In “Extraordinary Measures,” Keri Russell stars with Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford as a remarkable mom. Based on a true story, the film chronicles the lives of John and Aileen Crowley, a New Jersey couple who fought to find a treatment for an enzyme deficiency that threatened to kill two of their children. Doubling as executive producer, Ford plays a scientist helping to develop a life-saving drug.
The 33-year-old actress, who launched her career on the popular 1990s TV series “Felicity,” explores new dramatic terrain portraying a mother of three. To prepare for the role, Russell, who became a mother two years ago, visited the Crowleys at their Princeton home and spent a day with Aileen. The couple’s daughter, Megan, and son, Patrick, were born with Pompe disease, a rare condition characterized by the accumulation of a complex sugar known as glycogen in the body’s cells.
Doctors didn’t expect Megan or Patrick to reach the age of 9 (the elder son, John Jr., does not have the disease). In order to help his children, John quit his job as a pharmaceutical executive and launched a biotech firm.
Thanks to long hours and inventive lab work, the company pioneered a drug that replicates the missing enzyme. Megan and Patrick are alive today thanks to the treatment. John and Aileen collaborated on a book, “Chasing Miracles: The Crowley Family Journey of Strength, Hope and Joy.” (John will be signing copies on Saturday in Princeton at the Barnes & Noble MarketFair).
We spoke with Russell about playing Aileen in the film and spending time with the family in New Jersey.
Q. You came out to Princeton to visit the Crowleys?
A. Once I got the job, I was in contact with Aileen, and we picked a day and I drove out there just to get a sense of the everyday — kids coming home from school and what it’s like, just the daily stuff. The amazing thing about that family, instantly, is how warm and funny and light they are.
Q. Did you feel like after you met Aileen, there were things that you didn’t necessarily see in the script, things about her that became a part of your performance?
A. The script was absolutely taken from their lives. The director spent a lot of time with the family, living there, just to get a sense of them. Meeting Aileen confirmed that what was in the script was real. It’s one of the most remarkable everyday hero stories I’ve ever heard. As a parent, we all hope that we would fight to the end for our kids. John actually did. He kept searching until he found the right answer.
Q. Were you familiar with the book?
A. The first time I’d heard about it was through the script. That was the first time I heard about Pompe disease, and it was an introduction to a lot of those orphan diseases. It was really an educational experience in that way.
Q. Because Harrison Ford is one of the executive producers, did he have a larger role on the set beyond just playing his character?
A. My experience with Harrison was as an actor. He was not saying, ‘Now Keri, is your trailer sorted out?’
Q. I was thinking that there may have been some pressure.
A. It’s pressure just having Harrison Ford there. It’s not because of anything he did. It’s freaking Harrison Ford standing there. Working with him, he was just trying his best as an actor to memorize his lines. He’s not one of those people with his BlackBerry, scrolling through all the time.
Q. I spoke with John, and he said a lot of the detail that’s in the film is real. Like Megan with the Barbie car. When you were hanging out with Megan, did she have the car out?
A. Megan is 13 now and there is no way she would be caught with the Barbie car. She thinks it’s so juvenile. She has pictures of the Jonas Brothers all over her room.
Q. I understand pink isn’t her favorite color anymore.
A. Exactly. That was her life, pink and Barbie dolls. But now she’s like, “I would never wear pink.”
Q. Did you get feedback from Aileen? I know the studio screened the movie in Princeton for them.
A. I just actually left Aileen. I did a “Rachael Ray” taping with her. She sent me an e-mail: “I wanted you to know we saw the film and we enjoyed it. Now what the hell do I wear to these premieres? Am I supposed to wear short or long?” We had this really funny banter about that.
Q. What did you recommend she wear?
A. I said you wear whatever you want. It’s L.A., and there are no rules. I said you could wear anything from a pantsuit to a gown, whatever you feel fabulous in.
Q. Did you think about how kids would respond to this film? It is rated PG, so it is something kids can watch.
A. I would say it’s a hero story, and more than that, it’s someone you would recognize in a hero story. It’s someone from your neighborhood. It’s not a science-fiction hero. It’s a dad who has a sick kid doing everything he can to make that kid feel better. It’s good also to see these kids in wheelchairs. They go to regular school and have a ton of friends. It’s not like they spend their lives in hospitals and doctors’ offices.