“I have a feeling I’ll kind of go into my little world for a while and read my books and see my kids and take adventures,” says Keri Russell, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR’s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast, and begin talking about what her life will be like now that The Americans, the massively acclaimed FX drama series on which she has starred since 2013, has come to an end. (Its series finale aired May 30.) Russell, who is 42, has been acting almost without interruption since she was just 15, starting out as a child performer on The Disney Channel’s The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, then morphing into a twentysomething fan-favorite on The WB’s Felicity before blossoming, as an adult, into one of the most respected actresses of her generation on The Americans. Her portrayal of Elizabeth Jennings, a Cold War-era Soviet spy posing, like her husband (played by her real-life partner Matthew Rhys), as an American, has been hailed by New York magazine as “one of the most complex performances ever on television,” and has brought her two Emmy nominations, four Critics’ Choice noms and a Golden Globe nom for best actress in a drama series. Later this month, she will almost certainly receive another Emmy nom, which could put her on the path to her first-ever win. “This was a good one — like, this was a really, really good one,” Russell says of the show, “so it’s tough to beat.”
Russell was born in Orange County, California, to a father who was an executive at Nissan and a mother who was a homemaker. Raised in Arizona and Colorado,she landed, at 13, a scholarship to a dance school, where she spent a considerable amount of time, and where, at 14, she was photographed as a model. A year after that, she, joined by some friends, found her way to an audition for Mickey Mouse Club, and was hired to be a Mouseketeer, leading her and her family to relocate to Orlando, Florida. She appeared on the show — alongside the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling — from 1991 through 1994, while also simultaneously making her big-screen debut in the 1992 Disney film Honey I Blew Up the Kid. By the time she was 17, her run with the show came to an end, and she decided to move — alone — to Los Angeles. “I didn’t ever dream of being an actress or being in this business,” she says, “but it was just something that kind of happened and I thought, ‘This is fun. This is better than, I don’t know, going to some office day in and day out.’ Like, ‘I’ll just keep trying.'”
Once Russell was back out west, she landed a manager and an agent, and quickly began working, albeit on projects that slipped under the radar of most in the general public — from a Dudley Moore sitcom to an Aaron Spelling soap opera — until, that is, she auditioned for and won the title role on J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ teen drama Felicity, a show about about a girl who has a crush on a boy and follows him to a college on the other side of the country. She remembers being drawn to the project because it was “so well-written,” “easily relatable” and a “heart-breaker of a story.” It aired from 1998 to 2002, turning Russell, at just 21, into a full-fledged star; indeed, she won a Golden Globe for its first season. The actress enjoyed playing Felicity (“I loved that character and I still love it — it has such a sweetness”), but wasn’t enamored with being a celebrity (“I found it a struggle”). She now is able to laugh about the insane panic that her season two haircut caused — some even suggested that it was the reason the show’s ratings declined — but at the time, things like that were less funny to her.
By the time Felicity came to an end, more or less timed to the character’s graduation, Russell was spent. “I didn’t want to do it anymore,” she says of acting, and she decided to step away from the business, possibly forever. She moved to New York for the next two years and tried to live as normal a life as possible — a hiatus that “saved me,” she says — before ultimately wading back into the business in the 2004 Neil LaBute play Fat Pig, the Steven Spielberg-producer 2005 limited series Into the West (that year’s most Emmy-nominated program), the 2005 film The Upside of Anger, the 2006 blockbuster Mission: Impossible 3 and the 2007 indies August Rush and Waitress, the latter being but two of many examples of projects in which she was asked to play nice pregnant girls. “I think there’s something about my face that screams, ‘Nice pregnant girl,'” she cracks.
Then, a call from FX chief John Landgraf changed everything. Landgraf was trying to put together a new drama series about married spies, and, while casting the pilot, thought of Russell for the wife. “It’s so crazy that John would do that,” Russell marvels. “‘I was kinda like, ‘He wants Felicity to be this Cold War, Soviet spy?!'” The actress was drawn to the opportunity to play against type; to return to TV at a cable rather than broadcast network (meaning seasons of 10 to 13 episodes rather than 22 to 24); and to help bring to life creator Joe Weisberg’s vision. “The story of the marriage was just fascinating to me,” she recalls. Following a chemistry test to determine her onscreen husband, she was paired with Rhys — who reminded Russell that they had met 10 years earlier at a kickball party, after which he had left her a drunken voicemail — and, almost immediately, the two became romantically involved in real life, too. “I just knew,” she says, and they have been a couple ever since.
For six seasons, FX’s The Americans was one of the best-reviewed shows on all of television. However, it largely slipped under the radar of audiences (it generated low ratings throughout its run) and awards voters (for seasons one through five, the show was nominated for best drama series only once, and Rhys and Russell received lead acting noms only twice, in 2016 and 2017). As it arrived at its series finale, though, more industry figures than ever before seemed to have come to the realization that it was something truly unusual and special — in large part because of Russell’s extraordinary work. (Not many people have played even one iconic character on TV, and those who have almost never emerge from its shadow; she has now played two.) We will find out in the coming weeks and months whether the TV Academy wants to acknowledge this, as well.