The name of Keri Russell’s new film may be “Dark Skies,” but in reality, the light is shining brighter than ever on the acclaimed actress’ already successful career.
In a recent interview, Russell told me that she’s read several scripts in the horror and supernatural thriller genre, but there was really nothing that piqued her interest until the script for writer-director Scott Stewart’s “Dark Skies” rolled overhead.
“It’s one of those scripts that I read and instantly thought, ‘That’s going to work.’ It has all the rights for me. It’s scary, but fun scary, but at the core, it was like a family drama,” Russell said. “For me, those are the kinds of movies I like, where you believe in the family, first, to set things up, and then things start happening — like in a ‘Poltergeist’ vein. That’s more of what we were targeting.”
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Russell and Josh Hamilton star as Lacy and Daniel Barrett, a pair of suburban parents whose peaceful existence is turned into a living nightmare as a mysterious alien presence invades their home and preys upon them.
Having played roles in everything from drama (TV’s “Felicity”) and romance (“Waitress”), to comedy (“Bedtime Stories”) and action (“Mission: Impossible III”), Russell she didn’t realize how much of a blast being in a scary movie was until she saw the completed project on the big screen.
“I brought a group of girlfriends to a screening of the film that the studio set up for me and I forgot how fun scary movies are to see,” Russell said with a laugh. “It’s thrilling. When the scary parts come up, you want to be frightened so bad — and you don’t want it — but it’s so fun as its happening.”
The interesting thing about “Dark Skies,” Russell pointed out, is while the film’s “reach out and grab you” moments are exhilarating, it has the sorts of unnerving scares, too, that anybody with a family can relate to.
“It really preys on all parents’ fears about losing control over being able to protect your kids and outside influences coming in,” said Russell, a mother of two in real life.
And that’s just the beginning, she added. Other real-life fears are plaguing the family that people can relate to, and those fears are intensified by the supernatural forces that invade them.
“They’re worried that the father has lost his job and that they’re not going to be able to pay their mortgage. The couple is strained in their relationship and they’re worried about the divorce and how the kids would handle that. Those are all very real things that the family is dealing with,” Russell said.
“Then the scary stuff starts to happen, and in a way, it’s a metaphor for what’s happening, since the family is a unit that’s trying to keep all those outside forces away,” she added. “By that point, hopefully you’re invested enough to go through the scary stuff with them.”
Apart from the film’s satisfying premise, Russell said she loves the respect Stewart pays to his filmmaker predecessors in “Dark Skies.”
Among them is a scene that recalls a terrifying Alfred Hitchcock classic, where Lacy suddenly finds her family’s house under siege by birds. In fact, Russell said Stewart couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to subtly paying homage to “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren.
“When we shot that scene, the costume designer put me in a robin egg blue shirt, and it was our own little homage to Hitchcock’s girl,” Russell said, laughing. “He always put the girl in that robin egg blue dressed, so we made sure I was wearing that for the scene.”
Russell said she loved the fact that Stewart brought the best of both horror movie worlds to “Dark Skies,” first with the physical presence of birds smashing into the windows of Lacy’s home — but also by prying on the fear of the unknown with aliens only being seen as shadowy figures instead of being in your face.
“For me, the suggestion of something is always more scary because you are allowed in a way to draw your own conclusions,” Russell said.
Russell’s excitement over the release of “Dark Skies” is also enhanced by the success of “The Americans,” an FX channel espionage thriller that stars her and Matthew Rhys as a couple of high-level Soviet spies in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., who disguise themselves as an everyday American couple with two children.
Russell, 36, said much like “Dark Skies,” she’s fascinated by her character in “The Americans” because it is grounded in real human emotion.
“The show is all couched in the spy world, but to me the real heart of the show is this complex and crazy arranged marriage of these two people who are trying to survive, who don’t really know each other, and 15 years later, are finally starting to reveal themselves to each other,” Russell said. “They have to confront how much it will affect their work and how they’ll have to compromise their true ideals — especially with my character, who is more emotionally cut off and is finally starting to see that she might not survive is she continues to be that way. The relationship is endlessly interesting in the way they set it up.”