I’ve added high quality screen captures of Keri as Zorii Bliss from the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
It was J.J. Abrams, who two decades earlier provided her breakout role on TV’s “Felicity,” which he co-created. His email posed a simple question:
Do you want to join Star Wars?
The offer a couple of years ago, though, came with a caveat. The character she would play in “Rise of the Skywalker,” a spice smuggler named Zorii Bliss, would never remove her helmet, which covers her entire face, except occasionally her eyes.
So “I can see everyone, but no one can see me,” Russell says by phone this month.
“There’s a real power play to that,” continues Russell, describing how her nimble scoundrel of a character — who has a past with the dashing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) — would be a distinct change of pace after her starring roles. She jumped at the chance to disappear into Zorii.
While Abrams was co-writing the character, though, he didn’t even have his old pal in mind.
“You’re really not thinking about specific actors,” Abrams says. But then, “We started to cast the picture and suddenly there was an opportunity to work with Keri again, which is something that one takes advantage of if possible.
“So she was the first person I reached out to” about Zorii, “just to say: Listen, there’s this pretty fun character,” he says.
Because Russell has training as a dancer, Abrams knew that the actress could readily play the quick, agile Zorii. And he was quite confident that Russell could deliver Zorii’s sly humor.
Yet the “Rise” director also wanted someone who could communicate with simply their voice.
“The biggest thing is the conveying of emotion,” Abrams says. Russell, the director says, is able to have “a connection to a character [that] is usually weirdly sort of deep and abstract.”
To find that connection, Russell seized on the idea that beneath this enigmatic facade, Zorii is a survivor in occupied territory. The actress also dived into the big-budget costuming, with all the precise fittings for a helmeted look that harks back to vintage space serials. Her Zorii, she realized, must be as fleet of mind as of body.
Although the role is minor, it is memorable. From a creative standpoint, Russell says, “I can’t think of anything more fun than getting to do this part.”
This is an unusual admission for Abrams, having just directed and co-written the “Star Wars” film that, when it opens Dec. 20, promises to be the final installment in a nine-movie narrative about the Skywalker clan. Moviegoers have seen the curtain come down on this saga twice already: with “Return of the Jedi,” in 1983, which concluded with Luke Skywalker and his allies seemingly triumphant over the treacherous Empire; and again, in 2005, with “Revenge of the Sith,” which tracked the final steps of Luke’s father, Anakin, on his dark path to becoming the malevolent Darth Vader.
But what seemed like closed history was reopened once more in 2015, when “The Force Awakens” began a third trilogy in which the old guard of the original “Star Wars” movies fought alongside a new generation of heroes and villains. True to his boast, Abrams — who, after some trepidation, directed and helped write the screenplay for that film — inaugurated this trilogy with considerable fanfare as “The Force Awakens” went on to gross more than $2 billion worldwide. It was the last and only “Star Wars” film he intended to make.
So when Abrams was once again approached, amid a last-minute creative shake-up, about taking on “The Rise of Skywalker,” he balked. To be considered a success, the new movie must satisfy a seemingly impossible array of demands: It has to wrap up the current trilogy while tying together the many themes and plotlines of its eight predecessors while — oh, yes — working as a complete story on its own. For those same intimidating reasons, Abrams accepted the assignment. “Sticking this landing is one of the harder jobs that I could have taken,” he said. “But that was why it felt worthy of saying yes.”
Like the stories told within the films themselves, the story of this “Star Wars” film — which its creators and stars described in a series of interviews — is one in which inadvertent decisions lead to unintended consequences. It is a tale in which history repeats itself and destiny can be outrun for only so long before it must be confronted. Yet even as Abrams and his colleagues bid farewell to this part of “Star Wars” history, they are as curious as anyone to know what comes next for the series and its characters — in part because no one truly believes that their adventures are over.
I. Relaunch of the Jedi
To understand the conclusion of this new “Star Wars” trilogy, you must go back to its inception. The latest films were born from a union of creative enterprise and corporate mandate, after the Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, in 2012. That’s when the monolithic studio announced its intentions to produce the seventh, eighth and ninth chapters in the space-faring fantasy series, part of what was to be an ambitious plan to release a new “Star Wars” movie every year. Even before handing the reins of his company to Kathleen Kennedy, its current president and the architect of the franchise’s future, Lucas was having conversations with the original Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker — Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill — about resuming their roles.
At that preliminary stage, Abrams seemed like a natural candidate to help oversee a new era of “Star Wars.” He was an avowed fan of the original films, known for his stylized takes on genre TV shows (“Alias,” “Lost”) and for helping resuscitate aging properties on the big screen (“Mission: Impossible” and — ahem — “Star Trek”).
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But when Kennedy formally approached Abrams, his instinct was to decline. He explained, “It was too close to something that I cared too much about. I didn’t want to leave not liking it anymore.” Or worse, he said he feared “falling flat on my face, and failing miserably.”
“My reaction was a reflexive one,” Abrams said. “I just thought it was too daunting, so I respectfully declined.”
Though Abrams had said no in a phone call, Kennedy asked him if they could talk further in person. “I knew, when the two of us sat down face-to-face, that I had him,” she said.
II. The New Hopes
One by one, the leads of the new trilogy found their way onto the project. John Boyega, who plays the renegade storm trooper Finn, wasn’t initially asked to audition but he learned about the casting call from a friend who was being considered for the role. Daisy Ridley, who portrays the heroic Rey, seemed to will her opportunity into existence. “I wasn’t approached,” she said. “I hunted it down. I didn’t even know if there was a part. I just had a feeling. So then I kept saying, ‘Are there auditions for “Star Wars” yet?’ And eventually there were.”
They were rookie actors — Boyega had starred in the cult film “Attack the Block” and Ridley had played small roles on TV shows like “Mr. Selfridge” — and both were simply excited that “Star Wars” would provide them with long-term gigs. “Before then, I was just living from project to project,” Boyega explained. “A ‘Star Wars’ film means six or seven months that I’m paying my bills.”
Once filming began on “The Force Awakens,” there was little time to revel in their fantastical surroundings. “I was mainly excited and then just terrified for a really long time,” Ridley said. “I was basically crippled with fear for a few weeks.”
Even more experienced stars like Oscar Isaac, who plays the dashing pilot Poe Dameron, found the production of “The Force Awakens” to be unexpectedly unnerving. “I hadn’t felt that self-conscious in a very long time,” Isaac said. “I remember we were about to shoot a scene and then Kathy Kennedy came up to fix my hair. It was crazy.”
Isaac added, “Everyone — particularly J.J. — was looking for, What is the tone of this movie? If we’re the symphony, what is the instrument sound that’s coming out of this character? How do we get that? It was challenging. I suddenly was uncertain.”
III. Attack of the Sequels
Amid the frantic casting, writing and construction needed to get “The Force Awakens” underway, Kennedy went to Abrams with a further proposition: In addition to Episode VII, would he like to tackle Episodes VIII and IX as well? Abrams’s response was succinct: “I was like, ‘Are. You. Crazy?’” he recalled. Kennedy acknowledged that Abrams had enough on his plate. “It was pretty obvious it was so overwhelming,” she said.
Instead, Episode VIII, titled “The Last Jedi,” was written and directed by Rian Johnson (“Knives Out”). In its story, the “Force Awakens” heroes were separated from one another, confronting personal roadblocks on individual journeys, and the actors found it just as challenging to make. “The characters were very frustrated, and it felt that way,” Isaac said. “You felt the difficult energy of those scenes, figuring that stuff out.”
“The Last Jedi,” released in 2017, was also a success. But each time it addressed one of several cliffhangers left dangling from “The Force Awakens” — what would happen when Rey returned Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber to him? who were her parents? who was the nefarious Supreme Leader Snoke? — Johnson’s movie seemed to say: the answers to these questions aren’t as important as you think.
Abrams praised “The Last Jedi” for being “full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “it’s a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don’t think that people go to ‘Star Wars’ to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’”
Even so, Abrams said “The Last Jedi” laid the groundwork for “The Rise of Skywalker” and “a story that I think needed a pendulum swing in one direction in order to swing in the other.”
IV. The Auteur Strikes Back
Some journeys end before they begin. So it went for Colin Trevorrow, the “Jurassic World” director and co-writer, who was originally set to direct Episode IX but left the project in 2017. (He and his collaborator Derek Connolly still share story credit on the film with Abrams and Chris Terrio.) Explaining the change, Kennedy said, “We had gotten to not even a first draft when we realized it just wasn’t heading in the direction we’d been talking about.” She added that Trevorrow’s departure was “very amicable” and something that “happens quite frequently in the development phase.” (A publicist for Trevorrow said he declined to comment for this article.) Such down-to-the-wire decisions are rare but not unprecedented on tentpole studio films, and certainly not in the realm of “Star Wars,” where the “Solo” directors Philip Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced by Ron Howard after several weeks of principal photography.
With the clock already ticking on a planned 2019 release for Episode IX, Abrams was the only logical choice to take over — and even more reluctant than he was with “The Force Awakens.” On that movie, he said, “we got away by the skin of our teeth. Why the hell would I go back? Am I a moron to tempt fate a second time?” Abrams said he took the job knowing he’d be working “in an accelerated way from the beginning,” with three fewer months for postproduction than he had on “The Force Awakens.”
“I’m not saying it’s like the closest that ‘Star Wars’ will ever get to being live TV,” he said, “but it was not leisurely.”
But when it was announced that Abrams was indeed returning, his actors breathed sighs of relief. “I cried,” Ridley said, explaining that the director brought a comforting sense of structure and security. Boyega said he was glad that Abrams would get to finish the tale he’d begun in Episode VII. “Even as a normal person in the audience, I wanted to see where that story was going,” Boyega said.
Abrams, who brought in the “Argo” screenwriter Terrio as his writing partner, faced significant challenges on “The Rise of Skywalker.” Among them, the film had to provide a proper send-off for Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016. As Leia, Fisher had been an integral element of “Star Wars,” an embodiment of its hopefulness and its grit, and her story arc had not been finished by the end of “The Last Jedi.” Abrams’s solution was to draw on unused footage that Fisher had shot for “The Force Awakens.” “The idea of continuing the story without Leia was an impossibility,” he said. “There was no way we were going to do a digital Leia. There was no way we would, of course, ever recast it. But we couldn’t do it without her.”
V. The Ride of ‘Skywalker’
How you experienced the making of Episode IX depends on which tribe you belong to. For the series leads who met on “The Force Awakens” (and still haven’t fully adjusted to being called veterans), there was the simple pleasure of having an adventure that brought Rey, Poe and Finn back together, fulfilling what Ridley called “the ‘Star Wars’ mythical thing of threes.” As Boyega put it, “We’re in legit, legit ‘Star Wars’ now. We’ve got a trio up in here.”
Franchise newcomers like Keri Russell (cast as a masked mercenary named Zorii Bliss) and Naomi Ackie (who plays the warrior Jannah) felt that the new trilogy’s lead actors did all the heavy lifting for them. “I’m not going to complain,” Russell said. “It’s fun to come in on their coattails and ride this train.” With a laugh, Ackie added, “They’re all tired and weathered and worn, and we’re just like, ‘Hey, guys!’ It’s a blast.”
Then there are stalwarts like Anthony Daniels, who has played the anxious automaton C-3PO in all nine “Star Wars” saga films, and found himself bewildered by the movies’ increasing complexity. “One reason I liked the original was there weren’t that many characters,” he said. “You had the good guys, the bad guy, a few rocket ships and that was it, really. Then eventually we end up with hundreds of Jedis with different colored lightsabers and I lose track.”
The filmmakers tried to shield the actors where possible from a behind-the-scenes process in which major plot elements and whole swaths of dialogue were being reworked up to and on the days they were filmed.
As Terrio explained, “It’s a war to do a movie like this, and every day you have to get up and go to the front again. And maybe the day before, the battle didn’t go so well, but you have to get up with great optimism and enthusiasm to do it again.”
Abrams makes no apologies for this seat-of-the-pants approach. “As we did on ‘Force Awakens,’” he said, “while we’re shooting, we’re reconsidering things, changing some significant story points going back to ideas that we had loved but put away. That process never stopped.”
“Some people can say, oh, that sounds like it’s crazy,” Abrams said. “But when you have the better idea, it doesn’t matter when it is — you have to try it.”
VI. The Phantom Ending
Why does the Skywalker saga have to end at all? Abrams pointed back to Lucas’s own ever-evolving plans for the “Star Wars” series and to a certain feeling of symmetry: If each previous set of films was its own trilogy, shouldn’t they all come together in a trilogy of trilogies? “Can it go on?” Abrams said. “Of course it can go on. But there’s something bold about saying this is what the story should be.”
As he slyly acknowledged, “Any great ending is a new beginning on some level.” But what the future of “Star Wars” might look like without its foundational narrative is something Abrams — who struck a lucrative overall deal with WarnerMedia in September — was in no hurry to envision. “I didn’t design that, so I don’t know,” he said.
It’s Kennedy’s responsibility to determine what comes after the final Skywalker chapter and, as she put it, “It doesn’t have to end.” But part of living up to Lucas’s vision, she said, was looking beyond it. “We’re all custodians of something that George created, and we’re trying to do the best we possibly can,” Kennedy said, adding that it was important to “recognize and honor what it is that he created — and move on. I think we’re ready to move on.”
Who will make the next “Star Wars” film, which Disney has already scheduled for 2022? Kennedy isn’t saying, but she has been developing new projects with Rian Johnson and with Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of TV’s “Game of Thrones,” recently walked away from their own deal at Lucasfilm to focus on projects for Netflix.)
Kennedy said she continued to discuss opportunities with other artists, and she pointed to the success of “The Mandalorian,” the live-action “Star Wars” series created by Jon Favreau for the Disney Plus streaming service, as a model for the future of the franchise. Shows like it could provide a pipeline for new stories and characters, as well as for writers and directors who could make the feature films.
“I knew that Jon Favreau was a huge ‘Star Wars’ fan,” she said. “I’d been talking to him, off and on, for a few years. He had this story, and suddenly the two of us realized, not only could this be told in the television space, but we could also push technology.”
Determining what should come next, Kennedy said, was as simple as looking at the stories that “Star Wars” has already told.
“It’s not as though we have nothing to dip into, but all it is, really, are road posts, pointing us in a direction,” she said. “You don’t spend a lot of time defining what it is that George intimates in this mythology. You tell stories about people, and you take the mythology and apply it to their conflict.”
VII. Will the Force Be With Them?
Daniels, the C-3PO actor, has been through too many “Star Wars” finales to believe that “The Rise of Skywalker” will be either his farewell or the ultimate conclusion of a story line. “You feel like you’re coming to an end, but not really closing down,” he said. “It’s a good end and our perspective on it happens here” — he held his hands up like a viewfinder, and began to pan across the room — “and then the cameras walk off over there.”
The actors with less tenure on the series are also beginning to understand what this transition means in personal terms. Their lives and careers are still largely ahead of them, and whether “Star Wars” has a lasting effect on them — positive, negative or none at all — remains to be seen. As Ridley put it, “It’s just the saga that ends. We are all still going.”
Boyega described his “Star Wars” farewell tour as bittersweet, saying, “It was sweet to play a character who grows in front of people’s eyes, and it’s bitter, leaving that consistency.” Every year he worked on the franchise, it dominated his schedule, providing a center of gravity around which everything else in his life revolved. “Now I have to go and create my own path,” he said.
Whether it takes months, years or decades, Boyega and his co-stars all believe they will one day return to their “Star Wars” roles. Pointing to Isaac, Boyega laughed and said, “This guy’s going to be in an X-Wing next week in a little spinoff series.”
Adopting an exaggerated announcer’s voice, Isaac replied, “‘Go Poe,’ on Disney Plus.” (Needless to say, Disney has not disclosed plans for any such program.)
Ridley at first seemed to dismiss the possibility of a future trilogy where she would help pass the torch to an even younger team of heroes. “I just don’t think anything could exceed this,” she said.
But Boyega was not exactly buying that. “I’ll give her a call,” he replied to her. “I’ll be like, ‘Girl, get your ass out of that damn house. Come on, Oscar said yes.’”
And who knows? Maybe Abrams might even be the one to tell that story. “I just need one night’s sleep,” he said.
“I would’ve played Yoda’s sister, but what I got to do was so much better,” Russell says. The role of Baby Yoda was also probably taken by then, but she promises, “My costume is slightly cooler than that.”
Russell’s not kidding: Her shady character Zorii Bliss, who makes her galactic debut in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (in theaters Dec. 20), is an enigmatic woman who gives off lots of Boba Fett vibes with her gold aerodynamic helmet and twin blasters. She’s only been glimpsed in the trailers so far and fans don’t even know what she sounds like underneath her awesome headgear.
The former star of “The Americans” allows that Zorii is a “tough” personality, the kind of person who hangs out in places like the Thieves’ Quarter on the snowbound planet of Kijimi. “If I was in trouble, she might be someone I’d ask for help. She seems to know her way around dark corners. And when someone is more elusive, you can project what you want or need onto them.”
She also shares a past connection with one of the latest “Star Wars” trilogy’s main heroes, Resistance pilot/leader Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Zorii is “a real window” into an “unresolved past that was left behind” and the fact that he wasn’t always a “squeaky-clean military flyboy,” Isaac says. The dynamic between them has “a little bit of a throwback ‘His Girl Friday’ kind of vibe.”
Isaac acknowledges there’s “a lot of mystery” acting opposite somebody in a helmet, and Russell reveals that she refused to remove it for the first two days of filming.
Between scenes, “J.J. kept just trying to hang out and talk to me and he’s like, ‘Seriously, are you not going to take that off?’ ” Russell recalls. “And I’m like, ‘No, I love it.’ He’s like, ‘But I can’t see your eyes and it’s freaking me out.’ And I was like, ‘Deal with it. It’s my power right now.’
“It’s such a power move that you get to see everyone and no one can see you. It’s kind of amazing.”
At the very least, people can’t give her a hard time about her hairdo, a la TV’s “Felicity” (1998 to 2002) – her first collaboration with Abrams. “Thank goodness!” Russell says. “There may be hair underneath. Who knows?”
Overall, the outfit was “empowering,” she says, though the helmet “wasn’t light. But I was so in it. When you step on a ‘Star Wars’ set, you’re not imagining something. The world is there. They created it. Some crazy snowy planet with hundreds of Stormtroopers and creatures, there’s so much art involved. That’s why I wanted to wear the helmet, because I wanted to show up and do my part.”
Russell considers an appearance in the finale of the 42-year-old Skywalker saga “this uncanny stroke of luck that I get to just swoop in and, like icing on the cake, indulge in the last little moments of it.” Rewatching some of the older films to prepare for “Rise of Skywalker” reminded her of how much she loved Han Solo’s sense of humor as well as “the whole Joseph Campbell true-hero journey of it and how we’re all struggling with the light and dark side of ourselves. I really buy into all of that. And I think people like a life metaphor to look at and to read into what they want.”
Abrams was the perfect filmmaker to end it all because “he’s a true fan of these movies. He only wants to respect and enjoy them, instead of twisting it and turning it to be something different that’s only his.”
Russell says she feels “the weight” of this finale through him and was emotional reading Abrams’ ending: “I don’t want to say too many things. I cried. It’s a theme that I really respond to and I thought he did a great job.”
The stars and filmmakers Of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalkerthe attended global press conference for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” at the Pasadena Convention Center on December 04, 2019 in Pasadena.
– Events The Stars And Filmmakers Of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker At The Global Press Conference
The cast of the upcoming film, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran, J.J. Abrams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Keri Russell and Oscar Isaac, gets a first-look at the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction in Star Wars: Galaxys Edge at Disneyland Park on December 2.
– Events A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” New York Screening – November 17 2019
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.
Anything and everything Mickey Mouse will be on tap this weekend at D23 Expo (Friday through Sunday) in Anaheim, California, the biennial all-Disney, all-the-time festival that features panels and presentations for what’s coming at theme parks, the new Disney+ streaming service (launching Nov. 12) and, of course, the A-list movie slate.
Chief among the upcoming films is “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (in theaters Dec. 20), the ninth and final episode in the Skywalker saga, and fans will be ravenous for any news to come out of that part of the Disney movie presentation on Saturday.
What’s up with Keri Russell’s mystery woman?
While the actress’ scoundrel Zorri Bliss didn’t appear in the initial “Rise of Skywalker” trailer, a first look at the character – and her rad Rocketeer-meets-Met Gala helmet – had fandom psyched in May. Of the new characters, she’s so far the biggest enigma of them all – and it’s hard to imagine Abrams signing on his old “Felicity” star as some random side player, especially in a movie that culminates 40-plus years of storytelling. Maybe Russell shows up to give us a hint of her role. Heck, we’ll take a glimpse of her just sauntering around in behind-the-scenes footage.
The deeply unsettling clip unfolds as a young boy narrates a short story he’s written for his teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), which seemingly reveals a dark secret about his home life.
“Once, there were three bears that lived in a dark, wet cave up above a small town. Every day, Little Bear went to school, and at night he would come home and eat dinner,” he says over a montage that includes images of a foreboding cabin with blood-splattered floors, humanoid creatures writhing in darkness, and Julia screaming inside her car. “But, one day, Little Bear came home and Big Bear and Baby Bear were different. Big Bear got sick, and his insides turned black. Big Bear has become more angrier and meaner, because they had no food, no meat. But they had each other.”
According to a synopsis, Antlers takes place in a small Oregon village, where Julia and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) investigate the boy’s secret — which potentially poses catastrophic consequences for the region’s residents. Oscar-winning Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro produced the film, while Henry Chaisson and Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca wrote the script based on the latter’s short story The Quiet Boy, with revisions done by Cooper, who previously directed critically lauded dramas Out of the Furnace and Hostiles.
Though an exact date has yet to be announced, Fox Searchlight is expected to release Antlers sometime in 2020. Watch the frightening teaser trailer above.
– Movies Antlers Trailer