MOVIES : Rene and the Brass Ring : Former top model Rene Russo plays strong women opposite Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood, and she gets $1 million or more a film. So why's she so worried about show biz?

Michael Walker is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

In her dream, Rene Russo goes to heaven.

"I know you're going to laugh," says the 41-year-old actress, pale-blue eyes rolling skyward above her famous cheekbones, apologizing in advance for the treacle that will follow, "but I'm telling you, it was so powerful. I got to see heaven's perspective of Earth and my fears. And I remember thinking: 'Oh, God, please, I've gotta go back, I've gotta go back,' because the worst thing would be to finish this life early and not do the things you really wanted to do because you were afraid.

"Because you can do anything. I mean, within reason--I'm not going to be a rocket scientist, believe me. But any desire that's there, you just need to cast your bread and it's out of your hands."

Russo had that epiphany six years ago. By then, her run as one of the top models of the '70s and '80s was emphatically finished. "They didn't want me anymore--they had other, younger models. I went from the cover of Cosmopolitan and Vogue to standing on the beach with a pillow over my stomach doing some piece-of-(expletive) pregnancy catalogue for a dollar an hour."

So it was that Russo, with no real experience or entre beyond her looks and the tireless flogging of her manager, cast her bread once and for all as an actress. She'd done some obligatory auditions at the height of her modeling fame, with encouraging results--only Debra Winger stood between her and plum roles in "Urban Cowboy" and "Cannery Row," and Cybill Shepherd, Andie MacDowell and Lauren Hutton were proof that models could make credible film performers.

Nevertheless, it was far more likely that Russo would vanish forever into forgettable movie roles and spokes-model-ish exercise videos than what, miraculously enough, came to pass: a sturdy career in big-budget, high-grossing films playing opposite the likes of Mel Gibson ("Lethal Weapon 3") and Clint Eastwood ("In the Line of Fire").

In "Outbreak," which opens Friday, Russo plays a virologist whose fraying marriage to Dustin Hoffman goes on the mend as they hunt down a killer virus, and she is currently finishing "Get Shorty" with John Travolta and Gene Hackman, in which she portrays a lippy B-movie queen. She now earns an estimated $1 million to $2 million a film.

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Having rejected offers to play what she calls "James Bond girls" and even the kitten-with-an-ice-pick part in "Basic Instinct" that went to Sharon Stone, Russo has, in a remarkably short time, established a solid reputation playing strong, accomplished women handy with their wits, fists and, often enough, automatic weapons.

"Watch her," Gibson nudges Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon 3," as the bored-looking Russo dispatches a clutch of bad guys with a series of karate blows. "She has a gift."

Says Russo's manager, John Crosby, who discovered her outside a Rolling Stones concert at the Los Angeles Forum when she was 17: "Rene throws a punch and holds a pistol better than any female I've seen."

But Russo's appeal lies more with her unfettered acting style and ability to stand up to powerful leading men such as Eastwood and Hoffman, both as the romantic interest and as a wet blanket for preening male egos--the latter accomplished with a withering glance or an oath muttered under her breath. (Her first line in "LW3" was "Son of a bitch . . .")

"She's got that sass," says casting director Joanne Zaluski, who cast Russo in "Major League," her breakthrough role, "the intelligence and strength and sassiness of a Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard. She's also got the genuine quality that Mel Gibson has--you kind of want them to be your best friend because you like them so much. After her first reading (for 'Major League'), I told her: 'You're going to be a star.' "

Wolfgang Petersen, who directed Russo in "Outbreak" and "In the Line of Fire," says that "the Rene Russo personality is a combination of humor, smartness, great sensitivity with a little bit of shyness that makes her an incredibly likable human being that you trust. That comes through in the way she presents herself on the screen."

According to Petersen, Russo was "in awe to play with Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood. But Clint fell in love with her. Dustin fell in love with her. I fell in love with her. There must be something about her."

Before the clouds of hyperbole get too thick--it is, after all, good business for anyone connected with Russo, a rising star, to swear to her wonderfulness--let it be said that, in person, she comports herself with winning self-deprecation and good humor.

Exhausted from the nighttime shooting schedule of "Get Shorty" and a mind-numbing round of interviews with the foreign press, she declares, "I'll be in a bad mood for two weeks now." She owns up to her quirks--she can't bear to watch herself on screen and has seen only a handful of her movies--and shrugs off the beauty that launched a thousand magazine covers with, "You know what it was? I have an unusual face." She is also refreshingly direct about her film career.

"I've been around and I know the ups and downs of business," Russo says. "In this business, I have the turn of the century looming. I have that long. So I'm going to be a smart businesswoman and make as much money as I can for the short amount of ride that I have here, and then I'm out. That sounds cold, in a way, but it's because there are no guarantees, especially for a woman in this business.

"If I could go back and do (modeling) again, I would have worked harder and put every penny away. I mean, I did some smart things. I bought a home I've lived in since 1975 (in Laurel Canyon, which she shares with her husband, screenwriter Danny Gilroy, and their 18-month-old daughter, Rose) and a home for my mother. But I could have made more. So now I have the opportunity to make this money and I'm going to make the most of it, because it's a ridiculous opportunity and you don't have a long time to do it."

Reminded that some believe her breakthrough came about because she makes a plausible romantic partner for aging leading men such as Gibson, Hoffman and Eastwood, Russo earnestly agrees, then sputters, "Oh, I can't say this, it's too much." Prodded, she finally adds: 'But until those guys drop dead . . . I'm all right!" Russo whoops with laughter and literally slaps her thighs. Then she subsides.

"Well, look, it's funny, but I got to tell you: I guess I knew I was getting older when I found Donald Sutherland more attractive than Kiefer Sutherland."

In her teen-age dream, Rene Russo was a surfer girl.

In fact, she was a painfully self-conscious loner at Burbank's Burroughs High School, her Rapunzel-length hair mitigating somewhat the body cast she wore to correct scoliosis. Things were not good at home, on a down-and-out block in Burbank, nor had they been since her father, a strikingly handsome sculptor of Sicilian extraction, left the family for good when she was 2. Her mother worked two jobs and Russo spent her hours after school baby-sitting for the plentiful single mothers in the neighborhood, many of whom had drunk and drugged themselves past redemption. Depressed, she holed up in her room for hours.

Back at school, Russo "didn't feel popular and wasn't popular. People knew about me, in a way, because I had hair down to there and half the time I was in the body cast. So you sort of couldn't miss me. But I think I was an oddity."

She found it increasingly difficult to focus, got murdered on tests and was deported from regular math class to bookkeeping. She would watch the teachers' mouths move and hear the words come out, but nothing would sink in. On top of everything, "I was very insecure about the way I looked. If one guy said something, that I was skinny or something, that was it for the week, I couldn't concentrate. I just felt bad about myself."

In 10th grade, she dropped out, never to return.

A year later, Russo was threading through the crowds at the Forum after a Stones concert just as John Crosby, then an agent at ICM, was nosing his Mercedes out of the parking snarl. Crosby saw the hair, the face, and hit the brakes in the middle of the street. "I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd seen in my life," he recalls. "Fortunately, my wife agreed with me."

Within weeks, Russo was on a plane for New York and the studio of Richard Avedon, clutching a cardboard suitcase upon which her mother had scrawled, to her mortification, an enormous black "R.R." She was an immediate sensation and became one of the top-billing Ford models whose preeminence would define the "super-model" category. She was 17.

"I was so ignorant," Russo says. "I hadn't been out of Burbank. It was hard to face all that so quickly. I liked the attention, but I also knew that it was fleeting, so I had that to worry about too. I thought, my God, they're talking about so-and-so, who's 30, like she's already dead."

Along with her battered suitcase, Russo discovered she'd brought to her new career nettlesome emotional baggage. Despite the acclaim and the fawning fashion editors, she was convinced her success was a fluke. She longed to have the blond hair and voluptuous body of Cheryl Tiegs or Christie Brinkley--women who, unlike herself, she considered beautiful. Working with Gia, another model of the moment who was methodically destroying herself with cocaine and heroin, Russo realized, "I was as sad as she probably was, but my drug was sleep. I would just do my job and go home."

Her father, meanwhile, suddenly resurfaced. It was, for all practical purposes, the first time she had seen him in her life. "I guess he saw me on the cover of Vogue and wanted to meet me," Russo says. "I didn't understand that. I have an 18-month-old baby now and I can't imagine leaving her and never seeing her again."

Russo modeled for 15 years. As she slid into her 30s and the prestige work inevitably dribbled away, she concentrated, finally, on acting.

"She gave the most incredible cold readings," says casting director Zaluski. At her "Urban Cowboy" audition, Russo recalls, director James Bridges pulled her aside and said, "Let me tell you something. If you want to be in this business, you can do it."

"I couldn't really see that," she says. "I thought I had something, but I wasn't sure. But there was something in me that said, you know, be very careful. Because I think, as insecure as I am, I have enough of an ego to where if I can't make some kind of mark, I don't want to do it."

Petersen characterizes Russo as "a very instinctive actress. If something doesn't really work, she notices right away. She's not an actress who says, 'What the hell, I'll fake over it, let's get on with life.' She can't do that. There was a scene with Clint Eastwood (in "In the Line of Fire," in which Russo and a grouchy Eastwood are on Air Force One), she couldn't feel it, and she couldn't get it. We tried it over and over; she was desperate, devastated. It's not like she screams and runs for her trailer, no. You see the pure despair in her eyes and face that she cannot get it right. But whatever it was that made it click, we got it. And now it's one of the best scenes in the movie."

Having proved her acting mettle and bankability, Russo is, in Petersen's opinion, a film or two away from "being up there in the top with these really first-rate Hollywood actresses."

Russo isn't so sure. "This is a crazy business, and I don't know what will happen. I'd love to carry a film with another leading man, especially a comedy, to have that chemistry, like movies were in the '30s and '40s."

So even now, having wrung successful careers out of two of the planet's most viciously competitive professions and made peace with most of her demons, Russo remains watchful. If life, as some are convinced, really is high school with bar privileges, a part of Russo seems actively in touch with the gawky teen-ager scuttling down the halls encased in plaster from hip to neck. "I think what happens if you're raised without a lot of confidence is that, no matter what, there's still a feeling of, well, there's that, but . . . . It took me a long time to like myself, to give myself a break.

"You know," she adds, "I got that cast off, and in a way I didn't really get it off for a long, long time."

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