling gig as one of the faces of CoverGirl. “Cosmetics companies basically sell the same look across the board: young, white, blonde, whatever,” she says. “What I think is so cool about CoverGirl is that their number-one person is Queen Latifah. And I also think, honestly, it’s just irresponsible to tell 14-year-old girls to buy $3,000 bags. I love being a part of something where it’s ‘No, buy this $3 lip gloss.'”
Russell is fortunate. Even as she enters the decade notorious for sending actresses’ careers to their graves, she continues to be asked to play younger. “I’m finally getting parts where I play a 25-year-old,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t feel that Botox pressure yet, but I know it’s there. I have actress friends in their 60s-Academy Award- nominated actresses who didn’t work for 15 years and are just now starting to get parts again-though as the mothers of the women they used to play.”
She concedes that, New Yorker though she’s become, one of her favorite things about acting is it inevitably brings her back to California. And there, what she loves, most of all, is to be a tourist. Russell goes to Big Sur annually, and in L.A., she’s a devout member of the cult of Marmont. (Speaking of cults, rumors off the Mission Impossible: III set about Russell signing onto Scientology were completely unfounded; she’s still a nice Jew- ish girl from Orange County.)
It’s not surprising Russell loves how L.A. can manage to feel like backcountry even in the middle of the city. “I used to live in Pacific Palisades, and I would drive down Sunset from the city at night,” she recalls. “It used to be two-lane down there, and as you got toward the beach, it would be all misty in the canyon. Then, out of nowhere, deer were literally crossing Sunset Boulevard.”See the pictures