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A Potential Star Is Torn

Bruce Newman writes about television and movies from Los Angeles

‘I’m feeling a little guilty,” Keri Russell says, but this is not exactly a surprise.

For the past 10 minutes her face has been clouding over, a sadness rising thick as humidity. She knows that she has to do something, make a choice. “I wouldn’t want you to say anything bad.”

You of course are not going to say anything bad. Russell, who stars in “Felicity,” the hotly anticipated new show that begins Tuesday on the WB network, has already taken care of that. In a moment of apparently uncontrollable candor, she has said something she regrets about a member of Hollywood’s new royalty--one of the Teen Queens--and now she is trying to un-say it.

“She’s a very sweet girl,” Russell stresses. “I don’t want anything bad said about her career.”

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It is a very Felicity-like moment for Russell, who is 22 but plays seventeensomething with a mixture of determination and regret.

“I remember saying to [Russell] one day, ‘You do these scenes so deeply, and yet they don’t seem to be exactly who you are,” says J.J. Abrams, a co-creator and executive producer of the show. “And she told me, ‘Felicity sort of says all of the things that I think but I’m too afraid to say.’

“And that’s what’s so cool about Felicity, she says things that make people uncomfortable because she’s very impulsive. Keri’s very much in touch with that stuff.”

As impulsive as Russell and her inner teenager can be, there is very little about “Felicity” that has not been planned, often in excruciating detail, in the two years since Abrams came up with the idea to do a show about a girl going off to college. The series was a perfect fit for the WB, which has become the niche-caster of choice to America’s teenagers with such breakthrough shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek.”

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Even more than those shows, “Felicity” arrives with the sheen of a critical smash, its success prefigured by a “rave page” in the network press kit filled with what appears to be favorable quotes from reviewers. Until very recently, however, no critic had reviewed the show, and all of the “raves” were a reaction to the reaction of advertisers.

“Already the most talked-about new drama by advertisers,” raved the New York Times, for one. Entertainment Weekly gave “Felicity” a loving five-page send-off (" . . . a justifiably hyped new drama,” the magazine said).

“There’s a great frenzy in this business around what’s hot,” acknowledges Russell’s manager of five years, Joannie Burstein. And no one, it seems, wants to be left standing on the shore when “Felicity’s” ship sails.

With no place to go but up, the WB groomed potential young stars such as “Buffy’s” Sarah Michelle Gellar and now Russell, spending less money while building an audience whose median age is about half that of CBS. “They know who their audience is,” says Burstein, “and they know what their demographic is.”

The nation’s supply of teenagers continues to replenish itself at a frightening pace: There will be 3 million to 4 million new 13-year-olds every year for the next decade, and most of them seem to know their way to the mall and the multiplex.

“We didn’t set out looking for a demographic,” says Matt Reeves, co-creator and executive producer of the series. “We set out to do a show we thought we’d want to watch, and a demographic found us.”

Reeves and Abrams quickly realized that if they were never able to figure out what teenage girls wanted when they were in high school, they certainly weren’t going to do it now that they were in their 30s. Abrams says the best they could do was to resist designing the show to make it conform to some “ludicrous industry notion of who the kids are, and what the kids are buying.”

“They’ve seen a lot of stuff being peddled to them, so in that sense they’re much shrewder now,” Reeves says. “And maybe to some degree more cynical about being catered to.”

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The machinery that has been set up to position Russell as the new diva of dorm TV is controlled by Russell’s manager, a flock of network and studio publicists, and most formidably by the WB’s marketing strategists, who last winter conducted a blistering advertising campaign on behalf of “Dawson’s Creek” before that show went on the air.

This time, the network has let Russell carry the ball, sending her out on an exhausting round of interviews that has left her occasionally bewildered and, at times, feeling not terribly felicitous.

“You have some interesting people in your profession,” Russell says, coolly studying the ink-stained specimen across from her. Then she sighs, deeply, as if she already knows that this will be misunderstood. “I’ve been to the point where I was almost about to cry [during interviews]. And I’m going, ‘What am I doing? If this person is making me so uncomfortable, why don’t I just get up and leave? I’ve never met you and you’re asking me insanely personal questions about things I haven’t even told my mom? Who are you?’ ”

She lets this last question linger in the air until you are almost about to cry, then smiles, sweetly. “And you know? It’s never men,” she continues. “Men are so much more respectful.”

Russell shakes her head, but the great corona of curls hardly moves. “I hate when we have an interviewer on the set--and it’s only girls who do this--asking the other people in my cast questions that I know make them feel uncomfortable. I just want to go, ‘Stop! You know that they’re uncomfortable. Stop asking that. Do you have any feelings?’

“My favorite thing is when they tell you"--here she drops into burlesque of a woman reporter’s voice, demanding conspiratorially--" 'We already know that about you. Everyone knows it. Tell me something that no one knows.’ Are you kidding? Do you honestly think I’m going to tell you something that no one knows? You’re a reporter! The whole media part of this is really weird and scary.”

Still. It must surely have its compensations. A few days earlier, Russell’s anointment as the new It Girl became official with her appearance on the cover of Seventeen devoted to young women whose chief preoccupations--the magazine would have you believe--seem to be their own hair, everybody else’s hair, their stuffed animal collections and their birth-control options.

This is the Holy Grail for executives at the WB, the most desirable of all magazine covers. Russell cannot seem to bring herself to look at it, rolling her eyes instead. “That’s where I get all my information about what’s going on in the world,” she offers mordantly.

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The strategy, both for Russell and the show, is to create a kind of critical mass of heightened awareness and curiosity about “Felicity"--the all-important buzz--without making the hype so obvious, or irritating, that it basically makes everyone sick of the show before it goes on the air. This is the inevitable backlash, the dreaded corollary to buzz, and it is already no doubt mounting somewhere out there against “Felicity.”

Hollywood handlers attempt to steer their stars away from this vortex by avoiding media overexposure, though there is no hard evidence that being on too many magazine covers has ever hurt the career of anyone who didn’t already have it coming.

“I was definitely worried about being out there way too much,” Russell says a few weeks before the show debuts. “That was a huge fear of mine. I remember seeing all the ‘Dawson’s Creek’ promos, and you were like, ‘I’m not going to watch this show. I’ve only seen the promo eighteen-hundred times.”

The teen scream queens do, in fact, seem to be everywhere these days, and Russell would be the next likely pretender to a Hollywood throne of blood that has lately been ruled by “Party of Five” stars Neve Campbell (“Scream” and “Scream 2") and Jennifer Love Hewitt (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”), and “Dawson Creek’s” Michelle Williams (“Halloween H20") and Katie Holmes (“Disturbing Behavior” and the upcoming “Killing Mrs. Tingle”).

But if the way of all flesh for young angstresses these days is to have it flayed in slasher movies by writer-director-slicer-dicer Kevin Williamson, Russell seems determined to rise above it, her body parts all presumably intact.

“I hope this whole teen horror-film genre ends, actually,” she says. “I think these producers don’t get that kids are smarter than that.”

But what if these actresses are all figuratively putting the knife to their own throats? Like, OK, what about Katie Holmes? “Hmmm,” Russell says, her gray eyes darkening into tiny thunderheads. “Someone needs to help that girl out. She needs someone to help her with her career. She’s a really sweet girl too.”

By almost any reckoning, Holmes is now a crossover star, someone for whom studios develop vehicles, and whose career other actresses yearn for. Some would say she has already won the game.

“I have a feeling that those are the people who are making those appointments for her,” Russell says. “Those are about the only people who think that she’s made it. I think living your life is a little more important than being in these crap movies. No, I don’t think that’s healthy at all. I think she was the epitome of the everyday girl, and I think some people are exploiting her a little bit.”

Holmes’ transformation from Catholic schoolgirl in Toledo, Ohio, to Rolling Stone cover girl in the space of just over a year is illustrative of how great the stakes in this star-making process can be; not only for young actresses like Russell, but also for the members of her relentlessly expanding retinue, and not least of all for casting directors, who must now evaluate not only acting ability but also anticipate the second-guessing of focus groups employed by the networks.

From the moment Abrams and Reeves learned that the WB was going to make their pilot, they were acutely aware of the vast machine that had just been set in motion. “No matter what happens,” Abrams recalls, intoning solemnly, “right now there is a young woman out there who we haven’t even met, whose life is going to be changed, and whose face is going to be on every magazine cover.”

Then they laughed, because you had to laugh. “We actually said all this stuff to each other,” Abrams admits. “It was crazy.”

But it was also true. Russell’s destiny had already begun to take shape by the age of 13, when she won a scholarship at a dance studio called Star Struck near her family’s home in Denver. The scholarship required her to take 30 to 40 hours of classes a week.

She started modeling at 14 after being spotted by a photographer, and at 15 she answered an open casting call for the Disney Channel’s nationwide search for singers, dancers and actors to be Mouseketeers in “The All New Mickey Mouse Club.”

She won her ears. For the next three years she split her time between Denver and Florida, where the clubhouse was located. When the show was canceled, Russell moved to Los Angeles, alone. She was 17.

“It just seemed like the logical thing to do,” she says. She got work right away, never even bothering with the obligatory acting classes (though recently she has been working with a private coach), first as a regular on Dudley Moore’s short-lived sitcom, “Daddy’s Girl.” At 19, she was cast as Chloe Walker, the tres glam yet tragically virginal do-gooder on Aaron Spelling’s soap-slicked “Malibu Shores.” Originally envisioned as a made-for-TV movie, the show ran for one embarrassing season on NBC. “I never thought it would be picked up,” Russell says. “It was cheesy, but it was fine for where I was in my life.”

It was a relatively high-profile failure, but Burstein--who was her manager at this point--tried to put the best possible spin on it. “What can I say? It was Aaron Spelling, she got great exposure, and at that time during pilot season we hadn’t read any shows like ‘Felicity,’ ” she says. “A lot of making career moves is based on what the opportunities are at the time.”

Before Russell read the script for the “Felicity” pilot, “I was really discouraged with what was out there,” she says. And though she felt an immediate connection with the character Abrams had created, she couldn’t help noticing the descriptions of Felicity Porter made her out to be something of a wallflower.

“That’s how I pictured her,” Russell says. “In the original script, Felicity was having lunch at high school with her best friend Maya, ‘a tragically beautiful girl.’ And I called my manager and said, ‘They’re gonna want me to play the stupid best friend. They’re gonna see me and go, ‘No, thanks. But will you come back in and read the two-line character of Maya?’

For the audition, Russell scrubbed her face, put her hair in a bun and wore a baggy sweater and jeans. It didn’t work.

“When Keri came in, I was blown away,” Abrams says. “She was so pretty, I thought there was no way she could play the part. And then she started reading and was just funny as hell. And if you’re funny, I don’t care, you win.”

“We read a lot of people, but we just didn’t have the person who took the role and made it her own,” says Reeves, who directed the pilot. “The show is so emotional, if you didn’t relate to the character the way that you do, I don’t think it would have any value. . . . It’s not just that she plays Felicity. There is no Felicity without Keri Russell.”

After the pilot was filmed and the network had agreed to pick up the show for the fall, the project faced its most crucial hurdle, the true test of Russell’s star power: winning over advertisers. And not just any advertisers would do; the WB was trolling for the demographic elite of Madison Avenue--the Gap would be nice, or anything with a microchip attached to it. When influential media buyer Paul Schulman pronounced Russell the “It Girl” of the upcoming season (hey, nobody pays these people to be original), he declared that in the pilot “she just flies off the screen.” This was the sound bite that put blood in the water, and set off the four-month media feeding frenzy that followed. It wasn’t always pretty.

At the Television Critics Assn. junket in Pasadena in July, Russell got her first real taste of celebrity. “Literally the first question from this guy to me was, ‘Keri, you’ve done some real low-quality projects . . . ' " She was able to maintain her composure, but it went downhill from there. “It was like the worst experience,” she says.

“I think the media and the programmers have a huge reliance on each other,” Burstein says. “If the media believe in your show, if the press is on your side, there is nothing better in the world. In this case, the press couldn’t be more accurate in their support of ‘Felicity,’ and I’m very excited to see that they’ve gotten on this bandwagon.”

By the weekend of this season’s Emmy Awards, Russell appeared to be having some difficulty keeping up with the bandwagon; she looked exhausted. When she was asked if she would be attending the award show the next evening--Holmes would turn up as a presenter--she actually shuddered at the thought. “Why would anybody want to go to the Emmys?” she replied.

But if “Felicity” can deliver on its buildup, stardom is an accommodation Russell may be forced to accept. “Having grown up in Los Angeles, I know actresses, and I know that many of them do this because they want to be famous, they want to be a star,” Abrams says. “Keri has no desire to be a star.”

As usual, Russell’s own reaction is more visceral. “Even that word,” she says, sticking her tongue out and making a face. “Oooh . . . ugh.”

“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not thankful for where I am,” Russell adds, “because I’m definitely enjoying what I’m doing. There are just so many obvious parts of this business that are slimy, you know, and nonproductive, and just not healthy, to be completely honest.”

Whether “Felicity’s” publicity buildup will turn out to be a completely positive development is a subject of considerable concern to the producers. “Oh, it’s tragic, it’s a disaster,” Abrams says, only semi-jokingly. “And yet I feel mixed about it. We’re lucky to get this kind of advance buzz, but I feel the show has as good a chance of failing as any other show.” In some ways, the stakes are much higher for Russell. Hollywood is a place of endless dreams and finite possibility. If “Felicity” flops she might not get another chance. She has completed a film called “Mad About Mambo” that will be released in the spring, and two others whose distribution deals are less certain.

“I had no idea ‘Felicity’ was going to be this big,” Russell says. “I have a few things coming out, things I did before ‘Felicity.’ I understand that if the series goes well, people will be watching that. So it’s a little strange thinking, ‘That’s not exactly the best choice I could’ve made.’ ”

She stops, turning this over in her mind for a moment. Russell does not ordinarily allow herself to want something unless she is already sure she can have it. But now everything is uncertain, including what to want. “I feel the pressure,” she says finally, “to choose something.”


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