Keri Russell wears a mask. She is, essentially, anonymous the entire time she’s onscreen. And while some actresses might not see the appeal in staying unrecognizable throughout a movie as important as Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, for Russell it was actually a selling point.
Last year she got a call from her longtime friend and colleague J.J. Abrams. He had been appointed to direct the latest Star Wars movie and wanted to cast her in the role of Zorri Bliss, a shadowy character who wears a luxe maroon outfit accented with heavy gold fixtures. Most actors, when they enter the franchise action movie fray, do it with some understanding that they will gain a new kind of popular profile or become part of a cultural legacy. Being in a Star Wars movie, something guaranteed to be a box office smash, embeds one’s face in the global consciousness in a new way.
For Russell, though, what was appealing about the role of Zorri, beyond the sheer magnitude of the institution that is Star Wars—and the potential to impress her middle-schooler son—was that anonymity. “There was a lead for it already,” she says, referring to Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, an intergalactic scavenger turned Resistance warrior. “So it was very attractive, the idea of not being the lead. The mask—I felt safe in it. And tough. No makeup. You don’t have to be embarrassed by anything.”
It also put her in good company. Lupita Nyong’o has appeared in three Star Wars movies (as a pirate turned canteen owner) without ever revealing her face; Daniel Craig is said to have made an uncredited cameo as a Storm Trooper who never removes his helmet in The Force Awakens, and even Prince William and Prince Harry are rumored to have filmed faceless scenes, though they reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor.
All of which is to say that appearing in a Star Wars movie without actually appearing in a Star Wars movie makes you part of a very exclusive club. (And one that discourages loose lips. As far as Star Wars goes, Russell says, “I didn’t even know Zorri had a last name until just recently.” Her partner Matthew Rhys told me, “I’m not allowed to tell you this stuff! It genuinely makes her nervous. Knowing me, I’ll have a few pints of Guinness and go, ‘Guess what she’s doing!’ There’s so much secrecy.”)
Russell isn’t lacking in mystery offscreen, either. She is many things that seem at odds with having a career as an actor, and by extension, a famous person. She’s easily embarrassed, shy, and often nervous, she tells me, nestled at the bar in a restaurant in Brooklyn on a prematurely freezing September afternoon.
I showed up to our lunch meeting 30 minutes early to get some reading done, only to find that Russell had had the same idea. When I arrived she was already there, deep in a novel and a glass of Peroni, cloaked in vintage Carhartt. Rare is the celebrity who arrives early to an interview; rarer still is the Hollywood actress who orders beer with lunch.
The restaurant is one of her local favorites, in part because it’s owned by her friend, the Soho House founder Nick Jones. Russell lives in Brooklyn Heights, a kind of satellite Hollywood the residents of which include Paul Giamatti, Emily Blunt, and Adam Driver. Besides Driver, her co-star in the 2019 Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, Russell admits, “I seriously know no one. Paul Giamatti, I’ve been behind him while walking.” This isn’t false humility.
Andrea Davis, a computer programmer who met Russell through their kids’ school in 2013, remembers what it was like becoming friends “with Felicity,” she says, referring to the title character of the late-’90s TV series that made Russell a star. “I said to my husband, ‘Look, if she wasn’t a little bit of a dork, she wouldn’t like me.’”
At work, this guilelessness serves Russell well. “I’ve never met an actor who is more committed to the job of acting, who finds so distasteful so many of the other things that are required of her,” Abrams says. “And she really wrestles with having to be herself representing the work she’s doing. It’s one reason why having this mask was a strangely comforting thing for her.” On the job her shyness transforms into something profound, more like reserve and nuance.
Rhys, who co-starred with Russell in the hit series The Americans, remembers their initial days on set. “I’ve always found there’s a great depth to her that comes with a great deal of enigma. The deftness of her subtlety is so interesting to me.”
After filming Star Wars—and keeping quiet about the details of her character, despite rampant online rumors and speculation—as well as an upcoming supernatural thriller called Antlers, Russell is planning to stay at home in Brooklyn until at least next spring, spending time with her family and friends.
To hear her tell it, she isn’t pinballing between Venice, Park City, and Los Angeles, shooting series after series, film after film, or making a beeline for the red carpet each awards season. (Although, to be fair, she did land on a million best-dressed lists for her 2019 Golden Globes dazzler by Monique Lhuillier.)
For one thing, she has to choose roles strategically to make life work with her kids, who are 12, seven, and three. She also relishes the opportunity to be a little bit scarce. “When you start seeing someone too much, you’re not craving anything,” she says. And, lovably, she admits she’s a bit of a slacker. “I feel like I do just enough,” she says, laughing. But relishing privacy and avoiding the public eye don’t mean that Russell is closed off or cold. In fact, everything she says comes off like a warm confession.
“I see a lot of other people who have great ambition, but I feel as if my life is so full, with little kids. I’m not hungry for a certain kind of success,” she tells me. She then orders another Peroni with her tagliatelle. “I’m barely making this work.”
And yet this unplanned approach to her résumé has generated one of the richer and more unique Hollywood careers. At 43, Russell is the rare actress who can jump from prestige television to Broadway, from genre film to drama, from pregnant mom to ass-kicking Russian spy, all without getting caught up in the tabloid swirl or stuck in the Hollywood bubble.
Russell, a California native who moved regularly as a kid thanks to her father’s job with a car manufacturer, entered the American consciousness in 1998, when she was cast as the lead in Felicity, the Emmy-winning drama about an awkward brainiac who follows her high school crush to college in New York City.
At the time, the 22-year-old Russell was a professionally trained dancer who had gotten her start on The Mickey Mouse Club when she was 15 and was doing the audition circuit. Initially the character was meant to be even more of a socially dysfunctional wallflower than the way Russell played her. “Keri walks into the room. She’s this beautiful, radiant, personable person,” Abrams remembers. “She could not have been more wrong for the part. And then, when she started auditioning, she was unbelievable. So funny, and so awkward.”
Felicity mounted Russell’s face in the canon of great television characters, launched a national debate about her season two pixie cut, and won her a Golden Globe. But the success of the show didn’t bring her as much fame as it could have, in part because she didn’t want it to. She took a long rest after the show wrapped, questioning whether she even wanted to be a screen actor. When she got back in the mix, she did small plays and made-for-TV movies. In 2006 she was given the role of Lindsey Farris in another one of Abrams’s franchise ventures, Mission: Impossible III.
It wasn’t until the next year that she did a major project, starring as a pregnant waitress in Waitress, which was selected for the Sundance Film Festival. That marked her fourth time playing a pregnant woman; for a while it seemed that Hollywood could see Russell only as a “nice, pregnant mom,” she says. “It was very specific, and for many years.”
The Americans, a cable drama about a pair of KGB spies during the Cold War, changed all that. In the show, which aired from 2013 to 2018, Russell played Elizabeth Jennings, a spy in a fake relationship with fellow spy Philip Jennings (played by Rhys). It was a role that revealed Russell’s skill set to be limitless.
As Elizabeth, Russell showed she could inhabit the nesting doll apparatus of subterfuge: She could perform wild physical combat in one scene and then enact a featherlight game of seduction with nothing more than a raised eyebrow in the next. Russell says she is never good at determining which projects will turn out well and which ones won’t, so the high quality of The Americans made her feel lucky. “I have more street cred now,” she says.
The show also had a profound effect on her personal life. When it started, Russell was married to a contractor named Shane Deary, with whom she had two children. Soon, however, she and Deary divorced, and Russell became the real life partner of her co-star, the Welsh actor Rhys. (They had met many years earlier, in their twenties, and Rhys says he was “quite taken with her” even back then.)
“Obviously, there’s something sexy about the whole spy world,” Russell says. “It was a fun, sexy place to live in for years, especially being with someone I was so in love with. It wasn’t like we were growing plants. We were shooting a lot at night.” The pair had a child together, Samuel, in 2016.
For the media-shy and bashful Russell, Rhys acted as a support throughout their Americans tenure. The pair appeared on late night shows and at press junkets side by side, and Russell was more effusive and outspoken than she is when doing solo interviews. When Rhys won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series last year, he joked about Russell in his acceptance speech: “She said, ‘If you propose to me, I will punch you clean in the mouth.’”
The reaction shot of Russell, who gave a stern, shruggy look, made the viral rounds the next day—something that doesn’t often happen for Russell, who strategically avoids social media and still has an AOL email address. (“I know a little bit about Instagram,” she tells me. “I like to look at pretty things.” She begins to laugh, knowing how blissfully out of touch she sounds.)
The Americans ended in 2018, but Rhys is still tightly woven into the fabric of Russell’s professional life. He is, at heart, a stage actor, and this fact influenced Russell when she was offered the role of Anna—a dancer and choreographer grappling with the death of her roommate—in Burn This. “He lived his whole life doing that, and I’d heard about it so much that I was like, ‘Yes! That’s what everyone should do,’” she says. The show was one of the flashiest and most publicized plays of the season, but the critics gave it middling reviews and Russell quickly learned that life on Broadway wasn’t as spectacular as she expected. For a start, she would be missing her children’s bedtimes for four months straight. “And I realized that you have to do this in front of people. I was like, ‘Holy fuck! What was I fucking thinking?’ ”
At least the promotional photographs for the play were incredible, I point out. She disagrees. “Being photographed is a skill, and I’m not good at it,” she says, though it’s hard to agree. “I’m a shy person, so it’s embarrassing. And I’m 43 now, so I’m able to say it’s embarrassing to me. It’s weird. I always look bad!”
In an age of actors turned brand strategists, and social media mavens who are ruthlessly aware of their angles and are camera-ready at every moment, Russell’s self-deprecation and honesty feel like a revelation. They may very well be the reason she’s having a career renaissance.
The rise of streaming and the contentification of film and television have caused major shifts in Hollywood, including the rise of the actor/entrepreneur. Reese Witherspoon, for example, is Russell’s age and has her own production company, aimed at adapting female-driven stories. “I can’t imagine running a big company as well as what I’m doing, or producing 8,000 things,” Russell says. “To me, what it comes down to is, ‘Am I doing something that’s interesting to me at that moment?’ ”
For Russell there is a twinge of fear that, at her age, the stories will dry up. She notes that Rhys will likely be working “forever” but that she may have a shorter lifespan in the business. And yet she seems constitutionally incapable of letting that fear guide her toward projects that compromise her or that interfere with her cozy family life. “I always feel that if you take too much, it’s going to get you,” she says, shuddering a bit. “The money is there, but nothing’s free. You’ll pay for it down the line.”
Does she worry that her career has an expiration date? “I do think about it,” she says. “And I feel that [the time for dwindling roles] should sort of be now. But at the same time, I just got an incredible offer to do something. A really, really rich story.” She pauses for a moment of contemplation. “Maybe it doesn’t stop.” Her phone buzzes. She’s late to pick her daughter up from gymnastics.