Baring Truths at 45


Insecurity dogged Rene Russo for 45 years--most of which, she says, were spent trying to please others. Now in the recently opened “The Thomas Crown Affair,” she bucks her good-gal image and her nonthreatening nature to play a tough-talking, bosom-baring investigator. She aims to make people forget that Faye Dunaway ever played the same part (at 26) while giving hope to every woman over 40.

Russo shows a lot in a heated romantic encounter with Pierce Brosnan, proving that men are missing the boat if all they think about are surgery-enhanced, big-busted 25-year-olds. “Taking my clothes off wasn’t a big deal,” Russo says of working full frontal in a scene that she might have been able to avoid if she’d wanted. She didn’t.

“When I was a model, I once had to strip down in Central Park. I am self-conscious, and I’m aware of my body,” she says. “But I struggle with America’s limited idea of what perfection is. I know it doesn’t seem like I’m struggling. That’s the benefit of movie stardom, but the truth is I’ve always struggled.”


Sitting at a large conference table in an overly air-conditioned West Hollywood hotel, Russo, in an outfit by Valentino, seems totally insecure one minute and highly confident the next. By turns, she laughs heartily, confesses to an unhappy childhood, chokes up when discussing her commitment to Christianity and talks delightedly about reading Dr. Seuss to her 6-year-old daughter, Rose.

Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman have all worked opposite Russo on screen since she began acting a decade ago. But only Brosnan and “Crown” director John McTiernan have looked beyond the feisty girl-pal types she has played in such films as “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Ransom,” “Tin Cup,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Get Shorty” and “Outbreak.” (“Crown,” which opened Aug. 6, did $14.6 million at the box office in its opening weekend.)

“At my first interview, John asked me, ‘Why do you neuter yourself?’ ” Russo remembers. “I said, ‘That’s a big question. Am I in therapy here?’ He said, ‘Women in general neuter themselves because when they were asked to be strong, they lost their sexuality.’ ”

Russo listened and eventually agreed. “I don’t lead with sensuality,” she admits. “From being a model, I was very aware that people could feel uncomfortable around me because I was on magazine covers. I’ve always wanted to level the playing field and just be a nice girl and not threaten anyone in any way.”

Not this time. Russo’s “Crown” character, Catherine Banning, an insurance investigator called in to help retrieve a priceless Monet painting stolen from a New York museum, does not hide her sexuality behind humor or modesty. When she zeros in on dashing billionaire Brosnan as her prime suspect, she uses her considerable attributes to get his attention.

“I loved playing Catherine,” says Russo, who admits that she wishes she were more like the character. “I have days when I’m completely in control, a warrior, strong, full of faith, knowing where I’m going. And then I have days when I say to my husband, Dan [screenwriter Dan Gilroy], ‘I feel like I’m having a panic attack.’ I work on it day by day.” Russo has yet to get past her difficult adolescence growing up in what she describes as “the wrong side of Burbank.”


“I envy my daughter’s childhood,” she says. “Rose has a father who loves her so much.” Russo’s father, a sculptor, left the family when she was 2, and her mother had to work two jobs to support her and her younger sister.

Ten years as a supermodel and another 10 as a successful actress have not fully alleviated Russo’s lack of self-esteem or the scars of her childhood. “I try not to judge people because I knew what it was like to be ignored or made fun of. I never wanted to make anyone feel like that. In high school, I was very unpopular. I wore a body cast for four years (to correct scoliosis) and was very skinny and taller than all the boys. I pretty much locked myself in my room for most of my teen life.

“I went back to my 20th class reunion and saw pictures of the boys who called me ‘Jolly Green Giant.’ Instantly I was that girl I was then. I’ll always be her.”

But Russo’s fortunes changed dramatically when at the age of 17 an agent noticed her coming out of a Rolling Stones concert and connected her with the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency in New York. At the time, Russo was inspecting eyeglass lenses at a local factory. She soon was an international star.

“People were fawning over me,” she recalls. “I loved the attention because I didn’t have any growing up, but I realized it was only going to last for a minute. In one breath they’d be saying, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful,’ and in the next it was, ‘Oh, have you seen so-and-so?’ So-and-so was 30. ‘Done. Gone.’ I used to count on my fingers, ‘OK, I’m 20 now. That gives me 10 years.’ ”

During those 10 years, Russo had everything society had told her she wanted: fame, money, beauty and youth. “I had so much, yet I had so little,” she says now. “I realized I was completely empty. To survive, I had to look other places. I started a search that resulted in finding my faith.”


Russo quit modeling and took theology classes, cementing the Christian faith that sustains her. Then in 1987, she was offered a role in the ABC series “Sable.” That led to an offer to play Tom Berenger’s girlfriend in “Major League.” Russo has not stopped working.

She recently finished filming “Rocky and Bullwinkle” with Robert De Niro and Jason Alexander; she plays Natasha. “I loved how dumb Natasha is,” Russo says. “She has this tight little dress on, and she really knows how to get what she wants.” Next, she’s hoping for a romantic comedy but wonders, “Where are the scripts? They’re not coming to me.”

That seems likely to change in the wake of “Thomas Crown.” Her work in the film was singled out by critics, including The Times’ Kenneth Turan, who noted in his review, “Russo’s decade of sidekick-cupcake roles has never before given her the opportunity to create the kind of believable, engaging genre character she comes up with here.”

“John McTiernan and Pierce Brosnan said this would make a wonderful, interesting relationship because these people are the same age,” Russo says. “I have nothing against younger women and older men on screen. What is sad is that so many women over 40 who have so much to give aren’t being considered to play opposite men their own age or younger.

“If I could do anything in this world, I would push a button that would allow all of us to see that we’re beautiful in different ways at all ages. For me, personally, older is better. Women over 40 are so phenomenal to me. Mother Teresa! That’s beauty. That’s where I want to go.”