What’s cooking, Keri Russell?

From: USA Today, 5/2/2007
by: Anthony Breznican

PASADENA, Calif. — Keri Russell walks into the Pie ‘n Burger diner with the trepidation of George Clooney scrubbing in for surgery at a real ER.

The little restaurant with the wood paneling, mile-long counter and menus printed on giant signs above the grill is a revered local institution, famous for its seasonal olallieberry pie.

In Waitress, a Cinderella-style romantic comedy opening in limited release today, Russell stars as Jenna, a Picasso of piemaking whose uncanny combinations put her restaurant on the map, impressing the surly owner (Andy Griffith in curmudgeon mode) but earning her little appreciation from her obnoxious husband (Six Feet Under’s Jeremy Sisto).

No one can match her character’s creativity in the kitchen, so Russell seems understandably daunted in the Pie ‘n Burger, where she has come to talk about the movie while testing her own pastry skills in the back kitchen, where a collection of pie shells, berry fillings and burbling syrups await her command.

The Pie ‘n Burger sheds its modesty when it comes to dessert. It offers 20 pie variations, a legacy of recipes that dates to its opening in 1963. The banana-cream meringue was heralded in January in The New York Times Magazine.

Russell, who is newly wed and giving birth to her first child in June, warns that her Home Ec skills are wanting. Years of single life and eating out have taken their toll, she says with a laugh.

“I cook to eat, but I don’t make fabulous things. I do make excellent chocolate chip cookies from scratch. But I have a problem because I love the batter, but I get the worst stomachache after. It’s so bad, but I love it so much.”

Main-course role

Waitress is a pivotal role for Russell, 31. This is her first lead movie performance after breaking through as the star of TV’s Felicity in 1998. Since then, Russell has had mostly supporting roles in films such as Mission: Impossible III and The Upside of Anger. Strong turnout for Waitress could propel her to a new level at a time when studios face a dearth of young lead actresses who can truly disappear into a role.

If anything, she jokes that her performance in Waitress may have given the wrong idea to people about her real cooking abilities.

“There’s a dear friend of my husband’s family who heard I was doing this movie and she was like, ‘I have to talk with Keri because pie is my specialty. I can’t wait to talk to her about all the pies she made!’ ” Russell says. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to let you down, but it’s just acting.’ She’s going to think I’m so lame.”

She was married on Valentine’s Day in New York, though she says the date was just coincidence. Her husband, contractor Shane Deary, is busy rebuilding a townhouse in New York for their new family. But on the day his wife is in Southern California making pies (she’s in town to shoot a two-part episode of TV’s Scrubs), he is taking a surfing trip in Mexico with friends.

“We’re doing everything out of order,” she jokes. “We got pregnant, got married, went on a honeymoon, and now he’s doing his bachelor getaway.”

Joining Russell at the Pie ‘n Burger is Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines, best known for playing Larry David’s wife in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hines is also going to try her hand at piemaking back in the kitchen, and just like her brassy table-waiting character in the film, Hines is a supportive friend to Russell in a time of uncertainty.

It takes crust (pre-baked)

She’s also a pastry novice, but she says she has a lot of experience making cupcakes with her 3-year-old daughter.

“Experimenting is not quite there yet. She wants to make cupcakes the same way and lick the beater,” Hines says.

Pie ‘n Burger owner Michael Osborn escorts them to the pastry kitchen, where there are several pre-cooked crusts and mountains of berries. The job of the day is fresh pies, no cooking or dough-rolling required, which means they’re really doing pie assembling rather than baking.

To Hines, this feels like an audition. As they arrange blackberries in a mound and drizzle a sugary gel over the top, she asks Osborn: “Are we going to get jobs here when we’re done, or is this work not so impressive?”

“I don’t think it’s that impressive,” Russell tells her co-star.

“But I’m putting a lot of love into this,” Hines says.

There’s a lot of laughing as the actresses set to work, but there’s a missing ingredient, too: co-star Adrienne Shelly, the movie’s wallflower waitress who isn’t sure how to deal with a nerdy regular customer’s crush.

Shelly was also the movie’s writer and director, and her death in November after finishing the movie has sometimes cast a somber tone over what should otherwise be moments of great joy for Waitress, which had a rousing debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

Touched by tragedy

Shelly was murdered in the New York apartment she used as an office after an argument with a construction worker about noise, authorities say. The man is awaiting trial.

Shelly had a following as an independent cinema star, with roles in Hal Hartley movies such as The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). Shelly wrote the lead role in Waitress for herself, but it took so many years to get funding and start production on the independently made movie that she felt she had grown too old for the part of the young pie ingénue.

Those who worked on Waitress have defiantly refused to let Shelly’s awful end take away from the sweet fairy-tale comedy she worked so hard to create.

Shelly’s husband, Andy Ostroy, has established a scholarship in her name for aspiring female filmmakers. And distributor Fox Searchlight has pledged a percentage of the box-office proceeds when Waitress expands nationwide as part of a special Mother’s Day promotion May 13 that will involve a gift bag for moviegoers.

Russell says Shelly loved being creative in the kitchen, but she chose the subject of pies more for their symbolic value.

Each of the film’s confections is born from some frustration in the main character’s life. The tart-tongued Jenna is stuck in a dead-end marriage and hopes her recipes will lead her to a new life. She’s in the awkward position of being in love with her doctor (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) after becoming pregnant by her petulant husband, Earl.

The film’s pies and the method of preparation all reflect her mood. When the character is angry, Russell says, “It would be like … flambé!”

Not all the movie’s creations would taste good in real life. Sisto, playing her husband, got the worst one of all.

“The one that Jeremy didn’t want to actually eat was a food pie, like spaghetti with tomato sauce. He actually started gagging. It really grossed him out,” Russell recalls. “But there were a lot of good ones. I liked the one that was called Spanish Dancer pie. It was eggs and jalapeños, and Andy Griffith orders it. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to get one of those.’ ”

Russell, a tiny wisp except for her bowling-ball-size regional Belly, says cooking isn’t the same stress-reliever for her that it is for the character. The household task that settles her worries: “Cleaning. I like having everything in its place. It makes me feel good. And anyone who knows me well and comes home and finds the house spotless — they know something’s wrong.”

Hines rolls her eyes.

“That is so not what I would ever want to do if I was feeling bad. You’ll have to come by my house. You’d be so happy every day.”

No waiting tables

As the actresses move from strawberry pie to blackberry in the kitchen of Pie ‘n Burger, Hines regales Russell with stories from her life, working waitress jobs as a struggling actress. Russell, who started performing as a child, confesses sheepishly that she never had to wait tables.

“If I worked at a place like this, it’d become a parking lot,” Russell says.

Hines worked tables in the era of pagers, which aspiring actors used to await callbacks for roles.

“I’d put my pager in my bra and put it on vibrate because we weren’t allowed to wear them at work,” Hines said. “I remember I’d be taking someone’s order, and it would go off and I’d go ‘OHHH!’ They’d say, ‘Is the special that good?’ ‘Oh, it is. That’s a great choice!’ ”

Once they finish in the Pie ‘n Burger’s kitchen, the two actresses settle at a table for some lunch. After a while, a waitress places the fresh strawberry and blackberry confections they created in a display case.

Russell puts a hand over her eyes and laughs.

“Had I known we were doing it for (the customers), I would have done it better. I didn’t know they were going to serve it!”

Hines chews a french fry and shrugs. It’s good enough. And none of the customers who dig in are complaining.