Keri Russell’s career was already riding high, with her multi-Emmy-nominated turn on “The Americans,” when she heard from an old friend.
It was J.J. Abrams, who two decades earlier provided her breakout role on TV’s “Felicity,” which he co-created. His email posed a simple question:
Do you want to join Star Wars?
The offer a couple of years ago, though, came with a caveat. The character she would play in “Rise of the Skywalker,” a spice smuggler named Zorii Bliss, would never remove her helmet, which covers her entire face, except occasionally her eyes.
So “I can see everyone, but no one can see me,” Russell says by phone this month.
“There’s a real power play to that,” continues Russell, describing how her nimble scoundrel of a character — who has a past with the dashing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) — would be a distinct change of pace after her starring roles. She jumped at the chance to disappear into Zorii.
While Abrams was co-writing the character, though, he didn’t even have his old pal in mind.
“You’re really not thinking about specific actors,” Abrams says. But then, “We started to cast the picture and suddenly there was an opportunity to work with Keri again, which is something that one takes advantage of if possible.
“So she was the first person I reached out to” about Zorii, “just to say: Listen, there’s this pretty fun character,” he says.
Because Russell has training as a dancer, Abrams knew that the actress could readily play the quick, agile Zorii. And he was quite confident that Russell could deliver Zorii’s sly humor.
Yet the “Rise” director also wanted someone who could communicate with simply their voice.
“The biggest thing is the conveying of emotion,” Abrams says. Russell, the director says, is able to have “a connection to a character [that] is usually weirdly sort of deep and abstract.”
To find that connection, Russell seized on the idea that beneath this enigmatic facade, Zorii is a survivor in occupied territory. The actress also dived into the big-budget costuming, with all the precise fittings for a helmeted look that harks back to vintage space serials. Her Zorii, she realized, must be as fleet of mind as of body.
Although the role is minor, it is memorable. From a creative standpoint, Russell says, “I can’t think of anything more fun than getting to do this part.”