Keri Russell became a pop cultural fixture in 1998, when she starred as the title character on Felicity, perhaps one of TV’s finest coming-of-age dramas. So much the pop cultural fixture, there was an uproar heard round the world when she got a simple haircut. Though Felicity ended in 2002, and since then, Russell has continued to produce meaningful acting work. 2013 alone is a huge year for her, as she is starring as an undercover KGB operative in the critically revered FX drama The Americans, starred in Jerusha Hess‘ directorial debut Austenland, which just premiered at Sundance, and is starring in Dark Skies, an alien invasion thriller that opens this Friday in theaters.
In Dark Skies, directed by Scott Stuart, Russell plays Lacey Barrett, a woman who faces absolute hell as her family is targeted by aliens who control the forces of nature, including three separate flocks of birds that mysteriously fly into their home. Lacey and her husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton) fight with everything they have to protect their two children against the aliens, but are instead thought to be the abusive parties by their narrow-minded suburban community.
Russell was kind enough to make time for an interview, and had a lot to say about Dark Skies, her interestingly unsympathetic character on The Americans, the delights of Sundance, and the final episodes of Felicity.
Well, let me start off by saying I’m super excited to meet you… watching Felicity was a major catalyst for me wanting to go to NYU. Which is delusional, but whatever…
[Laughs] Oh my gosh – no, I get it!
Even though Felicity went to the University of New York…
But it was supposed to be NYU, everyone knew it!
Well, I could talk about Felicity all day, but I guess for my first legit question, I noticed in Dark Skies, there was a strong economic undercurrent, in that the Barretts were constantly struggling to get by. Can you talk about why it was important for such a family to get targeted by the aliens?
I think the economic struggle is just about fleshing out the family and making them relatable. I think that’s one of the strengths of the film; it’s one of the things that Scott Stewart did really well. He sold the family, and being a very real family with struggles – economic struggles – but also the strain on the marriage, the strain of raising an almost-teenager who’s coming into the world sexually with friends who are out of their control, and a family dynamic disintegrating and trying to keep out outside forces. So I don’t know if there’s a reason why the aliens are targeting them because of an economic thing, but I think it just strengthens the reality of the family story.
There was that really great scene when alien forces overcame your character’s body during the house showing (featured in the film’s trailer). What was your direction during that scene, and what were trying to channel?
Scott just said, “I just want it to be weird. I want it to be like you aren’t in control, you’re stuttery and shakey…” I don’t know, it was just embarrassing. I was just like, “I’ve gotta go for it right now!” But in the context of the film, you totally buy it when it gets to that point. You’re like, “Oh no!” And it’s scary on a whole new level. [Stuart] kind of just showed me what he wanted and we kind of just tried to do something weird.
Yeah, before I saw the film, I saw you banging your head against the patio door in the trailer and I thought, “this might be too scary for me!”
[Laughs] I know! It is a little scary. Believe me, it is a little scary.
There is a secondary nightmare in the film – Lacey and Daniel are assumed to be abusive parents because of the alien marks on their sons’ bodies – which is the furthest from the truth. I was reading that Scott Stuart drew a lot of inspiration from the media on that account, with scandals like the Lacey Peterson trial. Were you told to research anything in particular?
No, I wasn’t – that was more of Scott creating the story. I think it just plays into the whole idea of the suburban community judging you and not being a community, but isolating people. And that was something Scott talked about – how isolated and lonely suburbia can be. And not like a cohesive community.
Because your character’s best friend was the first person to turn on her…
Yeah, because you would hope that someone would turn around and say, “Wait, what’s going on? Let me help you out!” But no one does that for them.
In both Dark Skies and The Americans, you play a mother to a teenager. Is this strange for you, given that you have such young kids at home (River, 5 and Willa, 2)?
But I am age appropriate! I could absolutely have a teenager. Yes, every age has its specific challenges and dynamics, but once you’re a parent, you’re a parent, and you know what it’s like to be worried for them or be excited for them and I think it is incredibly useful in my work.
I noticed also in The Americans, you have a lot of hardcore fight sequences. Do you have to do a lot of training for that?
We did. Before the pilot, we had to do a couple of weeks of training, which was really fun. And one of the more interesting types of training we did was Krav Maga, which is this Israeli fight system for self-defense, with this cool girl here in the city. So that was pretty cool. We did a couple weeks of boxing and that kind of stuff – it was super fun.
So where do you shoot the show? Is it shot in New York?
Our stage is in Brooklyn, we do a couple days of the week there, and we shoot everywhere – Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, just all over.
And I guess you just do location stuff in D.C.?
Well, we haven’t gone to D.C. at all… we just shoot here [in NYC] for D.C. And they’ve done it really successfully, I think.
Can you talk a bit about your character, Elizabeth, on The Americans? Because she is somewhat less sympathetic than her husband, Phillip (Matthew Rhys), which is a nice twist…
Yeah, which I love. He’s so charming and sensitive – he’s who you kind of follow the story through. My character is so cool and kind of reserved and harsh. The main thing I do with her is that when someone is that reserved, they have a story, obviously. And she definitely has a story. You’ll learn more about it in the next few episodes. But it’s such a cool place for an actor to start there because there’s so much more to show, to reveal… and I really like her. I like that he’s the more open, vulnerable one. And she is more of the mystery, slowly unraveling.
And she’s edgy, she’s so not in touch with her own emotions, and she’s so not warm and fuzzy. She’s incredibly vulnerable too. She’s getting to a point where I feel like she knows she’s not going to survive the marriage and her life unless she opens herself up. And the fear is she’ll open herself up a little bit and then life happens – she’s in a real relationship. Things are going to be messy. And I think the fear for her and for [her husband] Phillip would be that she would close the door even harder once some moving around happens. So we’ll see. But I’m really enjoying my time working on that show.
It’s a really great show! I love it – especially the pilot was amazing, and your opening scene (in which a disguised Elizabeth pleasures someone to obtain intel)…
[Laughs] Oh, I know, my friends were like, “Honey trap! My god!”
Well, Phillip was a male honey trap on the second episode…
[Laugh] And he does most of them. Thank God!
That’s good – that takes the pressure off!
This is a huge year for you, since you also filmed Jerusha Hess’ Austenland, which just premiered at Sundance. What was the Sundance experience like for you this go round?
It was so manic! Sundance can be so fun. I love that it’s in the mountains, and those are the mountains that I grew up in, except on the Colorado side. It’s great, there’s no fancy clothes, you’re just there to sell, sell, sell the movie. And you’re seeing people that you wouldn’t normally see, just walking down the street, so it can be a very special time. Unfortunately, because I was shooting The Americans, I had to just go kamikaze – like, straight there, get off the plane, go into the airport bathroom and put on makeup and brush my teeth, go straight to the premiere, take the red eye home… I mean, it was like really quick for me, but I am so glad I was there and so glad the movie sold and so happy for Jerusha, who directed it… And it was fun to see it with an audience, I was really surprised how well it played. It’s such a fun, poppy, lark of a film.
So bringing this full circle… Felicity kind of ended in a weird way with the re-do episodes. What is your feeling on that?
Well, you know why we had to do that… we were cancelled, and at the last minute they ordered more [laughs] so we had to come up with something! Um… right, we went back in time or something?
I haven’t seen it in a while…
Yeah, me too.
…but if memory serves, these were if Felicity picked Noel over Ben?
[Laughs] Oh, to see how that turned out! Aw, I loved that show, I have such fond memories of it and of everyone – J.J. [Abrams], Matt [Reeves], Scott [Speedman] and Mandy [Amanda Foreman], all my pals… it was a great show.
Dark Skies opens February 22nd in theaters, The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FX and Felicity is probably in re-runs somewhere.
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