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Keri Russell on Conquering Her Broadway Nerves for ‘Burn This’

Keri Russell was terrified to do a play on Broadway. But that was exactly why she wanted to do it. After wrapping six seasons playing undercover Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings on FX’s The Americans, she was looking for a new challenge.

“It’s such a daunting job to take on, and it’s certainly the furthest thing from my comfort zone, which I guess was sort of what was appealing,” says Russell, who stars opposite Adam Driver in Burn This, which opens on Tuesday. “I thought it was just this incredible adventure that I couldn’t pass up, and it has absolutely proven to be that. It’s been so scary, and just getting over having to do this in front of people night after night, that has been a huge exercise for me. It’s not where I live, I tend to be more shy, more of an introvert, so I feel like we’re literally almost finished with previews and I am just now not going to throw up before I go on.”

The last time Russell was onstage was in the off-Broadway premiere of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig in 2004, and she’s finding the Broadway stage a bigger undertaking.

In Burn This, Russell plays Anna, a dancer whose life is upended when her close friend and dance partner dies in a boating accident and his brother Pale (Driver) shows up at her apartment one night. Lanford Wilson’s play had its Broadway premiere in 1987 starring John Malkovich and Joan Allen. It was revived off-Broadway in 2002 with Edward Norton and Catherine Keener, but this production, directed by Michael Mayer, marks the work’s first Broadway revival.

After years on The Americans, Russell was excited to take on a different kind of role.

“Elizabeth had such a specific character and she was so strong and straight in so many ways,” says Russell. “I loved that character for so many reasons. But I think the huge difference with Anna is, I think Anna is really open and ready for this. She’s ready for a huge adventure, and I think that every part of her wants to be moved and swept up into some relationship ultimately where you find out more about yourself. Anna is sort of on this precipice of being ready to make this huge change in her life, and that’s an exciting moment to be in.”

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Russell about doing Burn This and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with Driver, why her dance background has come in handy, and her secret to battling Broadway nerves.

How have performances been going so far?

It’s all still very much a new experience for me. Even though I have done a play before, it was so many years ago, and certainly not on Broadway at this level with this amount of pressure. It just all feels bigger this go-around.

It has been an enormous leap for me personally, and I’m finally understanding that freedom that actors talk about. That special thing that happens when you’re not edited heavily, or you’re not just hammering over this one scene over and over and over for TV. You get this true free ride where it’s just yours, with you and the other actors, and you can let go a little bit more. It feels very alive, for better or worse. I get what can be so rewarding about it.

What made you choose this play for your Broadway debut?

I had just finished six years of The Americans which was such a great experience, just professionally as a woman to play that character I thought it was going to be pretty hard to beat. So I wanted to take a break for a while, which I did. And I wanted to be in New York close to my kids. And then I got the opportunity to do the reading of this play; Adam was already signed on to do it. Matthew [Rhys], my guy, said “Go do it! You know Adam, it’ll be fun!” I did it, not thinking necessarily that I would take the full job, and then I just thought all of the specific pieces of it — Adam and who he is as an actor. It’s this sensitivity that I really respond to.

The play itself I found really moving. It’s just about that time in your life when everything matters, everything before kids and before a mortgage, and just about pure art and wanting everything in your life to be the best it can be. That was a nice change from everything that was so dark and political and depressing about our current world. So I just felt like it was too big of an opportunity to pass up, even with my fear of being in front of people.

You have a dance background like Anna. Did that help you in your process?

I feel like dance is the only thing I have training in, so yeah, that definitely interested me. I think you just read certain things and you kind of get them or you don’t. The fascinating thing about getting this amount of time, and this amount of rehearsal before going into it is it evolves so much.

Do you relate to Anna as an actor?

I relate to wanting things to be good, and feeling you’re doing something important. I relate to being attracted to something that feels very alive; I think everyone wants that feeling. You want to feel your heart beat and quicken, and that’s what Pale does for her. I think it’s scary for her too. It’s unbelievably scary, but I think it’s exciting on many levels as well.

Did you grow up going to theater?

I didn’t grow up going to theater, I sort of grew up so far from New York, in Colorado and Arizona, so I didn’t grow up doing that stuff. But in my young 20s, my first few trips to New York, I came and saw a few plays. I think one of the first that I remember was seeing Fiona Shaw in Medea. I went by myself and I was just overpowered, she was incredible. Then I slowly started seeing things, but obviously all through my 30s and certainly still now, I see a lot of dance.

I actually reached out to [choreographer] Justin Peck and said “Could I come in and sit in a few of your rehearsals? Just to be immersed in dance for a little bit. Or is this creepy that I’m reaching out to you?” He wrote me back and said “No, it’s not creepy at all.” We tried to get in touch with each other and our schedules just didn’t work for whatever reason. Then I was walking out of my rehearsal space for this play, all teary-faced and sobbing from a certain scene, and you know what? He was rehearsing right next door to me. So it all worked out.

Adam did Look Back in Anger with Matthew Rhys in 2012. Did you meet him through that production?

When Matthew was doing that play, he came to test for The Americans. Adam and he used to sit in the dressing room and run lines before Matthew had to come in, and Adam would read my lines. Adam would play me in rehearsals with Matthew. And then Matthew got the part, and I think Adam and his wife Joanne came to our first premiere. I must have met them then. And then we live in the same neighborhood, so now we have little babies all the same age. And, yes, we did Star Wars together too, but yeah we just sort of knew each other socially through Matthew.

Speaking of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which you recently wrapped, did you and Adam talk about the play at all while you were on set?

We were trying to figure out the timeline. I guess I did know I was going to be doing the play when I started Star Wars. I don’t think we did talk about it that much. We hadn’t started rehearsals yet, but for me, it felt like I knew I had this thing coming up, like we were about to start training for the Olympics.

How do you get ready before a show?

My prep seriously involves really calming my nerves because I’m such a scaredy-cat in front of people. If that means having a beer, that’s sometimes what has to happen. There’s a fight in the play, so we have fight call a little bit before the play and normally we just all joke around and that helps me to laugh with everybody. Honestly, I dance around in my dressing room to loud music. [Laughs]

Do you have any favorite songs that pump you up?

They change all the time! I’ll ask my girlfriends and just go “send me your biggest teenage anthem songs, I just need to feel inspired.” Whatever gets you going.