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For Rene Russo, it took time to understand 'Nightcrawler' character

Rene Russo says turning point in understanding Nina Romina was seeing she was driven by fear

Call it uncommon the way Rene Russo landed her latest (and some say career-best) role as the desperate, morally impoverished news show producer Nina Romina in this season's L.A.-set indie crime thriller "Nightcrawler." The role was created by her husband, Dan Gilroy — the film's screenwriter and director — and has given her a pack of crackerjack reviews after nearly six years away from the big screen.

She arrives for a late-afternoon interview on the Westside in a black velvet blazer, slim tan pants and vain-free smile. As an actor, she's one of those ageless sorts, both on screen and off, looking nearly half her 60 years and better than half the women half her age.

The film digs into a seedy side of the city as crime videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets ever more aggressive in his tactics, and Romina, ever more desperate to get her show's ratings up, encourages him.

It seems that you and your husband went outside your comfort zones for this — and you both hit pay dirt. Did you have to push yourself, or were you ready?

I think as dark as the film is, Danny is a very positive person — and yet he feels strongly about certain things, so I think this was his comfort zone. It was not my comfort zone. When he handed me the script to read, right off I said, "Oh, my God, this is an amazing screenplay, just beautiful, out there, crazy, wild" — "bonkers" someone said in a review — but I told him, "Nina needs some work." Ultimately, there wasn't a word changed. It's just that I did not find her; it took me a long time to relate to Nina.

Because?

Partly because who I am as a person and even who I was at 25, if a guy said that to me [when Bloom coerces Nina into a sexual relationship], I might have punched him. So, it was, "How am I going to find a real place here?" Because if it's not real for me, then it's not real for the audience.

What shifted for you to play her so convincingly?

What was obvious took me so long to find, and that is she crossed many a moral boundary and I've crossed many a moral boundary, and it's always been out of desperation and fear. And when I realized that, I thought, "OK, why didn't I see that? You're good to go with Nina."

Many people see Nina as either a pitiful victim or an ethics-free bitch. You played her somewhere in the middle. How did you come to that viewpoint?

Thank you that you saw that because that was my struggle. Danny wrote her as a victim. He felt strongly that Nina was a victim and under Lou's control, and I said, "No, she's not." And what's interesting is this role and even the film are a kind of Rorschach test. Depending on your age and sometimes gender, where you are in your life, the life experiences you've had, how you judge yourself and how you judge others, it all has something to do with the way you look at Nina and this film.

You could have played Nina showier, more off like Lou, but you didn't. You played her straight sane.

Which makes you wonder who is crazier, who's more responsible? There's a sociopath in all of us. People have said Nina is more responsible because she knows more what she's doing. It's that slippery slope. A little bit of denial and justification and you say, "This is what people want, everyone's doing it; it's not so bad after all."

Jake's performance is just stone-cold psycho, isn't it? Did it surprise you at all?

You know, I want to say something about that. If Jake isn't recognized and nominated for this role, I don't even know what the word is — profound disappointment. To do a character like that is as hard as it gets. Those conflicting character traits he has to hold up, and how to do that and when to put on the charm — is he a sociopath? I don't know — and right when you think you do know, then he mixes it up and you don't. He made it look so effortless. I'm hoping that he's going to get the credit. It was phenomenal.

Since the manipulated sexual relationship between Nina and Lou was such a central theme, it's interesting there was no physical sex scene. Was it cut or just written around?

There never was one, no. There were investors who wanted one, and they wanted Lou to get his comeuppance in the end as well, but Danny felt there was nothing he could show that would be more dramatic than what the audience was thinking. It is creepier and more interesting. I think it would have ruined everything.

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