She is still most famous for playing a teenager on TV in the nineties. Which seems strange. Because lately we’ve been seeing her everywhere.
“Just worked out near KRuss.” So texts my wife the morning of the day I’m scheduled to sit down with Keri Russell, which would be an incredible coincidence — serendipitous! — if we both weren’t used to seeing Russell all the time. The actress, famous for portraying fresh-faced girls next door since her days on Felicity, lives right around the corner from me in a leafy section of Brooklyn, and I’ll see her around the neighborhood doing the most mundane things imaginable: parking her car. Taking a walk with her son. Window-shopping in baggy jeans. That she apparently goes to the same gym as my wife — well, of course she does. It’s not a huge deal. She’s not the biggest celebrity in the world — she’s not even the biggest celebrity in the neighborhood — but she’s a celebrity nonetheless and a little attention is usually paid.
For her convenience, we meet in a fancy hotel bar in midtown Manhattan following her Esquire photo shoot, and the woman who shakes my hand and sits across from me isn’t the one I’m used to seeing around. The woman I’m used to seeing has pale, milky skin — her thirty-four-year-old face is, in fact, still fresh — and wears her curly hair pulled back into a loose bun. This woman, the one in front of me choosing between a martini and a glass of wine, is still made up from her shoot and has smoky eyes and bronzed skin and tousled bedroom hair. Shit, I think. This woman isn’t my neighbor. This woman, the woman with the smoky eyes, is a movie star, and movie stars, no matter what the tabloids tell you, are nothing like the rest of us.
We order our drinks — she settles on a glass of Sancerre, explaining that she just had a martini last week — and we quickly dispatch with the reason for our meeting: her role on the new Fox sitcom Running Wilde, from Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz and starring Will Arnett as a wealthy man-child and Russell as the object of his affection. “Let’s be real,” she says. “It’s Will’s show. It’s him in his sweet spot, and I’m just kind of tagging along.” She wasn’t looking to do comedy, she explains, and she certainly wasn’t looking to go back to the grind of shooting a TV series, but she liked Arrested Development and hasn’t really liked a lot of the movies she’s been making lately. “Honestly, it’s been a not great couple of years in film, and I haven’t been totally inspired by them. I guess this particular project, it just seemed exciting to me. It’s an unknown, and I think I was willing to bet on the unknown, even if it fails. At least it would be fun and invigorating instead of me playing another nice mom in some sappy movie.” She is speaking, most likely, of Extraordinary Measures or August Rush or perhaps another of the sappy, little-seen movies in which she plays a nice mom.
She talks warmly and matter-of-factly, and I take her candor as an invitation to ask about her personal life: She took some time off after Felicity, moving from Los Angeles to New York and doing nothing for a year (“I just didn’t want to act anymore. I was so tired, and I needed to check out and not have to wake up at six in the morning all the time”); she took small roles in big movies (Mission: Impossible III, which you probably saw) and big roles in small movies (Waitress, which you probably didn’t); and she got pregnant, married a “hot carpenter,” and bought and gutted a house in Brooklyn (in that order). I broach the subject of our living in the same neighborhood, and I mention that I’ve seen her around. “So are you following me?” No, no! I don’t look for you — I just notice you, I say. Big difference. She laughs. “Holy shit. So you are following me.” I admit that I know where she lives. I tell her I’ve spotted her riding her bike. I even show her the gym text from my wife, and this really sets her off. She throws back her head full tilt and laughs in a way that no one is supposed to laugh in fancy hotel bars. “Show me her picture, I probably recognize her,” she says. I ask if this kind of thing happens to her a lot. “People don’t really care when they see me,” she says. “But what I do get, which is sort of wonderful, is the best-friend thing. Like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re great. I’m so sorry to bother you.’ Which is nice.”
And over the time it takes her to sip a glass of wine down to the bottom, it becomes clear why some people, women mostly, like Russell: She swears liberally. She tells salty, self-deprecating stories (about the indignities of celebrity pregnancy, about her time on the Mickey Mouse Club, about telling the paparazzi to “back the fuck off”). She uses sarcasm even though she probably knows sarcasm never reads in print. (“I don’t like to work hard…”) She’s married to a contractor, for chrissakes. Keri Russell seems real, insofar as any celebrity can actually seem real, and the best-friend thing — the neighbor thing — draws you in until you believe, unbelievably, that you already know her.
Our drinks finished, we emerge from the hotel into the hazy heat of late afternoon, and I ask if a car is coming to get her. She motions toward a subway station. In that moment, I go from being a journalist interviewing a beautiful, charming movie star to a guy on the verge of getting a little too friendly with the beautiful, charming woman who lives down the street. So we go our separate ways. Then I text my wife to tell her who I just saw.