Underneath her good-girl cloak, Keri Russell is bursting with mischief — and searching for imperfection.
It’s not that Keri Russell is tired of being adorable on-screen. She’s made a nifty career of it, from her debut at age 15 on “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” through her coming-of-age years on the college drama “Felicity” (J.J. Abrams’ first TV series), and on into films including the new rom-com “Austenland,” in which she plays a wallflower who visits a Jane Austen theme park in search of her own Mr. Darcy. Being delightful off-screen isn’t hard for Russell, either — in a recent phone interview, she was sunny and playful, with a mischievous sense of humor.
But to be honest, she’s having a total gas playing the moody and secretive Elizabeth Jennings, a 1980s-era Soviet spy posing as a Washington, DC, housewife, on the FX series “The Americans.”
“I’m really enjoying not having to be charming at every turn,” Russell says. “It’s sort of relaxing. And I get to wear thick, cat-eye eyeliner, and chains and silk blouses and long hair. I feel glamorous and cold. I like it.” She lets loose a peal of laughter.
Lately, she’s found a new groove in her work that she calls “a delightful surprise.” In “Austenland” — a Sundance hit, and the directorial debut of Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite” — Russell keeps her charm under wraps for awhile: Able to afford only the discount tour package, her character stumbles around a rented mansion in muslin gowns and unflattering braids, but her pure heart wins the day. “I think people want a meeting of the minds, to be courted, and that’s what Austen offers,” Russell says. “Especially in our time of such blatant physical sexuality everywhere, I think people respond to emotional, intellectual connection. And, of course,” she adds, with a dirty little chuckle, “anytime you’re restrained from doing something, you only want to do it more.”
“The Americans” also explores big moral issues — betrayal, repression, conflicting loyalties — and posits the notion that all people are at heart unknowable, that hidden storms are always roiling beneath even the most sanguine surface. And that’s precisely what Russell, 37, loves about it. “No matter how close you think you are to someone, you don’t truly know anybody,” she says. “The spy stuff is a metaphor that allows the stakes to be really high. But to me, ‘You want to defect?’ is just an extreme version of, ‘You’re having an affair?’ It’s cool.”
Russell is familiar with conflicting feelings — she usually has a few bubbling under her own serene-as-cream beauty. She calls herself a nervous person, a hermit who’s happy to spend a lot of time by herself, yet she’s in an intensely public profession — one she entered at age 15, even though she thinks children having jobs is “creepy.” She can see the good and bad in every gig she’s had. On “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” she was burdened with adult responsibilities, but she was also one of 19 kids, “so the job felt less like work and more like going to a really intense dance class,” she says. The cast threw sleepover parties, went on trips together, had crushes on each other. Two of Russell’s castmates — Lindsey Alley, who’s still an actress, and Ilana Miller, “a big-time lawyer” — remain her close friends to this day. “And um, my high school boyfriend was Tony Lucca,” Russell says in her best teenager-ese accent. “He was the James Taylor of our group.” (Recently, Lucca competed on “The Voice,” where he sparred with judge and fellow MMC alum Christina Aguilera, and finished second. Russell voted for him.)
A few years later, as the dreamy but determined Felicity, Russell felt both the power of creating an iconic character and the frenzy of disapproval that occurred when she cut off her long, curly hair. “I felt pressure, I did,” she admits. “At an age when just trying to figure out who you are is pressure enough. Luckily, paparazzi weren’t as big a deal then as they are now. I want to say to everyone, ‘Let them [today’s teen stars] be kids! They’re supposed to cheat on each other and break up, they’re teenagers, let them be!’ I think it’s important to be able to make mistakes.”
That said, Russell also relished her time on the series: “J.J. [Abrams] and Matt Reeves, the co-creators, were doing something that felt really cool and fresh at the time,” she says. “We were making tiny movies each week. It was exhausting, but great.” She reunited with Reeves this summer to shoot “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and whenever she goes to LA, her former castmates Scott Speedman and Amanda Foreman are her first phone calls.
When “Felicity” ended, Russell grabbed her savings, moved to New York City and took a full year off from show business. “I spent time acting like a kid,” Russell says. “I went dancing, read books. Had I not been afforded that opportunity, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I found being a public entity challenging. I’d started getting really nervous in social situations. To be so accessible was hard.”
Now, she’s reveling in a happy home life: She married Shane Deary, a carpenter, on Valentine’s Day 2007, and they have two children, River, 6, and Willa, 1. In fact, Russell was seven months’ pregnant with Willa by the time shooting wrapped on “Austenland.” “Luckily,” she says, “in those Regency dresses, with the waist right under the bustline, everyone looks sort of pregnant.” (Though, she notes, her bust size goes up and down from scene to scene.)
“Maybe I’m more at ease now because I’m so exhausted,” Russell continues, laughing. “It turns down the volume on the nervousness: ‘Who cares what that person thinks? I need a nap.’ ” She lives in Brooklyn, where she revels in riding her bike everywhere, not being hassled, and being surrounded by “delicious pop-up restaurants with cool décor, art studios, people starting their own clothing lines.” She and her neighbors connected their backyards with gates so their children can roam, and she gets a kick out of watching her son and his friends interact with Willa: “They love helping her and talking to her and laughing,” she says. “It’s so sweet.”
What surprised Russell most about motherhood, though, is “how you stay the same,” she says. “Everyone’s like, ‘You’re going to change so much!’ Which you do, sort of. But your core, what you want, what moves you, that’s all still the same.” She takes great delight in sneaking off for three-hour dinners with her girlfriends, “those coveted nights having beers, savoring delicious treats, and hearing hilarious dating-sex stories, bad-husband stories, embarrassing work stories. That’s what I live for.
“Which is another reason it’s great for me to play that character in ‘The Americans,’ ” Russell goes on. “There’s this freedom in being able to play a bad mom. Not being the best. I like playing a person who isn’t the perfect role model, who has this whole other life beyond making school lunches and putting kids to bed.” It’s not that being charming isn’t great. But being so much more than that is better.